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Jewish Journal

Ozomatli: Band of the people

by Ryan Torok

November 23, 2011 | 12:33 pm

Photo by Christian Lantry

Photo by Christian Lantry

The Latin band Ozomatli is rocking out on the flatbed of a truck parked on a closed-down Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a Saturday in early November, and the band is playing for a motley group of aging and 20-something hippies, union workers and even some Jews from the Westside, all of whom are dancing in the street a few hundred yards from the Occupy L.A. encampment on the grounds outside City Hall.

Ozomatli is there to show support for the protestors, and to do so they play a remixed version of their funky tune, “City of Angels.” Justin Poree, the band’s master of ceremonies, raps into the microphone: “Party people from the front to the back, say, ‘Occupy.’

The vocalists reply in unison: “Occupy!”

Mixing samba, salsa, hip-hop, rock and soul with English and Spanish lyrics, Ozomatli’s tunes reflect the diversity of the band’s Los Angeles hometown. The sound is crisp, proof of its ability to capture live what its members have done in the studio over the course of their 16-year career.

On Dec. 9, the band will perform again downtown, this time at Club Nokia, a very different venue. As to what fans will get there, bassist and co-founder Wil-dog Abers said to expect the unexpected.

“It’s going to be raw energy, and it’s going to be different than any Ozomatli show,” Abers said.

The band’s first performance took place in 1995, a fundraiser for an at-risk youth community center, again in downtown Los Angeles, where Abers was working. When the employees went on strike, Abers formed Ozomatli to play during a sit-in.

Abers has inherited the activist edge of his father, a non-practicing Jew and a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Abers also has drawn from his rough upbringing, which included living in a school bus in Venice Beach’s homeless community.

The then-newly formed band had a knack for playing for justice. Over the next year, it performed at numerous benefits, including a show for the Mexican insurrection group the Zapatistas, as well as gigs on behalf of women’s issues.

By 1998, the band made its first, eponymous record, which was hip-hop heavy. In subsequent releases, it began exploring other sounds: In 2004, the group’s career-defining, Grammy-winning third record, “Street Signs,” still featured hip-hop verses in the material, but also explored a range of world music, including Arab and North African influences.

All the while, the band continued building a strong touring reputation, constantly on the road — both in the United States and abroad. When it performs live, there is plenty of material to draw from — five studio albums, including 2010’s “Fire Away.”

There have been plenty of highpoints along the way. The band has earned three Grammy awards, including best alternative Latin rock album in 2005 for “Street Signs”; in 2007, the U.S. State Department asked the members of Ozomatli to serve as cultural ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored tours overseas, taking the group to Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. Last year, the Los Angeles mayor’s office declared April 23 “Ozomatli Day,” solidifying the group’s role as hometown heroes. 

Despite the accolades and shows at upscale venues like Club Nokia, its members continue to find ways to serve the people beyond the ordinary artist-fan relationship. Earlier this year, they performed at a MusiCares benefit, raising money for musicians recovering from substance abuse; in 2010, they shared the stage with President Barack Obama during a rally for the Democratic Party; and, in 2005, they played at the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Justice Ball, a benefit for the firm’s pro bono services.

“There seems to be a perception that [after you become successful] you don’t do as much,” Abers said.  On the contrary, “The world becomes bigger, and there become more things to associate yourself with.”

Case in point: They agreed to play Occupy L.A. for no fee. Their brief but impassioned set featured four songs, including “Saturday Night” — off of “Street Signs” — a song that in characteristic Ozo-fashion, features romantic lyrics calling for change.

“The revolution will begin this Saturday night!” Poree declares in the song.

On that afternoon at Occupy L.A., Ozomatli’s concert was sandwiched between a lecture by Robert Reich, former U.S. labor secretary during the Clinton administration, and Robert Scheer, editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism Web site TruthDig.

Addressing the Occupiers, Ozomatli, Reich and Scheer all gave similar advice:  to remain united not just in the face of outside resistance but despite conflicts that may arise among themselves.

It’s a message that the members of Ozomatli have applied to their own organization, their movement — their band.

“We’re a group of men, and we’ve learned to support each other emotionally,” Abers said. “I think that’s the biggest aspect of going through changes — becoming an adult in this band.”

Since forming, they’ve had six core members, with Ulises Bella (saxophone and clarinet), Raul Pacheco (guitar), Asdrubal Sierra (trumpet) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla) rounding out the lineup. (They’re currently playing live with the addition of Mario Calire on drums.) One way they’ve managed to stay together, even in rough spots, is through a true devotion to egalitarianism — splitting equally all songwriting credits and, therefore, all the money, even when not all of the band members contributed equally to the songs.

“With us, even if one guy wrote all of the song, it’s through the band, or the collective efforts of the band, that their song is being showcased,” Bella said. Sounding more like Freud than saxophonist, he added, “Sooner or later, we realized that the sacrifice of the ego was more important for the betterment of the band.”

As the band’s members get older, they are content with touring less and working in the studio more. At the time of Abers’ and Bella’s phone interviews with The Jewish Journal, which took place in early November, the guys were living as close to a 9-to-5 schedule as they may ever get, going into a recording studio on Larchmont Avenue every day to record music for video games, including for “Happy Feet Two: The Video Game.” Abers also spoke of ambitions to do film scores, and he talked of a kids’ album in the works, tentatively titled “Ozokids.”

With all they’ve accomplished in crafting records that are joyful and socially conscious, Bella said that what he’s most proud of is the band’s ability to endure.

“From the beginning, we realized there were certain things that we needed to do in order to survive as a band,” he said. “We stuck to them, and we’re still here.”

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