It’s difficult to remember the exact year, but it was on the eve of the new millennium, probably just after the release of their debut album in 1998. I saw Ozomatli live for the first time during a late summer concert at Santa Monica pier. I knew nothing about them, but the young and dense crowd became hysterical. They were a fresh and upcoming band at the time, and they were all the rage for the Latino youth. I don’t mean rage like Rage Against the Machine, but the lyrics were politically charged enough to make a few fists rise in the air and excite the crowds to a level of pushing and jumping that you only encounter at punk shows. Just check out the lyrics of “Como Ves,” a song they never miss playing. “Como ves, como ves, la historia no es como crees… Cuba y Africa su Hermano, vive su dolor” [As you see, as you see, history is not what you think…Cuba and Africa his brother lives his pain].
Ozomatli, one of the most ethnically diverse bands around, won their first Grammy for Best Latin Rock Alternative Album with their 2002 “Embrace the Chaos.” Since, they have won two other Grammys, and released an album every 2 or 3 years, while continuing their mission to blend Latin rhythms, Afro beats, and reggaeton with rock, funk, dub, R&B, and hip-hop for the joy of everyone. An Ozomatli album is a melting pot, a mirror of our city of Angels and the energy and joy that emanate from their live performances have barely diminished over the years. Last night, the band gave a free concert downtown LA, on the beautiful plaza in front of the music center and if everyone looked a bit older, including the crowd, the party spirit was on from start to finish.
The lineup has evolved a bit over the years; I remember seeing them with Jurassic 5 rapper Chali 2na (he left to do his own thing), but the core of the band is still intact. There’s Wil-Dog Abers on bass, still making wild faces and occasional jumps, Raul Pacheco on guitar, tres, and vocals, Asdru Sierra on trumpet, keys, and vocals, Ulises Bella on saxophone, clarinet, keyboard, and melodica, Justin ‘El Nino’ Porée on percussion and rap vocals. At one exception, Jiro Yamaguchi was not behind his drums last night, replaced by someone else. It’s a large band with no frontman and some fluid and upbeat energy as everyone constantly moves from one place to the other, juggling back and forth from guitars to tubas and other instruments between most numbers: they are all very talented musicians, and few acts could match their effortless versatility. I still remember the energy of the Santa Monica concert, there was a taste of revolt in the air, but Ozomatli has since cultivated this burgeoning revolution in a very gentle manner. They are more a party band than a rebellion, and if they riot, it’s still a family affair with a large smile on every face.
They have just released a new album with a triumphant title, “Marching On,” and last night, they played for close to 2 hours, mixing tracks from their extensive catalog, including songs from “Embrace the Chaos” and “Ozomatli,” that they hadn’t played for a long time. Even though the delivery has always been soothing and uplifting, they are a band with a message, like a fun street party that doesn’t want to end until we get it. The lyrics of the title track of the new album are very clear: ”Yeah we keep marching till the justice reigns / And the world sings the freedom’s song / Yeah we keep marching while the battle rages / As the new generations born / Till we right the wrongs.” Last night, everyone was dancing in the alleys and having a good time: if it is a riot, it’s a very joyful one
Their horn section and Latin percussion never disappoint. If they have always embraced a heritage of salsa, cumbia, and merengue, the cacophony of style and sounds is their signature: rap emerges when Justin ‘El Nino’ Porée takes the lead, while Asdru Sierra provides the highest notes during the most poignant tunes. From fast tempos to riotous ska-punk to call-to-arms chorus to Latin lullabies, last night was a fast-moving show, the type of high-energy, sweaty dancefloor that they have accustomed their fans, a fusion of salsa, funk, hip-hop, soul, and punk wrapped around a sociopolitical commentary. As usual, they closed the show with a single-line-among-the-crowd parade, stopping to form a circle to bang out unplugged versions of the “Olé” soccer chant to anything else, and letting the crowd do the rest.
Ozomatli made hybrid music before it was fashionable and more than twenty years later, they still embrace the chaos through a pluralism of sounds and styles. After the success of their first albums, they probably could have become bigger stars, but I am sure they never tried to achieve anything of this sort and never took themselves seriously enough. Plus, they have always stayed very close to their people and audience. While delivering meaningful anti-materialist and antiwar messages, they have always preferred the street party to Hollywood fake glamor.
the tall glass of water returns
A luminous and soulful melody
we really create ourselves in our own image and art
I scratch and kick and bite and punch
if his songwriting skills have eroded, his life performance never
the more distractions inside the venue, the less satisfying the performance is going to be
at the top of the singles charts and at the top of the movie box office
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – November 1978 (Volume 10, Number 6)
I’m not taking the band QUITE as seriously as I once did
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