The world’s band
L.A. funk, salsa, rap, rock and ska crew Ozomatli takes over the planet
Tapped as musical ambassadors to the world by no less than the U.S. State Department, Ozomatli personifies American musical diversity. Working from a foundation that fuses salsa, funk, rock, ska and rap, the multicultural L.A.-based ensemble exhibits a remarkable ability to walk the line between its roots as a fierce L.A. street/club band and its recent participation in the United States’ cultural-diplomacy program. The band has garnered respect as the voice of Los Angeles, representing its city at concerts in Egypt, Chile, Nepal, Tunisia and, most recently, South Africa, becoming citizens of the world along the way.
“We’ve traveled with the State Department for the past two years now,” rapper/percussionist Justin Poree said via telephone about the unique wrinkle in Ozo’s career that began after they were heard on Air America Radio. “They’ve had cultural exchange programs since the ‘50s, since Louie Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Instead of bombing people and having our [America’s] reputation as shit all over the world, we want to show our culture.”
Musically, whether on record or on stage, Ozomatli always hits the ground running, with a mix of energized, layered rhythms, rock ‘n’ roll guitars, bold and brassy horns, and smart, topical lyrics about life and love, all over an infectious rhythmic groove.
Songs on the group’s current CD, Don’t Mess With the Dragon, for instance, exhibit all of those qualities, but in widely varying ways. Ozomatli tackles social justice in the immigration rights-inspired “La Temperaturo,” and on “Magnolia Soul,” a song that admonishes the Bush administration’s Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
“City of Angels” is a gritty and furiously paced rap-filled assessment of Los Angeles, while on the very next track, the harmonious and irresistible “After Party,” Ozo almost sounds like a boy band … with a lot more street cred, of course.
Catching the band live is to witness a joyous dance celebration of humanity and music. One of its trademark set-ending moves is for the members to come down offstage and march into the crowd in a big samba line, playing their instruments as they go and forming one giant huddle as they attract fans like magnets to the dancing energy of an impromptu pep rally.
“We really enjoy it, and the crowd more-so gets into it,” Poree said. “It breaks down a lot of barriers. People go to see a band and there is a rock star and there’s fans, and they don’t interact. We’ve been doing it since we first started. The first time we ever did that was at the Viper Room in L.A. We were trying to one-up another band in a friendly competition.”
Ozomatli has three Grammies under its belt and has featured as many as 10 players over the years. When the band comes to Chico, it will include the six core members and a drummer who joined the band in 2004, as well as returning rapper Chali 2na (from Jurassic 5), one of the band’s original members. Poree said there’ve been no special rehearsals with Chali 2na, but given their longtime association, things should gel pretty quickly.
“He did a couple shows with us last year sometime, and then the J5 broke up and he asked if he could do some touring,” Poree said. “He’ll be back with us, for a little while, anyway.”
Ozomatli, which has appeared on TV shows such as Weeds and Sex and the City, and in a reggae club scene in which Drew Barrymore eats some “ganja cake” in the movie Never Been Kissed, has been known to let its activist flag fly from time to time, including a famous protest concert with Rage Against the Machine across the street from the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that ended in disbursement by police.
“The roots of the band came out of a struggle for human rights and people’s rights,” Poree said. “The band got started at the L.A. Peace and Justice Center. Youth who lived close to downtown L.A. had an after-school program, and in order for the program to keep going they had concerts. We were the house band.”
Many Ozo members are devout Dodgers baseball fans, which has led to a relationship with their hometown baseball team. The group has recorded an eclectic, funky version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” as well as a version of Dodgers anthem “Can’t Stop the Blue.”
“Whenever we come to town they can expect a party, and dance,” Poree said. “We always bring that kind of energy. We always bring the party.”