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Ozomatli formed in 1995, but it's a true 21st-century band. The Los Angeles nonet blends a variety of native and folk styles and, in a process symbolic of our expanding music world, transforms the cacophony of competing global voices into a bubbling jazz-funk brew. Not surprisingly, the birth of Ozomatli started with a small revolution. Bassist Wil-Dog Abers belonged to a labor group that took over a rundown public building in L.A. The California Conservation Corps staged a sit-in to unionize for better wages and benefits but wound up occupying the building permanently in the process.
Those involved helped turn the four-story unit into the Center for Peace & Justice, a community center that the city agreed to rent out for just a buck a year. Area residents started providing daycare, teaching classes, operating a café, holding poetry slams, and even hosting skateboarders, who built a ramp in the unused parking lot.
They also held parties to raise money for maintenance bills. These featured a pickup band of local musicians culled from other groups. Out of necessity, its music was a hodgepodge of sounds.
"Everyone was so different," says founding guitarist Raúl Pacheco, who just returned from the band's tour of the Middle East. "We were kind of like, 'Let's just play what we all know. I know this song — here are the chords. You don't have to know salsa; just play what you know to these chords and we'll make it work.' "
Besides the center's parties, the group was soon offered other fundraisers and even house parties and club gigs. Christened Ozomatli, the band started working full time to perfect a blend of jazz, salsa, cumbia, hip-hop, reggae, and Middle Eastern funk all packed into one powerful stage show.
"We started to recognize that there were similarities — like cumbia music from Colombia and Caribbean reggae," Pacheco says. "You start to break down the rhythms and find the stresses are kind of similar, but they're not exactly in the same place. But adjust the stress a little bit and wow, it kind of fits."
Tweaking accents and mashing up styles became a fundamental component to Ozomatli's uncategorizable sound and philosophy, which seemingly drove marketing departments crazy. Since 1998, the band has been on three record labels.
"From the get-go, it took a much deeper meaning," Pacheco explains. "Why do we have to be a funk band or a reggae band? It was like, 'Let's play all these things we like, and it will flow if it's played with a lot of energy and primarily to make people move and to do whatever the fuck we want.' And on some levels, it's been a detriment, because it's always been hard for people to put their heads around. But at the same time, it's really kept us together and kept us unique and interesting after so many years."
The band has also endured numerous lineup changes along the way. At one point, Jurassic Park members Chali 2na and Cut Chemist were a part of Ozomatli, and the band has replaced numerous percussionists and DJs, but through it all, it's remained one of the most free-spirited and multiracial fusion groups in recent memory. Although it might seem hard to believe, the group still operates as a collective with no leader.
Working with eight other musicians requires a lot of patience, Pacheco says. Activity is governed by the energy and passion that each member brings to the table. His exuberance turned Ozomatli into an exhibition at Tropico de Nopal, an art gallery in L.A. "The band thought it was crazy and didn't understand it but said 'OK,' " Pacheco recalls.
Last year, with the help of Pacheco's friend, who owned the gallery and was equally skeptical, the band created installations expressing each member's personality, taste, and style. The concept was to demonstrate how these distinct perspectives come together as one. On opening night, the exhibit featured a slowly evolving jam as the band collaborated in real time from the installation spaces.
The exhibit's spirit of give-and-take rubbed off on the band, which produced its most collaborative work yet — this year's Don't Mess With the Dragon. The experience also inspired a more considered work process. In the past, songs developed out of jams. This time, the band paid more attention to melody, hooks, and structure. "We were very conscious of making good songs," Pacheco says. "And I think we did."
Dragon captures Ozomatli's live energy more than any other disc to date. Instead of documenting the group as a beast of performance, producer K.C. Porter (Ricky Martin, Boyz II Men) polished the disc to a razor's edge that's crisp and clean.
"City of Angels," a funk-hop ode to the group's hometown, burns brighter than a Roman candle. The hot-skanking "When I Close My Eyes" comes on like a marriage of Oingo Boingo and No Doubt. Even the horn-fueled R&B pop of "After Party" channels enough Smokey Robinson to extend the evening's flame.
Of course, this isn't the best moment in music-biz history to be making a bid for the pop charts, but Ozomatli has never taken the easy path. Even after a dozen years, it's still a challenge negotiating the different egos and personalities in the band.