Salsa in the streets
Arizona Daily Wildcat
photo courtesy of Almo sounds
Most of the members of Ozomatli, and a baby. See them (but probably not the baby) Tuesday night at Club Congress.
Ask your stereotypical U of A student who Ozomatli is and you'll likely get the same response every time.
This is the price you pay when your band diverges from the standard, monosyllabic band name. Regardless, Ozomatli has steadily been growing in popularity since their hip-hop-infused salsa hit record stores. Listeners become fans of the music faster then one can attempt to pronounce Ozomatli. So where does such an unfamiliar and difficult name come from?
"It comes from the Aztec calendar. It means god of dance. It's a little monkey god. Stands for passion and fire," reported percussionist, Jiro Yamaguchi. "It was actually the original drummer's birth sign. People have problems spelling it, that's for sure. But once people know then it's not difficult."
The title has helped to sum up the mission statement of Ozomatli. The band, 11 members strong, is driven by this monkey god, manifest in every track of their self-titled album. Their music varies from fast, energetic cumbias and dope rhymes to seductive tangos, yet there is one common thread; the music invades your soul. Each song has the power to intoxicate and soon the urge to dance can no longer be ignored. Nay, Ozomatli is not a band for the disciples of the white man's overbite. It is a band for the confident disciple of the church of shake-that-ass.
But the boys of Ozomatli are not merely the gods of dance but vehicles of social change as well. The group was born out of a Los Angeles protest at which founding member and bassist, Wil Dog was fighting to start a union for the LA Conservation Core.
"We started questioning the Conservation Core when we weren't getting fair raises. We were getting paid $4.25 and the core had a $6.5 million budget. All the upper management had full benefits, rental cars and paid vacations," said Wil Dog. "So we decided to start a union; we went on strike and when we did, they felt threatened so they fired us. So we took over our building."
After negotiations in which the group gained rights to their building for a year, this group of protesters formed a cultural community center dedicated to the arts and inner city youths.
"We had skate board ramps, rehearsal rooms, print shops, graffiti art. We had a cafe that sold herbal tea and juices," said Wil Dog. "To raise money we had these parties on Friday nights. So that's how we started playing."
"When we called musicians to come and play, we weren't really specific about who should show up," added Raul Pacheco, guitarist. "We just called people we knew. And a bunch of different people showed up. We just embraced those differences. We never tried to create that. It was just really natural because all these different people showed up. When it comes to cultural things, the more the merrier."
"Later, we started playing downtown," continued Wil Dog. Eventually Hollywood got a hold of us and we started doing clubs in Hollywood."
Lingering traces of that first protest still exist in their music, which combines a celebratory salsa sound with politically rich lyrics. In addition, they have played in the name of Zapatistas, Artists Against Racism, Battered Women's Association and AIDS prevention. Raul Pacheco even left a career in political consulting, finding a more appropriate home with Ozomatli.
"I really wanted to be as close as I could to [politics] to see how it manifested itself. I just felt like there was a lot of insincerity to the needs of people," said Pacheco. " Most of it was based on whoever could contribute and those were the issues that were addressed. The bigger moral issues were already left out."
But Pacheco understands that, by joining Ozomatli, he has brought the struggle home and is contributing more to the political climate now than he could as a consultant.
"We have that awareness of things that are happening in the world," said Pacheco, regarding the bands political side. "When we get together, when we play, it's about the celebration of the struggle; the recognition that some of the things we do are important and we should celebrate because of that."
What started as a politically-relevant party band has become a national act dragging ten strong-willed men into the realm of celebrity. Yet no one seems too surprised.
"The whole thing just seems like a natural progression for the band," said alto sax man, Jose "Crunchy" Espinosa.
Despite this casual attitude, these boys appreciate the opportunities they are experiencing.
"I think the craziest thing was that we met people like Lenny Kravitz and Carlos Santana. It was very enlightening in the sense of how [the music] scene is. With Lenny Kravitz we saw what a rock star really is," marveled Espinosa.
The band is getting recognition from higher up the musical food chain. When they opened for Santana last year, Carlos advised his audience to pay attention that the "future" of music was here. This is a compliment Espinosa didn't take lightly.
"It was a trip that we were even able to go up to him and say 'Yo, ya know, can we jam with you?' Kinda one of those things straight out of a movie where we're just like going this isn't happening, for reals," said Espinosa.
With Carlos Santana placing such a heavy vote of confidence in the bands ability to change the face of music, this dectet is striving to get their message out.
"This band is like a vehicle to reach people in a different way," said Espinosa. "A lot of musicians get lost in that they just see the money without a message."
Ozomatli has been taking their message far. They barely have time to breathe between touring and interviewing, let alone appreciate the unique opportunity they've achieved.
As Wil Dog told me from a gas station somewhere between San Diego and LA, "There's not really any time to think! I mean we're very lucky. We're very lucky and I hope it lasts."