Theme music for a revolution in thinking 


As is the case with their hometown, Los Angeles-based ensemble Ozomatli is not easy to define. With a sound comprising equal parts salsa, hip hop, funk and jazz, the 10-piece band -- which is named after the Aztec god of dance -- is sure to confound modern-day musicologists. Spanish vocals, English rapping, tablas, turntables and a three-man horn section make this eclectic mix even spicier.

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Since their start three-and-a-half years ago, Ozomatli has built a loyal fan base through Hollywood gigs and club tours. The band participated in this year's Vans Warped Tour and will perform through the summer in support of their self-titled debut album, released this year by Almo Sounds.

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Conventional is not an adjective that applies to any aspect of Ozomatli -- especially their formation. "Wil-Dog, the bass player, and I were working together for a place called the L.A. Conservation Corp.," explains rapper Chali 2na. "Thirty of its workers went on strike to unionize and to get better wages. They formed a sit-in to hold the doors, and finally, through a litigation process, they won custody of the building."

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But they also were out of jobs. The building became a squat, a rehearsal studio and a place to throw parties -- often benefits held to keep the place open. Wil-Dog began inviting musician friends over to participate.

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The musicians evolved into a loose collective, encompassing Latin music, hip-hop and reggae into the mix. "Wil-Dog wanted to form a band together so it could play at any kind of place, whether it was a hip-hop spot, a jazz spot, a Latin spot," says Chali. "He wanted a band that could play anywhere. Then it developed into these key players.";The communal legacy of the band's early days still affects their creative process, and compositions are approached as a group experience. While writing lyrics for "Ozomatli," Chali approached each member individually, and took note of what they deemed important. "We had a big-old list," Chali says. "And we, as a group, narrowed it down to what we wanted to talk about."

The band's eclectic sound caught the attention of Carlos Santana, who took Ozomatli under his wing and had them open for him before an audience of 11,000 people. Moreover, he personally introduced the group, telling the crowd that they'd better listen to this band of the future.

The musicians were ecstatic when they heard they were on the same bill as the rock-guitar legend. "To our guitar player, he's like a mentor," says Chali. "In my family, [Santana] was the way I got exposed to Latin music, because my father was a Santana fiend. Carlos was one of the coolest people I've ever met. And we got a lot of good feedback. People thought we were really representing, that we were there to carry the torch."

Indeed, Ozomatli also traveled to Cuba so its members could learn musical techniques first-hand. "We didn't go down there for any political reason," Chali says with a laugh. "[Vocalist] Raul [Pacheco] wanted to learn Cuban guitar, and as it turned out, we met the best player on the island. Wil-Dog didn't know how to play upright bass, so this guy showed him a lot of stuff that Dog really appreciated. ... It was a big learning experience."

Despite the band's activist origins, Chali asserts that they don't have a political agenda -- at least not a planned one. "It's not like we're all left-wing," he says. "Everyone has their own political beliefs. I think the structure of our band is like America should be -- I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe, but we find a common ground to meet at.

"The barriers are falling, and it's all becoming just ‘music,' without the labels," he says. "Ultimately, we want to be the theme music for a revolution of the mind."


More by Chris Rolfe

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