Crash course

The explosive fusions of Ozomatli
By ADAM GOLD  |  April 17, 2007

TRANSGLOBAL: “Imagine if Ray Barretto, Jaco Pastorius, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Johnny Chingas, and Johnny Fender got together and did a jam session.”

Released in 2005, Ozomatli’s CD/DVD Live at the Fillmore (Concord) is a crash course in how to put on a live show. The last track on the DVD captures a particularly memorable scene. Faces soaked and chests heaving from a marathon set of Latin/rock/hip-hop mash-ups, each of the 10 band members picks up a drum and starts banging like something out of Stomp. The pace quickens as the drum line files off stage and into the swarming fans and the polyrhythmic samba crescendos to a seething climax. As boundaries between artist and audience blur, it becomes clear why the band dubbed their sophomore album Embrace the Chaos (2001). Everything about Ozomatli is predicated on the concept of organized chaos, from their first impromptu jam session 12 years ago through their most recent studio effort. Their tour finds them at the Paradise this Saturday in support of their latest, Don’t Mess with the Dragon (Concord).

Although the drum-line idea may seem like a made-for-DVD shtick, it’s been an integral part of the show since Ozo’s earliest gigs. “When we were the openers at a show, some people would be at the bar, and others would be outside smoking,” recalls lead singer/trumpeter Asdrubal Sierra from his home in LA. “Our idea was to start right in the crowd, right at the bar, where everybody was relaxing, and trying to get their groove thing on. We’d start banging our drums out there, and they’d follow us to the stage.”

It was this kind of communal philosophy that characterized the band’s formation in 1997. Bassist “Wil-Dog” Abers called a bunch of friends to drop by the Peace and Justice Center, an artistic space in downtown LA, and the rest was history. Sierra: “People in that community center were from all walks of life — different cultures, different races — so we had to play music that everybody liked. Just imagine what it would be like if Ray Barretto, Jaco Pastorius, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Johnny Chingas, and Johnny Fender got together and did a jam session.”

Four studio albums later, the band are following the same basic formula. They started writing Don’t Mess with the Dragon at Tropico de Nopal, a Latino art gallery in Los Angeles where they’d been invited to set up as part of an informal installation. “Each one of us had our own little station around the gallery. We each had our own wall that we decorated with whatever influenced us, and we just tried to make it a creative space. Then we’d just jam until we had the skeletons of the songs on the album.”

Like other Ozo albums, this one mixes Latin jazz, rock, hip-hop, and dancehall reggae with political messages. “Magnolia Soul” chastises the Bush administration for its handling of Katrina. “La Temperatura” responds to last year’s pro-immigrant marches in LA. “Violeta” is a simple ballad sung in Spanish from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq.

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