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The music united will never be defeated

Review by Alan Maass | May 11, 2007 | Page 11

Ozomatli, Don't Mess with the Dragon, Concord Records, 2007.

IS OZOMATLI the best band in music today?

The reason for asking--aside from it being a kind of yelling fire/crowded theater provocation to get you reading further, and it's working, isn't it?--is to underline how strange a question like this even sounds these days.

Popular music has fractured so much over the past several decades, into more and more categories, each with a devoted audience--and the whole business is overseen by an industry whose bottom line is best secured by reinforcing the divisions. How do you compare OutKast with Wilco? Kanye West vs. the White Stripes vs. Mary J. Blige? It's like trying to say what's the best food.

But there's something about Ozomatli that begs an outrageous, sweeping, genre-defying generalization. Probably, it's the dizzying ambition of the band's commitment "to just play all different kinds of music," as guitarist Raúl Pacheco puts it.

They do. Formed in Los Angeles in the 1990s, Ozomatli's sound can't be described without a long list of styles that are blended together and reworked into a jubilant, soulful and highly politicized whole.

What else to hear

Ozomatli's latest album is Don't Mess With the Dragon, released earlier this year. Previous full lengths albums include Live at the Fillmore (2005), Street Signs (2004), Embrace the Chaos (2001) and Ozomatli (1998).


At the core are two things: the band's mastery of a range of Latin music styles (mostly unheard in English-speaking music), spanning Mexico, the Caribbean and beyond--and also the bite of LA hip-hop. Not content with this, though, Ozomatli has steadily extended its musical embrace--north, south, east and west.

Unlike a certain Texas politician, Ozomatli can justly claim--by both ideological and artistic inclination--to be uniters, not dividers.

On its new album, Don't Mess With the Dragon, the reach is more expansive than ever, though there's still plenty that will sound familiar to longtime fans. The title track is a blistering meringue rave-up. The haunting "La Segundo Mano" crosses son jarocho from Mexico with rap in a mixture that band member Ulises Bella calls "the sound of Afrika Bambaataa at a fandango."

One complaint from fans is that the more polished sound of this album--blamed on producer KC Porter, who helped the likes of Carlos Santana, Ricky Martin and Michael Jackson to hit albums and singles--takes the edge off the music.

But even setting aside the fact that Porter also produced the band's rawer 2004 album Street Signs, the objection diverts attention from Ozomatli's explicit attempt to search out even more diverse musical styles on Don't Mess With the Dragon, and make them their own.

"After Party" is a take on classic soul--it might have turned up on a Sly and the Family Stone record. "Magnolia Soul," a tribute to New Orleans after the Katrina disaster, is a James Brown funk workout, its centerpiece rap delivered with a touch of Jamaican-style toasting. "Creo" continues the band's experiments with Middle Eastern sounds.

Ozomatli even makes a visit to lily-white indie-rock-land on "When I Close My Eyes," with Casio keyboards that sound like The B-52s and a pop-punk guitar riff that wouldn't be out of place on a Weezer record. But what indie rock mopes ever turned over the solo break to a baritone sax?

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IT'S APPROPRIATE to talk about the music first before Ozomatli's political message, even though the band is famously radical.

It formed out of its members' connections to a progressive community center in Los Angeles, and its first show was in support of a strike. When the Democrats held their 2000 convention in LA, Ozomatli played a concert for activists, along with Rage Against the Machine, under the menacing threat of an LAPD assault. Audio of the confrontations with police bookend "Embrace the Chaos," the title track of the band's 2001 album.

A commitment to struggle has fired the band's lyrics from the beginning--and if Don't Mess With the Dragon sounds, at first hearing, less engaged to English speakers, it may be because the band remains as determinedly bilingual as ever, and some of the most political songs this time are all in Spanish.

"La Temperatura" is a tribute to last year's mega-demonstrations for immigrant rights and "la fuerza de este fuego quema las fronteras y tambien barreras" ("the force of a fire that also burns down borders and barriers"). In "Violeta," a U.S. soldier in Iraq tells his family: "En un desierto lejos de ti me confese/Que todo lo que siempre crei mentira fue" ("In a desert far from you, I admitted to myself that all I believed was a lie").

You don't come by unambiguous politics like this very often in any part of music today. But it's important not to get lost in reading Ozomatli's lyrics by themselves, separated from the music. That's certainly not how people listen to music, so any account of the political message and its impact ought to pay attention to how the two things go together.

This is especially true for Ozomatli, where the thoughts expressed explicitly in words gain a deeper resonance from the band's synthesis of musical styles. Ozomatli's lyrics explicitly preach solidarity, but the music amplifies and adds meaning to the message by being a literal expression of solidarity.

Thus, "La Temperatura," with its pride in last spring's immigrant rights marches, is set to another merengue tune, and sounds like a festival getting underway, complete with whistles and air horns.

On "City of Angels," the fusion of hip-hop and funk provides the perfect setting for the band's complex tribute to its hometown--with LA's massive contradictions front and center ("What a duality, arid reality/Devon Brown shot, minor technicality/Brad Pitt's cheating, front page reality"), but also the band's pride in "my city/Soft yet rugged."

A lot of music that's explicitly political is negative in tone--a cry of anger or despair at the injustices in society. That's certainly present in Ozomatli, and justly so. But so is another side not honored as much in popular music, at least in the recent past--an optimistic vision of uniting and acting together to overcome.

This is why early Sly and the Family Stone--another multiracial band that bridged different worlds of music, and whose classic album Stand! is filled with exuberant and hopeful anthems--comes often to mind in listening to Ozomatli.

As fine as its albums are, all this comes across even better at an Ozomatli show--a joyous, sweaty, dance-crazy celebration from beginning to end. The band has toured constantly in its dozen years of existence, but it's on the road again this summer to promote the new album. So find out where Ozomatli is playing, and go--you'll leave with lifted spirits and a smile on your face, which is a fine thing by itself in Bush-era America.

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