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Ozomatli embraces its roots

“La historia no es como crees…”

These words, from Ozomatli’s 1998 debut CD, implore the listener to examine history a little closer before making judgments. But if history serves well, the multi-cultural band’s newest musical offering should provide as much joy, musical proficiency and awareness as its predecessor.

The band is set to drop Embrace the Chaos on Sept. 11, and if the band has managed to do one thing in its storied six-year career, it is just that.

“Basically, I was working at a place called the Los Angeles Conservation Corps,” Ozomatli bassist Wil-Dog Abers said of the band’s inception. “It was basically a poverty program set up by politicians to give inner-city youth jobs. The problem with the corps is that they give you meaningless jobs — there’s no chance for advancement and they keep you under 30 hours a week so they don’t have to give you benefits.”

He and 30 other Corps workers saw the need to unionize, with the hope of bettering the working conditions. When the Corps’ directors caught wind, they pulled the grant money for the program. Abers and the others squatted in their workplace building for a month, and it was through mediation that the workers lost their jobs, but held the right to use the space. The group took the converted archdiocese, in the center of impoverished Los Angeles, and put the space — now called The Peace and Justice Center — to good use.

“To raise money for the center, we would have parties on the weekend and that’s how the band got together,” Abers said. “It was amazing, we had break dancing, graffiti art, skateboarding; we built ramps so that when we would be playing, kids would be skating and doing graffiti.”

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Soon the band had more and more offers to perform, although many early gigs were free of charge.

“We played at the Peace and Justice Center for free every weekend to help the place out,” saxophonist/clarinetist Ulises Bella said. “Other organizations were like, ‘Hey, do you want to play for us?’ and we’d say, ‘Who is it? The Zapatistas? Sure, we’ll play.’ So slowly we started to play more benefits and those types of events.”

Bella said even with the band’s early performances and lyrical themes that lean toward awareness, an “activist” tag might not appropriately describe the breadth of the band.

“Every year the band participates in the Oct. 22 march against police brutality,” Bella said. “And we go into Watts and teach youth the drums and march with them. I don’t know if we’re an activist band; it’s part of our history and our roots, but we don’t overemphasize it.”

Yet just last year, the band had a brush with danger at a staged protest at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Calif. Riot police, prompted by the L.A. chief of police, ordered the crowd of 10,000 people gathered to listen to Ozomatli and Rage Against The Machine to disperse, calling it an “unlawful protest.”

“We got to play basically one-and-a-half songs,” Abers said. “We were tearing it up, but the chief of police pulled the plug on us. We went out into the crowd with our drums and as soon as we got out they started shooting us with rubber bullets.”

Now, three years after the band’s debut and after performances around the world and a three-month stint opening for Santana, the band is touring on the eve of its sophomore release.

ALMO records, the band’s first label, dissolved and the group will release Embrace the Chaos on Interscope. To hear the group talk about it, one can expect more of the traditional horn-driven cumbias and sambas, as well as the world beat, rap and percussive styles that exemplified its first recordings.

The band enlisted Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Mario Caldato of Beastie Boys fame and Bob Power, who has worked with A Tribe Called Quest and Erykah Badu, to produce the record.

Percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi said the recording of Chaos was much more challenging than the band’s first foray.

“The first one was easy to record; it all came naturally,” Yamaguchi said. “The second took a little more effort. Ozomatli’s a great school to learn about music because everybody has something different to offer.”

Even though Ozomatli has enjoyed great success, it remains grounded. The band has turned down lucrative offers to endorse products and is willing to shun what is popular to gain listeners.

“We want to get as big as we can get on our own terms,” Bella said. “I think that playing these kinds of shows and by doing tours like this, we’re bringing music live — and that creates a grassroots-type situation. I don’t want to be remixed by Puffy.”


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