Drums, horns, dancing — now that’s a party!
That’s also what an act of protest should feel like according to Ozomatli, one of Southern California’s most culturally diverse, stylistically varied and politically conscious bands.
On Saturday, the popular multi-ethnic bilingual musical collective will perform for throngs of anti-war demonstrators gathering on Hollywood Boulevard to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
But what is there to celebrate?
With more than 3,100 American soldiers and at least 58,000 Iraqi men, women and children now dead in the expanding chaos of this pre-emptive, unpopular and — it having no real connection to terrorism or weapons of mass destruction — unjustified war, members of the band admit these are dark days.
“What does it say about society that the majority of the people are against this war, yet we’re still in it? What does that say about our government? Are we living in a pre-fascist state? It contradicts this whole experiment we call the United States of America,” said Ozomatli multi-instrumentalist Ulises Bella during an exclusive Weekly interview with the band last week at the Drkrm. Gallery in Glassell Park.
Something needs to be done, and that’s the point: “We’re here to support the people who are working in this movement. We can help get them to that place of celebration, of [saying] ‘Everyone, this is the right thing to do. This is the right choice to make,’ ” said Raul Pacheco, a guitarist and singer with the band.
Don’t jump to any conclusions, though.
The sound of progressive politics
Having risen to popularity on their strengths as a rambunctious party band that can mix English and Spanish and the sounds of jazz, rock, Latin music and hip-hop, Ozomatli cannot be understood as being exclusively about progressive politics. At the same time, don’t even think of calling them fair-weather fans of peoples’ movements.
From their explorations of purpose and technique at Pasadena City College, to one of them taking a rubber bullet during the 2000 Democratic National Convention protests at the Staples Center, to writing Arab-world influences into their music to counter post-9/11 hatemongering, members of the group “have been down from the beginning,” said Bella.
Now only weeks away from releasing their fourth full-length studio album, Ozomatli was born 12 years ago during a labor protest, and in its early years the band existed only as a fundraising venture for social causes. At that time, Los Angeles Conservation Corps workers, including bass player Wil-Dog Abers, were striking and holding musical sit-ins for better pay and working conditions.
Out of those actions grew efforts to open a downtown-area community and youth center, and so band performances helped bring the Los Angeles Peace and Justice Center to life for more than a year near the intersection of Fourth and Bixel streets.
“It was a thriving scene, just the life that was there. It was really exciting to me,” said percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi of those activities, which led him to join the band. During the interview, Yamaguchi wore a T-shirt reading “War of Error.”
Following those early protest days, the band was asked to play parties, and then nightclubs, and was finally offered a contract to release their first album, the self-titled “Ozomatli,” in 1998.
From protest to popular
Commercial success came quickly when Carlos Santana heard the record and asked the band to join him on tour, and soon they were headlining their own shows around the world.
Following Saturday’s demonstration, an event organized by the Los Angeles ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition and also featuring famed area rocker and activist Jackson Browne, Ozomatli will perform several dates in Australia and Europe, and have recently performed in India and Nepal.
As their popularity grew, the band found new challenges along with a greater sense of personal responsibility.
“When we decided to quit our jobs, all of a sudden we had to think of this in a different way. But we still take these opportunities when we can to raise money and raise awareness and be a part of these causes. That spirit of activism being a big part of this band hasn’t changed. We consider it when we make business decisions,” Pacheco said. Members of the band added that a few years ago they refused to allow their music to be used in the soundtrack to the animated Central American adventure film “El Dorado” over concerns about how it portrayed certain characters.
Part of that awareness dates back even before there was an Ozomatli, specifically to the early ’90s on the PCC campus, where Bella and others members of the band studied under now semi-retired music professor and jazz artist Bobbie Bradford.
“A big shout out to PCC and to Bobby Bradford,” said Bella, who cites his influence and that of sociology professor Justus Richards as helping to make all of this possible.
Bradford, reached at his Altadena home, remembers working with band members as part of classes based on their participation in an eight- to 10-piece jazz band and still follows the group’s career.
“We talked about, No. 1, just the idea of the music business, if you think you’re going to get in that, it’s a series choice … it’s a dirty business,” he recalled. “Also, are you in this just to make money and be famous, or do you have something to say?”
Bradford also recalled Bella’s hunger to learn about “real, hardcore jazz” and improvisational techniques, the kind of spontaneity that happens during live Ozomatli shows, which often start with the band playing among audience members before making their way to the stage.
Monkey gods of music
Putting that kind of creativity to work for a greater purpose may be most evident in Ozomatli’s third album, 2004’s “Street Signs,” in which the band incorporated Arab-world sounds into funky riffs on songs such as “Believe,” a rallying cry against war and hate sung in both English and Spanish.
“We felt it was important to represent those sounds and those cultures and those people in a way to counter the dehumanization that was going on in the general media and the public,” said Bella of that song.
When taken with the band’s name — Ozomatli is an Aztec monkey god of fire, dance and mischief — these songs represent a musical solidarity with the indigenous tribes of the Americas, modern day Angelinos struggling to get by and the civilian victims of the American-led war in the Middle East.
The music also seeks solidarity with those who struggle to voice resistance.
In 2000, Ozomatli performed for demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention at the Staples Center, an experience that turned sour when police shut down the concert and began firing rubber bullets while dispersing the gathering.
Just minutes into their set following Rage Against the Machine, police cut off power to the stage, the band recalled. No longer able to play on stage, the band picked up their instruments and began playing from among the crowd, when suddenly people began to panic as police moved in.
Percussionist Justin “Niño” Porée was struck in the leg with a rubber bullet as band members fled the scene.
“We were running around downtown LA with all these big drums wondering what we were going to do,” recalled Bella of the frightening experience, which nonetheless energized the band’s commitment to peaceful resistance, said Pacheco.
The band’s take of events also influenced “Street Signs.” The lyrics of the song “Saturday Night” include: “Shop ‘til you drop, homie that’s not me \\ Rush and attack from the back on three \\ Stop on beat, shout ‘world peace’ \\ Live from the block — love, peace, oh please \\ We don’t need bouncers or police.”
Other Ozomatli songs can seem prescient, like 1998’s “Coming War,” on which the Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na raps about “Economical foes they pose the true threat \\ Using your tax dollars to sell and produce death … \\ Are you a soldier who fights against fraud \\ Or pawns in this game on this government’s chess board? \\ The signs are clearly defined \\ It’s merely your mind state \\ War’s coming, my people, so stay awake.”
That one, said co-writer Pacheco, “is really about ideas of haves and have-nots. That’s never going to end, but I think we always have to keep reminding ourselves and making choices everyday about how to diminish that. Because of our personal experience, where we’re from, how our families raised us, I think we would all take sides with the have-nots.”
Where members of the band, now in their 30s, are from is uniquely Los Angeles.
Vocalist and trumpet player Asdru Sierra was born here the son of Mexican immigrants who initially struggled to find their feet in California.
“My parents tried to get a work picking vegetables and stuff, and they really sucked at it. They were city folks, so we went further up north,” recalled Sierra, who said his personal politics came not from training, but from his basic understanding of people trying to make it in the world. “My family didn’t even like saying the word ‘politics,’” he recalled.
Ozomatli’s new record, “Don’t Mess with the Dragon,” contains songs written about the massive immigrant rights marches that took place last year in Los Angeles. It will be released on April 3.
Porée, who grew up in LA’s Mid-Wilshire area, said he didn’t consider himself a politics-minded person until joining the band. But, “Being black in Los Angeles, you’re going to be dealt certain situations you’re not always going to like, and of course I’m going to see the world in a different way,” he said.
Much of Ozomatli’s power and identity comes from its diversity, said Bella.
“The collection of the people who are in this band is a political statement in itself. It’s like, here’s a bunch of different people from a lot of different roots coming together to produce really beautiful music,” he said.
Politics are one thing, but, “We delve into other issues, too — having a good time and partying and other aspects of life,” Bella continued. “The social aspect and the political aspect are important in the bigger whole of what it is to be a human being.”