Listen as you cruise the streets of L.A., and you'll hear the rhythms of Ozomatli, a band named for the monkey in the ritual Aztec calendar. It's the music of the multi-ethnic City of Angels with its rising Latino population and its polyphonic mix of rock, hip-hop, funk, cumbia and Chicano low-rider R&B. Ozomatli likes to create a street party atmosphere, but it's always been a band with a social conscience, too, whether it's defending immigrant rights or expressing tolerance and acceptance in the new song "Gay Vatos in Love." Lately, band members have become global ambassadors, roaming the world on State Department tours. As they tell "Sound Tracks" reporter Mirissa Neff, they started out as representatives of the new L.A. but feel like they've become "citizens of the world."
Live from the Fillmore, San Francisco's legendary concert hall, Ozomatli breaks into a rambunctious version of "La Gallina" (the chicken). With lead vocals by Raul Pacheco and some blistering horns -- Asdru Sierra on trumpet and Ulises Bella on saxophone -- it's irresistible dance music.
What's it all mean? Well, there's a rooster and a heist and a chase. And a current of slapstick comedy. It's feel-good music, that's for sure, with a free-spirited chorus, loosely translated as, "With Ozomatli, you can do anything/Make yourself fly."
This is a glimpse of Ozomatli rehearsing a performance piece called "At the Edge of Urban Identity." It's a kind of history of the band, a ballad of Ozomatli, narrated by friend Josh Kun, whom they call "our resident smart guy," maybe because when he's not fronting Ozomatli he teaches music journalism at USC in downtown L.A.
This excerpt opens the performance with Josh explaining the origins of Ozomatli's name and presenting the band's vision of our times: "There will be pain but there will be music to ease it; injustice will be survived by protest." This "new gospel of the monkey" ends with a funky riot of music, "If there's gonna be a revolution, let it begin on a Saturday night."
Ozomatli is celebrating its 15th anniversary as a band, what members jokingly refer to as their "Quinceanera," the coming of age party for Latinas. "It's the longest relationship any of us has ever been in," says founding member Ulises Bella. "Kind of sad, huh?"
These guys are old friends, and it's obvious they're still having fun with their hard-charging, polyglot band. Mirissa Neff caught up with them at a rehearsal on tour in San Francisco, where Wil-Dog Abers and Jiro Yamaguchi joined Uli in describing how strange it was to get a call from the Bush-era State Dept., how their lead vocalist almost died on stage in Madagascar, and why they wanted to include "Gay Vatos in Love" on their new album "Fire Away."