Caught Ozomatli (click here to open an Ozo jukebox while you read) again, this time at the 200 seat Grammy Museum in an event to mark the special exhibit “Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom.” It was supposed to be just talk, but the full band, with a sit-in drummer, showed up with instruments totally rocking out a 200 seat theater instead of the overstuffed HOB Anaheim.
We were sitting right in the middle about halfway back…perfect seats. No pics allowed though, so the picture on the page is from their site.
They showed a film from their travels as emissaries of the US State department, jambassadors as they used to be called. It was a complex process, playing on behalf of an administration they disagreed with, but in the end they went for it and did speak out without burning a little Bush piñata on stage. They decided they could knock out some stereotypes about what Americans are like making sure they would be allowed to speak their minds. Not everyone was happy – they got hate mail from the New York Post, which they seemed pretty proud of.
One of them, I forget whom, remarked that they approach their activism through the music rather than vice versa, having the message arise organically from getting the music right, a la Fela Kuti, James Brown, or Bob Marley, rather than taking an aggro, in your face didactic approach.
With success, Ozo have found the they can’t always play what and where they want anymore because of prior engagements and contracts, but they still try to do benefits and be politically active through the music. They talked about playing the Bowery Ballroom in NYC a week or so after 9/11 and what a powereful experience that was. They talked about playing in a parking lot that stood where the Grammy museum is now for what I guess was a protest against the building of the whole LA Live complex in 1999. I remember talking with Monisha on the way there, wondering what the neighborhood was before the whole Staples Center/LA Live complex was built.
LA provides an ambivalent inspiration for the band. The city’s eclecticism and diversity was like a macrocosm preparing them for meeting musicians and other people around the world by going around LA. At the same time, they grew up in the years of the riots and the peak of gang violence. Living in working class, immigrant neighborhoods they were exposed to a lot of violence growing up and they talked about how they kind of grew more political from experience and circumstance than from any ideological stance. For example, the violence went on until a white kid got killed, then all of sudden, Clinton comes in and says “no more of that.”
The host, Josh Kun from USC, asked about specific social movements and they responded by saying that music cuts across boundaries and unites people in ways that are unique, and that Ozomatli has tried to tap into this power by singing about the daily struggles to do the right thing. Hip hop acted as a huge bridge that people could respond to all around the world, but there were other moments that had to be negotiated even though they were intimidating, like the percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi playing tablas to a North Indian Percussion school, or the band playing salsa in Cuba, where the Cubans were like “well, ok” but then the Cubans tried playing some funk and Ozo could say “well ok” too, which made it easier for everyone to be comfortable playing what they played without worrying about it.
They finished up by talking about how they stayed together, Raul saying it was therapy, which brought a big laugh, but he said it was serious, and that they had to work through stuff and grow as people, and that over time they developed a commitment to each other that they never would have thought they would find with a bunch of guys.
Then they played a half hour set, telling a little story about each of the songs. They started with “Malagasy Shock,” with its message of seize the day. Then they played a song on what looks to me like a detuned acoustic tenor guitar teamed up with Turkish drums. The song was originally based around a Spanish chorus about the sun coming up, but came to be about the Asdru Sierra’s son, kind of like the Teletubbies sun kid he joked. Then came a reggae-ish song I don’t know, no story this time. Then a rapper whose name I also missed came up and pitched in on “City of Angels.” They finished with “Temperatura” They were in the studio during the May 1 demonstrations and decided to hit the streets rather than record. Instead of being a song about Ozo inspiring the masses, this one is about the masses inspiring them, a fitting way to finish up.
We hung out afterwards and talked to Josh a bit and Ozo’s manager, then checked out the exhibit while waiting in line to meet the band. I just got a new stack of rreplay CDs, so I gave them a couple. You can hear rreplay here and the rest of my music on WayMusic. Give it a listen if you made it this far.