Don’t believe everything you read in the papers, especially when it comes to coverage of political protests and street demonstrations. Despite what nearly every media outlet reported, the cops at last year’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles did not shut down the Rage Against the Machine concert. In fact, Rage’s show went off without a hitch, as did the day’s worth of peaceful marches and demonstrations in downtown L.A. that preceded it. Nope, the band the authorities decided they had to pull the plug on was not Zack and company—it was the act that followed them, a local and then little-known (outside of L.A.) band called Ozomatli.
What’s so scary about Ozomatli? At first glance, nothing. Compared to Rage, they’re a fairly tame party band—up-tempo, to be sure, but devoid of slashing guitars and strangled battle cries. Instead, going to an Ozomatli concert is like hearing all the music at an urban street fair rolled into a single band. There’s plenty of Mexican ranchero exuberance, a lot of hip-hop swagger, a dash of salsa, a smidgen of funk and a fairly healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s even some African and eastern influences, especially in the rhythm section, which layers djembes and tablas on top of traditional western drums and sampled beats. If the America-as-melting-pot model beats out America-as-segregated-patchwork, this is what the block party of the future will sound like.
And come to think of it, that idea probably does scare a lot of people in this country. The riot cops at the DNC included, apparently.
Where a lot of other politically themed bands strike angry poses and throw down angry lyrics, Ozomatli don’t have to—these guys embody their politics just by being who they are. This is why their music is so joyous, a celebratory antidote to every aggro South Central b-boy and dreadlocked suburban white kid who’s come down the pike in recent years pumping his fist and claiming social significance. Ozomatli’s PR kit identifies them as a “polyglot Black-Chicano-Cuban-Japanese-Jewish-Filipino crew”, and that’s a pretty fair description of both the band’s ethnic makeup and its sound. No other act in recent memory can claim such multicultural credentials, or has gained such instant critical heft simply by virtue of being what it is.
Reviewing a new Ozomatli release, then, becomes something of a challenge for any socially progressive music critic. You gotta love what they stand for, but do you have to love their music?
Ozomatli’s 1998 self-titled debut was lovable mainly for its sheer brazenness—musical styles and rhythms collided on that disc with loopy abandon, not making for the most coherent listening experience, but giving a very fair studio approximation of the giddy energy of Ozo’s legendary live shows. Their long-awaited follow-up, Embrace the Chaos, ironically bids farewell to much of the chaos in their earlier music. Here, Ozo favor sticking to one style per track, and even structure the album as a fairly predictable exchange of salsa/Mexi-pop numbers and straight-up hip-hop joints featuring new MC Kanetic Source and a parade of guest rappers. The result is a more polished but far less daring affair, which is not entirely surprising considering that Embrace the Chaos represents Ozo’s major label debut and effort to embrace a wider audience. The steady hip-hop beat of “Vocal Artillery” is far more likely to win Ozo some radio play than the head-scratching rhythm changes that characterized their first album.
Diehard fans may miss some of that musical friskiness, but there’s still a lot on Embrace the Chaos to enjoy. The disc starts off strong with a bouncy Caribbean-flavored number called “Pa Lante”, propelled by a great horn line and some surprisingly intricate work from guitarist Raúl Pacheco—one of the most notable things about Embrace the Chaos is how much all the members of Ozo have honed their instrumental skills since their first album. “Pa Lante” also benefits from the addition of some beautiful African kora work by Prince Diabate and some help from Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, who bring a little of their trademark rock en español catchiness to several of the album’s tracks.
Ozo continue to show off their improved chops on “1234”, which fuses a hip-hop groove and a rousing New Orleans funk chorus with guests raps from De La Soul’s Pos and TruGoy. “Dos Cosas Ciertas” finds the band in more traditional salsa mode, although even here they can’t resist throwing in an oddball drum-and-bass bridge with MC Kanetic Source offering a loose rap translation of the song’s Spanish lyrics (“En la vida dos cosas ciertas / Son la muerte y el cambio”—“In life two thing are certain / Death and change”). What jumps out most on this track, however, is the work of new drummer Andy Mendoza, who propels “Dos Cosas Ciertas” with an authoritative, almost hip-hop rhythm that sets the song apart from the zillions of other salsa sing-alongs blaring out of car radios all over L.A. He’s a great addition to the band’s melting pot sound.
“Vocal Artillery” is an underground hip-hop fan’s dream come true, a collaboration between Ozomatli, Black Eyed Peas rapper/vocalists Medusa and will.i.am, and Jurassic 5’s turntable wizard Cut Chemist (a former member of Ozo who contributes a few guest spots on this disc). With all this talent on hand, the track itself is something of a disappointment—it’s an entertaining romp with wah-wah horns and Black Eyed Peas’ typically mind-boggling rhymes, but it lacks a strong musical hook or memorable chorus. “Guerrillero” is even more of a throwaway track by Ozo standards, a catchy but extremely conventional salsa number that could almost have been recorded by any good Mexican pop band.
The title track, “Embrace the Chaos”, was inspired by Ozomatli’s role as soundtrack to the police crackdown on the DNC protests, and it opens with a heart-wrenching sound sample from those events—cops yelling at demonstrators while one of them begs on a bullhorn for more time to disperse. “Please, please, please just allow us to leave peacefully”, the protestor pleads. “We are attempting to comply with your order”. (I was at the DNC protests when the cops broke things up during Ozomatli’s set, and I can tell you that they allowed just minutes for a crowd of thousands to clear out of a fenced-off area through one narrow exit, then waded into to attack those still stuck inside with tear gas and rubber bullets. It was an ugly, bald-faced payback for a day of allowing the protestors to march in the streets.) The track itself, despite its title, is an introspective, downtempo number with lovely harmony vocals, muted horns and a savvy rap from veteran MC Common (“only through chaos can we ever see change”). Where most groups (RATM, anyone?) probably would have responded to the events at the DNC with a defiant protest anthem, Ozo opt for a note of solemnity, and in so doing produce Embrace the Chaos‘s most affecting track. It’s the best sign yet that Ozomotli are a lot smarter and deeper than their party-band reputation might suggest.
The band pushes the envelope even further on “Pensativo (Interlude)”, a self-indulgent experiment in ambient jazz from trumpeter Asdru Sierra—lots of menacing, atonal horns and other music school silliness. Fortunately, it’s a short track, and leads in to the Cuban son/merengue of “Tímido”, which shows off the horn section’s jazz skills to much better effect. Special props on this track go to Arturo Velasco, who enriches Ozo’s sometimes slight two-horn attack with some nice trombone work (here and throughout the album), and guest pianist Alberto Salas, whose nimble fingers really give “Tímido” some Cubano syncopation.
“Lo Que Dice” promises to blend Ozo’s Latin and hip-hop flavors, as Cut Chemist starts things off with a traditional Spanish vocal track laid over a fat hip-hop beat. But then Kanetic Source and guest rapper Justin Poree start trading rhymes, and the song becomes a fairly conventional rap anthem. “Mi Alma” is another track that’s too traditional for its own good—produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, it leans heavily toward Ozomatli’s Mexican roots (their name is taken from the Aztec god of dance), with lots of mariachi horns and ranchero guitars. Entertaining, yes, but like “Guerrillero”, “Mi Alma” doesn’t really take full advantage of Ozo’s ability to bust Latin music out in interesting directions.
The closing track, however, is a gem—a salsa/samba rave-up called “Sueños en Realidad” that spices things up with lots of classic Ozo touches—a playful horn line, Jiro Yamaguchi’s fiesty tabla fills, and some great turntable flourishes from newcomer DJ Spinobe. This is when Ozomatli are really at their best—taking traditional Latin musical styles and tricking them out with some streetwise, multicultural sensibilities. It’s something they need to do more of, especially because they still really don’t have a strong lead vocalist (Pacheco and Sierra are solid but undistinctive, and Kanetic Source’s contributions get lost amid all the guest rappers), and they lack the songwriting chops necessary to lift their more conventionally structured salsa and hip-hop tracks above the competition. But as musical stylists, these guys have no competition—no one else is putting out songs like “Sueños en Realidad” or “Pa Lante” right now, so it would be nice to hear Ozo trying harder to produce more tracks like these, and seek out a middle ground between the rhythmic mayhem of their debut and the more disciplined, radio-friendly sound that dominates Embrace the Chaos.
Ultimately, on Embrace the Chaos, Ozomatli may be trying too hard to bring their sound to a mass audience, parsing it down to its component parts in an effort to win over more hip-hop and Latin fans alike. To me this is a mistake, because Ozo’s musical stew will remain hard for a lot of people to swallow no matter how it’s served—so when they water it down, they only misrepresent the creative chutzpah of their lives shows, and risk losing old-time fans. But let’s hope I’m wrong, and that Embrace the Chaos becomes a huge hit. Ozomatli are still a great band, and the message of racial and cultural unity that they embody deserves to get out there.