[29 March 2007]
With nine guys in a band, you’re bound to have a lot of diverse musical influences. Multi-racial, multi-Grammy-winning group Ozomatli’s newest release, Don’t Mess With the Dragon” combines the Latin rock, rap, reggae, and political overtones the ensemble is known for with a generous twist of pop, making the disc palatable to a more mainstream audience.
Armed with a résumé of hit albums that have introduced and reintroduced the likes of Ricky Martin and Carlos Santana to North American audiences and accolades, producer K.C. Porter is at the controls on Ozo’s latest album. The result is an eclectic blend of several styles of world music sandwiched between strong Latin rhythms and hard-edged pop which sounds equally at home in a rock club as it does on a salsa dance floor. The formula isn’t much different from the sound that got the band to the dance this far, but it is new and improved. There is an admittedly cleaner and brighter tone to the disc’s material than on Ozomatli’s previous outings.
The catalog of comparisons and observed influences is seemingly endless. There are times where lead singer/trumpeter, Asdru Sierra’s tenor sounds eerily like that of the bon-bon shaking Señor Martin himself. Additionally, the group elicits similarities to several other musical groups that fall outside of the four- and five-piece norm. While Ozo’s sound could share a common bond with the Black Eyed Peas, reaching back much further, the band seems to have much more in common with ‘70s funk groups like Sly and the Family Stone, and to a greater degree, War.
Along with War, Ozomatli shares a mutual California stomping ground, members of widely-varying racial backgrounds, and a sound appealing to socially-conscious fans of Latin music and funk. The rousing, horn-infused “After Party” seems to directly channel their ethno-funk forebears in full-on “Why Can’t We Be Friends”-mode, paying lip-service to the city of Los Angeles. What really sells the track is the innovative approach of Raul Pacheco’s guitar work laying down the beat, a task usually relegated to bass and drums.
The comparisons and varied musical styles present on Don’t Mess With the Dragon don’t stop there. The album’s title track is a paella with a heavy base of reggae, some Asian instrumentation, and a tasty combination of several other well-blended ingredients. Ultimately, it is once again the band’s horn section and frantic drum beats that blow the lid off the simmering pot, erupting into a full-boil.
While incorporating elements of reggae and even Hindi music remains a staple of Ozomatli’s repertoire, the band manages to whip out some genuine surprises. On “La Gallina”, the group branches out into the vastly uncharted territory of what can only be categorized as “Spanish Polka”. Ozomatli’s blaring horn section and the surprise addition of an accordion to the mix make for an odd coupling rivaling even that of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. The band makes it work with lyrics entirely en Español and clicking drum beats that imbue the track with a hip-swiveling funkiness that sprints as far and fast as possible from Lawrence Welk on Mariachi Holiday.
While it’s evident that Ozomatli has a great deal of fun picking the musical brains of the collective’s nine individual members to blend a concoction of countless musical styles, it is the band’s political outlook and overtones that have made them such a well-respected force to be reckoned with. Although adding a slightly more radio-friendly sound, Ozo thankfully hasn’t nixed the social commentary on Don’t Mess With the Dragon.
On the retro-sounding “Magnolia Soul”, the band renders the happiest, funkiest sounding taking-to-task of Dubya to date. A decidedly more hip-hop track than many of the disc’s pieces, “Magnolia Soul” pipes in with the band’s horn section serving up some New Orleans jazz, acknowledging the city’s rich musical history with lines like “They say said that this the end / But we fixin’ to make them saints march in again”.
The interesting thing about Ozomatli’s political stance is the unique way in which they address issues of importance. Most socially aware groups, ranging from The Clash to Rage Against the Machine decry injustice with a sense of righteous anger, Ozomatli harbors an optimistic outlook favoring positive change. Whereas angst is a cornerstone of most political rock, Ozomatli sends an exuberantly joyful message that manages to bring societal ills to light while simultaneously envisioning that light as an ending to a dark tunnel.
Nearly everything about Don’t Mess With the Dragon is as fluid and serpentine as the album’s namesake. The band manages to take nine individual pieces to the puzzle and make them fit. Ozomatli doesn’t try to weave sounds and messages from across the globe together. It flows effortlessly.