Ozomatli: Quick Hits

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 they’ve always been a band with a social conscience, too, whether its defending immigrants rights or expressing tolerance and acceptance in their new song, “Gay Vatos in Love.” Lately, they’ve become global ambassadors, roaming the world on State Department tours. As the band tells 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.”

Extended Curator's Note

Ozomatli is L.A. born and bred, and you can make a strong argument that they have become the quintessential 21st century Los Angeles band with their mix of Latino rock, hip-hop, funk, cumbia and Chicano low-rider soul. Their signature song, "City of Angels," is an urban anthem, an ode to the youth and the streets of America's second largest city. Once the Beach Boys might have symbolized life in L.A. -- and their sweet harmonies and vision of beach culture still hold sway in the southern California imagination. But now that Los Angeles is as racially and ethnically diverse as New York -- with a rising Mexican American demographic and  its first Latino mayor -- the look and the sound of Ozomatli are more in touch with the reality of the city. 

Like that other great Los Angeles band, Los Lobos (one of the finest rock and roots music bands America has ever produced), Ozomatli has a "straight out of East L.A." Latino vibe. But that's only part of their story. The group's shifting number of musicians, ranging from seven to ten at any given time, has always been a rainbow of brown, white, black and yellow. If Ozomatli had to answer the race question on a U.S. census form, they might have to check "Other."   And if you are looking for musical "purity," forget about it. These guys mix and match musical styles like an early '80s Madonna trying on clothes in a second-hand store. They are musical mongrels and proud of it. 

Record stores -- the ones that are left -- often seem perplexed about where to place the Ozomatli CDs. Do they belong under "Latin" or in the "rock" bin, or both? Are they "domestic" or "world music"? Maybe that confusion might limit Ozomatli sales. The music industry sometimes has a problem promoting a group they can't categorize. Yet, Ozomatli has survived 15 years and earned more than their share of pop success. The L.A. Dodgers have adopted the Ozo song, "Can't Stop the Blue," as a Chavez Ravine stadium favorite, and the Ozo hit, "City of Angels," was the centerpiece of a "Simpsons" episode.  

Founded in 1995 at a Peace and Justice Center in downtown L.A., Ozomatli has always been a politically-conscious band of brothers. They are strong advocates of immigrant rights, they spoke out early against the war in Iraq, and on their latest album, "Fire Away," they urge acceptance and compassion for gay Latinos.  At the same time, Ozomatli  is a dance band that likes to create a block party atmosphere. They're boys from the 'hood, but they also come to entertain, complete with a slapstick sense of humor, and in that sense they reflect Hollywood as well as the barrio. After all, if you are going to be the quintessential L.A. band, you have to be entertainers, too.

That was evident when we filmed their recent performance at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where they packed the house and put on a crowd-pleasing, kinetic show for over two hours. You can see one of their high-energy songs, "La Gallina," in this exhibition. The performance ended with the band climbing down from the stage and snaking through the audience in a long drum-pounding farewell.       

When we arranged to do our Sound Tracks "Quick Hits" interview with Ozomatli, we met them at SIR, a rehearsal space and musical instrument rental warehouse near the San Francisco Giants ballpark . We found them rehearsing a kind of history of the band -- a ballad of Ozomatli -- an 18-min. performance piece they call "At the Edge of Urban Identity." And to our surprise, the guy narrating the story was Josh Kun, who we know as a professor of music and music journalism at USC's Annenberg School of Communications. Josh is an adviser on our "Sound Tracks" music series and we last saw him in January when he invited us to screen our pilot episode in one of his classes. Turns out Josh is tight with Ozomatli. They call him "our resident smart guy." 

As you can see in "Saturday Night," our video excerpt from the rehearsal, Ozomatli roots itself in Aztec mythology -- they are named for the monkey sign in the ritual Aztec calendar. And they assert their dual identity as a communal party band with a vision of social justice. "If there's gonna be a revolution," they proclaim, "let it begin on a Saturday night." 

The rest of the performance traces the band's evolution from representatives of the diversity of their city, Los Angeles, to their current incarnation as "citizens of the world," a band of global emissaries that has travelled to Nepal, Vietnam, Burma, Mongolia,  South Africa, Madagascar and the Middle East on State Department-sponsored tours. It may seem strange that Ozomatli would be selected for this role, given their politics and their sometimes edgy style. But in a way, that's just the point. Some far-sighted State Department official -- apparently alerted by an Ozomatli interview on NPR -- recognized that these guys are part of the new face of America -- that they highlight the youthful energy, racial diversity and social concerns of many in this country. And that it might even be an advantage to show to the world that we really do believe in free speech, even if that speech -- or song lyric --contradicts a particular government policy.

Plus, someone must have realized that these are simply some of the friendliest, warm-hearted musicians you could ever assemble. Everywhere they go, they insist on jamming with local musicians and visiting local orphanages and HIV/AIDS clinics. 

So, these days Ozomatli -- those mischievous, motley monkeys -- the iconic L.A. band -- continue to play to their southern California homeboys, but they are also roaming the world as cultural ambassadors the way Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman once did. It's the kind of journey that we plan to take with them in a "Sound Tracks" series on PBS.

Visit Ozomatli's website.

Support for pbs.org

Learn more about PBS sponsorship