Ozomatli Delivers Politics, Latin Fire on Chaos


Embrace the Chaos
4 Stars

Forget about Ricky Martin and J. Lo. If you're looking for the real Latin invasion, you'll find it in the L.A.-based Ozomatli -- a party band with a political agenda.

While Ozomatli's sound is rooted in salsa, the group is as diverse as the city that spawned it: Ozomatli counts blacks, Chicanos, Cubans, Japanese, Jews and Filipinos among its nine members.

Its music, likewise, is a cultural medley. Many of the tracks on Embrace the Chaos wouldn't sound out of place at your favorite Mexican restaurant. But Ozomatli doesn't stop there, throwing the classic Latin sound for a loop with turntabling, hip-hop lyrics, impressive guest appearances and innovative touches.

The band formed in L.A. in 1995, starting out with gigs at political benefits and soon earning a rabid local following.

Its music is intended to promote social change, although English-only listeners might not get all of the message -- the raps are in English, but the sung lyrics are in Spanish.

And Ozomatli doesn't just talk the activist talk; its members walk the walk as well (bassist Wil Dog Abers once staged a three-month sit-in to protest the treatment of L.A. Conservation Corps workers).

But Ozomatli doesn't let the serious nature of its agenda get in the way of a good time. Each track is packed with energy and exuberant brass, and if you throw this on at your next party you better be ready to switch between salsa dancing and booty-shaking.

The album gets the party started with "Pa Lante," whose energetic chorus is punctuated by trumpet blasts. "1234," featuring Pos and TruGoy of De La Soul, deftly mixes hip-hop rhymes with hot horns and a beat that's all funk.

Other tracks are more characteristically Latin, with group choruses and blazing brass. But the band throws in unexpected elements that keep the sound contemporary -- the salsa of "Dos Cosas Ciertas," for example, slides into a rhyme undercut by an electronic drum-and-bass beat. Indian tabla drumming is featured prominently on a couple of tracks, as is the kora, an African stringed instrument.

The smooth rhymes of "Vocal Artillery," provided by Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas and underground hip-hop queen Medusa, are laid over a trumpet riff that's straight out of a New Orleans rag. And the jazzy "Pensativo" sounds like the soundtrack to a mystery movie.

Ozomatli's ideology becomes clear on "Embrace the Chaos," which features lyrics from hip-hop impresario Common.

The track begins with a recording from a protest, at which Ozomatli performed, of the 2000 National Democratic Convention in L.A. The police pulled the plug on the band after one song, and then fired rubber bullets into the crowd as it tried to peacefully disperse -- all while then-President Bill Clinton gave a speech on America's greatness.

The song encourages listeners to "embrace the chaos:" recognize what's wrong in society and act upon it. This positivity flows throughout Ozomatli's music, even as it addresses social ills and the hypocrisy of the establishment.

This country needs a band that makes you want to change the world as much as it makes you want to dance -- and Ozomatli is it.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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