Since its beginnings as a grass-roots group of musicians playing at political rallies, Ozomatli, the self-dubbed gods of dance, has maintained the same down-with-the-people approach to gigs--getting off the stage and performing in the audience.
It was no different Friday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana. In advance of its debut Almo Sounds CD, "Ozomatli"--due next week with a series of concert dates to follow--the 10-man bilingual group brewed a well-stirred sauce of Latin tropical, funk, hip-hop, ska, reggae and acid jazz for a packed house.
The evening got underway with the group's signature entrance: a carnival-style zigzag through the audience, a percussion-driven, horn-blasting, whistle-blowing procession complete with the shouted mantra: "Ozomatli, Ozomatli, queremos bailar la musica de Ozomatli!" ("We want to dance to the music of Ozomatli!") "Ozomatli" is the Nahuatl name for the monkey deity of dance of Aztec mythology.
The band's most politically charged songs demand social change but never lose their dance-oriented humor and frolic. Case in point: "Coming War," a soulful, rolling rap with baritone Chali 2na and salsa-trained vocalist and trumpeter Asdru Sierra's siren-like voice on a multilayered funk theme. The lighter tunes, like "Superbowl Sundae" and "Chango," invited fans to close the gap between mind and body, and dance.
For "Cumbia," one of the group's strongest songs, Sierra's high-pitch Spanish-language crooning switched off with 2na's deep, crisp English vocals. They followed up with a similar exchange in "Chota," a protest song against police brutality; Sierra started with a salsa-laced falsetto voice and 2na finished with a rumbling rap to a funky bass line.
But the group's hallmark is a call-and-response between voices and instruments. Most of Ozomatli's songs highlight the instrumentation of each specialist: the snappy percussion of tablas player Jiro Yamaguchi; the tribal Afro-Cuban percussion of Justin "Nino" Poree; the energetic tenor saxophone of Ulises Bella; and multidisciplinary drums of Santa Ana native William Marrufo.
Raul Pacheco, guitarist and one of three vocalists, used the Cuban tres, a twangy guitar with three pairs of strings, for the more folksy-driven songs like "Como Ves (How You See)" and the nortena-drenched "La Misma Cancion (The Same Song)." On songs like "Superbowl Sundae," Pacheco kicked the wah-wah effects pedal for a disco-funk guitar conversation with Chicago-born 2na's deep rap.
The 1 1/2-hour show played to a typical Ozomatli crowd--one that reflects the multiethnic collective of hyphenated Americans. But the encore was atypical in that the genre-hopping group devoted a longer stretch of time than usual to freestyle improvisations built around James Brown alumnus Maceo Parker's "Shake Everything You've Got."
Band leader and bassist Wil-Dog laid down the bouncy funk chord progression for a nearly 20-minute run that included guest musician friends on guitars; it also set up some wild improvs by band members. Deft turntable-ist Cut Chemist mimicked the bass line with well-greased, hip-hop scratches that he had teased in earlier songs. Alto sax player Jos Espinosa, in turn, simulated the deejay scratching, coming up with a squealing horn choked with break beats; 2na demonstrated his command over free-styling lyrical poetry, often rumbling with his rapid-fire voice over the cowbell and conga percussion.
Though the band's playful free-for-all sought to connect with the audience, some of the solos overshadowed the dance rhythm, effectively halting the jumping and dancing on the floor.
There wasn't much shaking during the final "Shake" song, but the main part of the concert had the audience finding new ways to move to the different strokes Ozomatli painted.
At the end of the last chorus, the drums and percussion rumbled straight into the opening samba-like, parade-making beats, which the group carried off the stage and onto the dance floor for 10 minutes--until the lights went on.