Ozo Rising

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a staff writer

Sometimes, the symbolism is just way too easy.

There they were, last winter, the 10 members of the Los Angeles ethnic and musical mishmash known as Ozomatli, on a stage in Philadelphia, opening for the Offspring in front of several thousand kids.

Then lead singer and trumpeter Asdru Sierra dedicated the set to death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted in Philadelphia of killing a cop after a controversial trial that some say was unfair, and that, no doubt, many Philly-Offspring-fan types (most of whom came to hear their personal theme song, "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)") think was justice.

"It was like mentioning Rodney King in Simi Valley," says Ozomatli bassist Wil-Dog. "Then we started singing in Spanish. Forget it. People literally wanted to kill us. We got booed the whole time, by 5,000, 6,000 kids. . . . But even in the middle of all that, there were a few fists raised, guys yelling 'Ozo! We came to see you.' It felt like we'd won a revolution in a way, like this is what it's all about. This is what we can do."

Since releasing its self-titled debut album on ALMO Sounds a year ago, Ozomatli--the nation's most aggressively indefinable pop band--has defied industry predictions that its bilingual, horn-heavy scramble of cumbia, rap, merengue, hip-hop, salsa, ranchera and '70s funk was too broad and, well, weird to sell.

As the band prepares to open for Santana and Mana on their arena tour (which includes shows at the Coors Amphitheatre in Chula Vista Aug. 7-8, and the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim from Aug. 11-14), it appears the naysayers may have been wrong about Ozomatli after all.

With practically zero commercial radio support, and next to no music video play, the album has sold 110,000 copies, according to SoundScan. It's a success that even surprised Paul Kremen, ALMO's general manager and the man who signed Ozomatli. And the band's manager, Amy Blackman, is certain sales will reach 200,000 by the end of the year.

While being nowhere near the Backstreet Boys' one-week record-breaker of 1.13-million albums sold, Ozomatli's relative success has industry leaders taking notice of ALMO's "guerrilla marketing" campaign for Ozomatli, one that hearkens back to the 1960s and '70s, when relentless touring and a great live performance could make a band.

Because the usual commercial radio route was not an option, ALMO publicist Robb Moore focused on touring, pitching articles to print media and landing interviews on public and college radio stations and Spanish-language television.

The approach worked. Newsday said the band was "the finest example of pop music the way it will be heard in 2010." Ozomatli has been praised from Buffalo to Fort Lauderdale, and ended up No. 31 in the Village Voice's poll of hundreds of U.S. pop critics to name the best albums of 1998.

The media coverage--and the live shows--impressed retail executives such as Bob Bell, new music buyer for the Wherehouse Music chain, who decided to stock Ozomatli's album in the pop section of all 550 stores nationwide, even though the band often sings in Spanish and did not come to his attention via the usual channels.

"It's a pretty extraordinary situation," Bell said of Ozomatli's nontraditional route to mainstream retail, likening the band's tireless grass-roots path to that of the Vermont rock band Phish.

For Leila Cobo, pop music writer for the Miami Herald and a longtime follower of the band, Ozomatli's relative success in the past year also represents the arrival of the future sound of American pop music, as well as an impending change in the way labels and radio will design the boxes into which they stuff bands.

The real challenge, Cobo and others say, will be getting radio to accept the new sounds.

"Radio is very corporate," said Ozomatli's Sierra. "Even though the deejays are cool and they want to play us, there's a battle they can't win with the guy in the gray suit who tells all the kids what to listen to. It's our biggest conflict, because we really believe these guys are denying people the right to listen to something different, something new, something that might actually help them grow as individuals."

Blackman says most radio support for Ozomatli has come from public radio, with only a handful of commercial radio stations taking a chance on the unique band.

In Los Angeles, KROQ's (106.7-FM) programming director Kevin Weatherly opted to put Ozomatli into rotation based on a massive fan base in Southern California; according to Ozomatli's manager, more than a quarter of the album's sales have been in Los Angeles, where the band has had a big following since its inception four years ago.

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Two years ago, when the unsigned Ozomatli was drawing crowds of thousands to nightclubs in Los Angeles, talent scouts from dozens of record labels, including DreamWorks, were showing up at the shows. Even though many of the scouts found themselves doing the samba in a long snaking line by the end of the night, none seemed to know what to do with Ozomatli from a commercial standpoint.

Enter Kremen, whose label is home to the rock band Garbage and the critically acclaimed, folk-accented singer Gillian Welch. Living by the A&R; adage "put a line around the block and we will come," Kremen slid into the crowd to groove on Ozomatli one night. Then he couldn't shake the band's unique vibe, which, he says, sounds exactly like the streets of any urban American city "where you have a large Hispanic and African American population and you hear salsa on one side of the street and hip-hop on the other and kids are getting doused in the fire hydrant.

"I kept liking it more and more," Kremen says, "even though it didn't fit any of the niches a major label wanted to fill. . . . We still felt there was a way to market this record and sell records. We think we've accomplished that."

Wil-Dog, who founded Ozomatli as a fund-raising band for a political action center when he went on strike against the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, agrees with Kremen's assessment, but is refreshingly unconcerned with commercial, and even critical, success.

When asked about the Billboard Latin Music Award that Ozomatli won this year for best alternative/fusion act, Wil-Dog sounded as if he'd just been reminded about some dry cleaning he forgot to pick up three years ago.

"Oh, right, yeah," he said. "I heard we'd won that. Did we? Was it on TV or something? We were on tour at the time."

And that, according to Ozomatli manager Blackman, is the key to the band's unexpected success: constant touring, in a wide variety of settings. In the past year, Ozomatli has played on two punk-rock tours, one swing tour, a hip-hop tour and a ska tour. They've opened for Lenny Kravitz, Phish, the Roots, the Dave Matthews Band, Wu-Tang Clan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers--and still made time to appear on a very local televised talent show, "Cuanto Cuesta El Show."

While MTV has rejected Ozomatli, the group's videos have aired on BET, the Box, M2, and MTV Latin America. The group has appeared on international Spanish variety programs, and urban U.S. morning radio shows; a couple of weeks ago, they managed to sneak a cumbia onto Big Boy's morning show on Power 106. The band was even featured on a PBS show hosted by David Byrne.

ALMO publicist Moore says that while the label originally feared the group's diversity would be its downfall, that quality has turned out to be Ozomatli's greatest asset because "they can fit in anywhere." Because of this, Moore says, new touring opportunities come every day for the band, which landed cuts on five Hollywood soundtracks this year, including "Mod Squad" and "Never Been Kissed," where they make a cameo appearance.

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The band members are exhausted, miss their families and say they're barely making more money than they did before they tackled music full time, when they worked as high school teachers, used car salesmen, special ed teachers and political consultants, among other jobs.

But there are perks, says Wil-Dog in half-seriousness: Ozomatli members get free shoes from Skechers, and rack up enough frequent-flyer miles to go on cheap vacations.

"And it's all because we're constantly out there, mooning people," says Wil-Dog.

Come again?

"Nobody knows what to do with us," he explains, "because we don't fit into a box. We don't really know what to do with ourselves. All we know how to do is put ourselves in front of people, and it's like mooning people, only you don't get up from bending over. You just throw your ass out there and you're gonna get it kissed or you're gonna get it slapped around. Maybe they'll like it, and maybe they won't."

The impressive thing is, it doesn't have to be this hard.

Ozomatli has been offered large amounts of money from numerous beer companies to do spots on Spanish-language network television, "enough to live on for the rest of our lives," according to Sierra. But Ozomatli rejected the offers because selling beer to Latinos did not match the values of the band, which was born of political strife and continues to play benefits for left-leaning organizations.

Even Carlos Santana--who was turned on to Ozomatli by Dolores Huerta, the leader of the United Farm Workers--has advised the hyper-versatile band to focus on cutting just three commercially marketable songs, says Wil-Dog. That way, Santana says, Ozomatli can get on the radio and won't have to leave wives and babies at home all the time in order to get their name out in places like . . . Scotland.

But that's probably not going to happen, either, band members say, unless it happens organically.

"We thought we had hit songs on the last record," Wil-Dog says. "How do you write a hit song? I don't know. "

"No one's getting rich off Ozomatli," Kremen says. "But sometimes it takes three or four records for the best bands to break out. That's how labels used to do things, and it's how we're doing it with this band. Look at Los Lobos, or R.E.M. It took R.E.M. four albums to get out there. . . . I think this band is going to be like a Blues Traveler. I believe the world will come to Ozomatli."

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