May 14, 2004

MACUILXOCHITL: Five Flower,” the Aztec god of music and dance

Ozomatli, a band born out of strife

By Francisco Ciriza

With wartime headlines forcing cringes, inward shame and disgust, and a rare, if ever, so deep a sorrow in our hearts, it is difficult to even imagine finding something positive coming from the Allied forces presence in Iraq and other Arab territories.

Enter Ozomatli, a band born out of strife. A group of artists who last released an album on a sorrowful and infamously disastrous September 11, 2001. With its brand of musical strength and vengeance carved from intelligence and compassion and lacquered with a passion for peace and passive resistance, the kings of L.A.’s Chicano funk rock movimiento, return with a new recorded offering, “Street Signs.” The CD, to be released on the group’s newfound home at Concord Records, hits the streets, ironically enough, nine months and eleven days from the third anniversary of one of, if not most horrid of this country’s memories.

“Street Signs” the group’s third full-length CD release is full of Ozomatli’s unique blend of contemporary interpretations and variances on traditional Latino styles such as cumbia and its cohesive mixes of classic, punk, and standard rock elements including driving rhythms and pounding bass with upfront electric guitar power chords. This time around, the band further explores Arabesque musical interludes perhaps providing becoming a modern day equivalent to Spanish Flamenco with its gitana or gypsy flavored vocals blended with furiously plucked and strummed catgut.

It is under such circumstances and with a subliminal aggression, which the group approaches the roads ahead. Along with miles, lie challenges ahead for the group known as much for its stamina during seemingly non-stop jaunts across the country and the world as it is for its infectious music with lyrics sung in Spanish and English and ability to negotiate the more difficult aspects of the music business.

From the road, the group’s longtime percussionist, Jiro Yamaguchi, recently spoke with La Prensa San Diego. With the frankness of a trusted acquaintance and the comfort of a longtime friend, Yamaguchi snuck in a snack and talked about the band’s travels, of all sorts.

“We’re pretty much going to be on the road for a while. We’ve been touring for the past few weeks, all ready. We’re going to Texas, Louisiana, the rest of the Southeast and eventually the Northeast, Midwest, Northwest and back down the west coast” he said. While enthusiastic about the band’s latest tour, there was also a tone in Yamaguchi’s voice expressing ease and familiarity in approaching the coming onslaught of long nights, short days, few hours of rest, and tons of music.

The group’s veteran mentality is the result of experience rather than chronological factors and keenly manifests itself in the form of a savvy stage presence and festive delivery as well as a professionalism defined by keeping touring high on its list or priorities. While some longtime fans struggle to hold onto the Ozomatli they fell in love with on its earliest tours when the band often began its shows by marching in through a club’s front doors, creating a frenzy and truly electric atmosphere, Yamaguchi and company continue to make the necessary changes to any and all facets of the group to keep its freshness and widening appeal at peak levels.

He also attributes those changes to keeping things interesting for the group’s members, “You have to remember you may see the show once or twice a year, but we see it everyday.” While he admittedly understands fans and the tendency for some to hold on to those memories of Ozo’s earlier days, he proudly and emphatically states the band will make any change necessary for the betterment of the group and its music. This he follows with an enthusiastic update on the group’s newest members, drummer, Mike Duffy and MC Jabu. Both Duffy and Jabu take spots previously filled with a number of short-lived stints by a pool of talented individuals including MC Chali Tuna, now with Jurasic 5. Chali Tuna makes a cameo appearance on “Street Signs.” Stability, chemistry, and timing brought Duffy and Ozomatli together, “we met a few years back and he was able to do the gig,” says later touting Jabu’s skills and the group’s admiration for his work with his former group, Fourth Avenue.

Yamaguchi’s optimism permeated the remainder of the interview as he described the group’s eagerness to visit surprisingly lesser-known lands for the group popular among hip young Latinos in this country. “We’re looking forward to playing in places we haven’t played as much as we want to. One place we haven’t played enough is Mexico,” Brazil and some other South American countries will shore up the group’s efforts to make a connection with the rest of Latinos in the American continents. He explained the reasons for the lack of exposure to the aforementioned locales, “Our records have never really been out there. Touring costs are high and it doesn’t make economic sense to support a record that hasn’t even been released domestically in those countries. ‘Street Signs’ will be licensed and distributed in Mexico and other places in Central and South America.”

Ozomatli will continue to explore new lands and new directions it seems for some time to come, that seems fair to say. It also seems fair to believe the group will remain steadfast in its stance for a positive outlook and sharing of both music and culture.

Be sure to look for a review of Ozomatli’s “Street Signs” in Macuilxochitl’s Kiva closer to its June 22nd release.

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