There's a saying about certain volatile regions that sums up Ozomatli's versatility: If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes.
The variety of songs on an Ozomatli album is like that. Their music develops out of a swirling stormcloud, little tornados touching down every few minutes, dropping tango into alternative rock, punk into merengue, ranchera into hip hop. Street Signs, which won a Grammy for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album, and the followup concert album, Live at the Fillmore, capture Ozomatli's whirlwind at its height. This fresh breeze from the west will blow through Raleigh Wednesday.
Last week, Ozomatli frontman Asdru Sierra was in the middle of moving, but he didn't seem stressed. His favorite words were "awesome" and "amazing":
"I just walked through a spider web--awesome," he said, roving on a handheld. Even with Grammy hardware weighing them down, the members of Ozomatli remain humble and close to their roots as a jam band that started out playing for free to benefit social causes. There's good evidence that Carlos Santana sees them as his spiritual and musical heirs in the great West Coast tradition of Latin rock. When they were touring with Santana for Supernatural, he would hang out in Ozomatli's dressing room, listening to Bob Marley and dispensing deep anecdotes on the power of music as political critique.
"I think Bob Marley had it right: 'When my music hits you, you're still OK,'" Sierra says, recalling their conversation about the late Jamaican singer, whom Santana knew. "[Carlos told us] he wrote that right around the time he got shot [for writing songs about Jamaican politics]. That's the power of music. It has the same impact as a bullet, but you're still OK when my music hits you."
Even Herb Alpert wants to hang out with Ozomatli. The Tijuana Brass trumpeter joined them on the TV talk show circuit this spring to promote Whipped Cream & Other Delights Rewhipped, new remixes from his 1965 classic with the memorable, soft-porn-kitsch cover. "Herb Alpert, man, he rocks," says Sierra. "I had him sign my trumpet, it was awesome."
Sierra's trumpet résumé (which includes a gig with Tito Puente at age 19) is complemented by his raw-silk Spanish vocals, which contrast with the verbal bounce and pounce of Ozomatli's emcees. Where else can you find turntables, tablas and timbales in one place? Yerba Buena's crazy nuevo cocktails and combustibility and Los Lonely Boys' pure harmonies of blues-laced Latin rock conjure Ozomatli, but no one mixes the musical Molotov quite as well. It is world music made right here, so to speak, in the U.S. of L.A.
"In many ways our music represents where we are from, Los Angeles," says Sierra. "If you look at the makeup of our band, it wasn't on purpose, it's just who we are. We didn't try to get, you know, a Japanese guy that plays tabla, and a Mexican guy that plays Mediterranean, Middle Eastern styles. It wasn't like we put out an ad. To be in L.A. you have to know all different kinds of music because it's just a big melting pot."
If L.A. is the pot, Ozomatli is the stone-soup version of pozole, sporting hearty chunks of what each member brings to a worldwide block party. And if you've heard their hip-hop dance single "Saturday Night," you know this isn't just a party: It's a revolution.
"I don't want to get dogmatic about it," Sierra says. "There's people [at our shows] that are a little more conscious and other people just love the party side of our group, which is fine. It's cool." For those fans seeking meaning in their music, Sierra hopes the message is peace, justice and "universal harmony."
"I really believe that people should know what everyone else is feeling, which is always a problem. How do you tell people that they're hurting you?" Sierra says. "We're just letting people know, look, I'm a human being, I'm hurting. These are people that are hurting." As such, Sierra criticizes the current American involvement in the Middle East.
"I would rather pay $4 a gallon than realize that we're out there having all these people getting killed," Sierra says. "Like, for example, September 11. Instead of getting really angry at those people that were flying the planes into the building, we should ask, 'Why are they so angry at us? Why did they bring this to our home? Who made this happen?' Those are the questions that people should be asking, questions that people are afraid to ask."
Sierra compares armies with street gangs and bombings with drive-by shootings. He knows of which he speaks. Gang violence has touched his family. He sings "Cumbia de los Muertos," a tribute to dead loved ones, at every concert. "It's about a brother of mine that was murdered in the streets of L.A. That song is like lighting a big candle, to me personally."
He also has family members currently serving in the military, which fuels his criticism of the war. "You can't really talk about it, or else they'll think you're unpatriotic. No. It's basically about how much you love the person that's out there," Sierra says. "Revenge, there's never any satisfaction in it. I learned that whole thing quick about revenge in the streets through gangs and growing up."
Sierra also points to the theme of immigration. In "Who discovered America?" Ozomatli recasts a Cristobal Colon-type as merely the first in a long line of immigrants to fall in love with the idea of America--only to find out she's a rich bitch who'll snap your soul in two. Romance as conquest is nothing new, but this is La Conquista as a messed up, dysfunctional love story. "We kept it kind of poetic. It's just the duality between how someones heart can break from America, and what they thought they believed in," Sierra says. "Everyone's an immigrant. What really polluted everything was greed and power and politics. And that's really what, at the end of the day, makes something that could be beautiful into something really ugly real quick."
But Ozomatli's recording career seems to keep removing itself from ugly. Sierra recently recorded two tracks with piano legend Eddie Palmieri. The two are labelmates on Concord, and Sierra remembers idolizing the Latin music genius. "It's an honor. It's one of those amazing accolades you get when you get respect from the people in the business," Sierra says. Their next album, Don't Mess with the Dragon, is already in the can.
"I'm really excited about this new album. Before all our music has always been more jam-based. Now we're doing things a little more song-based. We're hoping for some radio play," Sierra says of the project, which features an encounter with China. "That's one country we haven't really visited musically. It would be amazing to just reach a whole new set of people, to see what they're about. That's what we really thrive on."
Ozomatli plays Wednesday, July 12 at 8 p.m. at the North Carolina Museum of Art Amphitheatre in Raleigh. Tickets are $15-$20.