Ozomatli: Activism with a Beat

When Ozomatli’s sophomore album, Embrace The Chaos, was released on September 11, 2001, it sat in vacant record stores all over the country as all eyes and hearts were fixated on the most catastrophic day in contemporary American history. While our entire country paused to absorb the magnitude of 9/11, Ozomatli felt it important to give their fans an opportunity to escape the pain and confusion of the Twin Towers by keeping all their show dates, and allowing them to rock out to their conscious rhythms.

Three years later Ozomatli is back, and the events of 9/11 greatly shaped the sound of their new album, Street Signs. Ozomatli explores America’s newly inextricable connection to the Muslim world and culture by infusing Arabian and North African sounds with their already perfected blend of Afro-Latin rhythms and Hip-Hop. The results on Street Signs are wonderful, and as always Ozo pulls no punches with their anti-war convictions and social critiques.

From Gatwick, England, Ozomatli’s Jason Poree talked with AllHipHop.com Alternatives about the reasons why Ozomatli’s musical calls to activism aren’t just talk, but a way of life for the band.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: The general consensus among your fans was that the second album wasn’t as good as the first. Which did you prefer?

Justin: I liked different elements about all the albums; I don’t really like any one album more than another. The first album - it’s like you spend your life writing that album and there are not expectations. So the first album is the easier album to make. Then you start to tour that album and you can end up touring for a year or more, and in that time your expected to record another album. While you’re touring you’re suppose to be writing the next album, and we didn’t really do that, so the second album kind of got put together in fragments and there wasn’t as much focus.

AHHA: Your last album, Embrace the Chaos, was released on September 11, 2001. While every other music act in the country was canceling their appearance dates, you all kept your dates. Why?

Justin: For many different reasons. One is that music is a way of soothing the soul and it helps people forget about their worries. We went to New York two weeks after September 11th happened, and it was just a weird place - people were just walking around in a daze. When we played that show in New York, a lot of people wrote on our website that they left that show feeling a certain enjoyment in their heart. So for that moment in time people could step away from all the destruction and heavy heartedness.

AHHA: With your first album being so well received, everyone was eagerly anticipating your second, and then on the release day of your sophomore effort, the album that’s suppose to push into the forefront, 9/11 happens and for the next nine months nobody’s even thinking about music. Did you think about that at all?

Justin: I don’t know man; I had so many different thoughts that were going through my head. I mean, yeah it’s unfortunate that our album came out on that day. It’s like the whole country shut down for a year consumer wise, but what can you expect? It was complete culture shock for us to have something like that happen on our soil.

AHHA: How did the members of Ozomatli find each other?

Justin: We met at a community center in L.A actually. After organizing a protest to earn rights to a facility, Wil-Dog started a foundation called the Peace and Justice Center. In order to raise money to keep the organization and the building going, they started having bands, and comedians and all kinds of performers come through. So Ozomatli was one of the bands that started playing there to raise money, but it was basically just a jam band and anybody who wanted to play could show up. It wasn’t really a band yet and it wasn’t called Ozomatli, it was just like come and jam and we’re gonna have a party and raise money.

AHHA: So how do Cut Chemist and Chali 2na fit in the mix?

Justin: Chali and Cut were definitely pinnacle in the formation of Ozomatli. Cut was there from the beginning in the Peace and Justice Center days - without him the group would not be what it is today. He is one of the most lyrical, innovative and musical deejays I know. Chali 2na had been in a band with Wil-dog (founder of Ozomatli) long before Ozomatli got together. Chali and Wil’s step-brother Matt were also graph writers and used to piece together back in the day, and Wil would hang with those two and piece as well. I remember the first time Chali sat in with us was at a club in Hollywood called Moguls. We were playing with a newly formed band, Black Eyed Peas, and prior to that gig we had no rapper and were more of an instrumental jam band of sorts. When Chali sat in the combination fit so right, and Wil asked him to do more shows with us. Next thing we knew Chali was part of the band.

AHHA: How did Chali split his time between you and J5?

After the first album Chali toured with us but was also committed to J5. Both bands were blowing up at the same time and J5 was Chali's first commitment, so he decided to do J5 full time.

AHHA: So even before the music came, Ozomatli was rooted in activism and creating change?

Justin: Yeah very much so, that’s what we’re about.

Ozomatli is:

Jiro Yamaguchi: Percussion

Wil-Dog Abers: Bass, Vocals

Justin Poree: Percussion, MC, Vocals

Asdrubal Sierra: Trumpet, Lead Vocals

Raul Pacheco: Guitar, Lead Vocals

Ulises Bella: Tenor Sax, Clarinet, Vocals

Michael Duffy: Drums

Rene ‘Spinobi’ Dominguez: Turntablist

Jabu: MC