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Music Makers: Ozomatli

February 3, 1999

SEATTLE (AP) _ Ozomatli takes the stage like a carnival parade, dancing into the spotlight with a multicultural music revolution that combines Spanish lyrics, English-language rap and irresistible rhythm.

If the new millennium opens up a world with fewer borders, Ozomatli _ the name is borrowed from the Aztec monkey god of passion and dance _ may be just the band to take us there.

Ozo’s roots in East Los Angeles provide evocative guitar, resonant brass and political punch. But salsa, cumbia and South American folk songs are only the beginning _ there’s also a heavy dose of rap, reggae, funk, hiphop, acid jazz and pulsing turntable riffs.

The result? A wildly danceable melange that is brand-new and familiar at the same time.

``When you walk through L.A., you hear all these sounds,″ says Ulises Bella, who plays tenor saxophone and clarinet. ``Just take a walk and listen. That’s the music of Ozomatli.″

``We’re influenced by things around us _ the kind of music that we listen to,″ says Chicago-born rapper Chali 2na.

``It’s not rocket science,″ says funk-driven bass player Wil-Dog, the guy who called the band together.

The songs _ almost all original on the band’s first album _ take on topics ranging from police brutality to Salvadoran revolution, from party time to heartache.

But even the most serious lyrics are laid over festive, driving rhythm.

Wil-Dog radiates joy as he high steps rubber-legged through the numbers with 2na, conga-player Justin ``Nino″ Poree and other musicians who occasionally play with the group.

``It’s people’s music,″ he says. ``We consider it our duty to get people up and dancing.″

The key is an eclectic three-man percussion section made up of Poree, former elementary-school teacher Jiro Yamaguchi on bongos and tabla (picked up during a stint at an Indian restaurant) and Latin-funk drummer William Marrufo. At 22, Poree is the band’s youngest member. Yamaguchi, at 30, is the oldest.

Ozo’s core emerged from a jam session at a 1995 sit-in to play political benefits and other activist functions. As word got around, the band began filling local dance halls.

Since then, Ozo has been winning fans in a hodgepodge of venues across the country, from Western to hiphop to last year’s Warped Tour, from psychedelic _ a shindig last summer at Wavy Gravy’s California spread _ to high-tech. The band wound up last year on TV’s ``Late Night With Conan O’Brien,″ and this month made one of the top-10 lists of hard-to-find musical favorites offered by New York Times jazz and pop critics.

Ozo’s nine to 15 members _ the on-stage presence grows when they play at home _ luxuriate in the freedom they’ve created by knocking down the musical barriers.

``This would never work with other bands _ too close-minded,″ says Asdru Sierra, whose soaring falsetto is an Ozo trademark and whose trumpet rounds out the heart-lifting brass section with Bella and Jose ``Crunchy″ Espinosa at alto sax.

The aim is to respect each musical thread in the lively tapestry, ``but bring it into a new light so people can see it,″ says vocalist and guitar player Raul Pacheco, a former political consultant and father of two.

``Not everything we do works,″ Wil-Dog cautions.

``But the fact remains, we ain’t scared to try,″ 2na says.

``Sometimes I think you have to know the rules before you can break them,″ Sierra says.

Counterculture ideals are central to Ozo’s identity.

``We didn’t get a band together to land a record deal,″ Pacheco said in an interview after Ozo won scores of new fans at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s Labor Day weekend music fest. ``We were just jamming and somebody liked us.″

The stampede began in 1997, when the band was packing them into the Dragonfly club in Los Angeles.

``All of a sudden we’re all going to lunch every day,″ Pacheco says.

Record-company representatives would suggest ``two of you guys come. And we’d all show up!″ recalls Wil-Dog, cracking up at the memory.

Some had trouble with the band’s one-of-a-kind mix of styles and collective approach.

``We don’t know where to put you,″ Sierra whines in mocking imitation.

``They were like, `Who’s the front man?‴ he says, shaking his head. ``We’re like, `Dude, we’re a BAND!‴

So Ozo finally signed with musician-owned Almo Sounds, which had no problem handling music that defies pigeonholing.

Ozomatli will be touring this winter and spring with the punk band Offspring. Known dates include: Cleveland, Feb. 24; New York City, Feb. 26-28; Mississauga, Ontario, March 3; Montreal, Quebec, March 4 or 5; Pittsburgh, March 7; Philadelphia, March 9; Washington, D.C., March 10. Dates for other points in the East and for cities in the Midwest and West have not yet been set. The tour is expected to end in April.

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