Eclectic Ozomatli is a musical stew

Expect anything from punk to funk to African

Scene: Clubs/Bars/Nightlife

October 14, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

This city revels in odd combinations -- we've got a sushi/gelato/round-the-clock breakfast joint, a local punk band led by a NASA engineer; and, well, John Waters.

So, Los Angeles-based Ozomatli -- with a sound that blends hip-hop, funk, punk, Middle Eastern, African and Latin influences -- ought to be right at home. (One song on its new album is called "Believe.")

The band swings through the area this week, with shows at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia tomorrow, the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Saturday and the Recher Theatre in Towson on Monday.

Ozomatli has a large following on the West Coast, and it has had considerable exposure. The band played at the Latin Grammy Awards last month. Its songs have been featured in 11 movies, including Any Given Sunday and Inspector Gadget, and it toured Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States this year. Street Signs, the band's third record, was released this summer.

The name Ozomatli comes from a day in the Aztec calendar. It also means "the new harvest, dance and music," said Ulises Bella, who plays sax and sings backup.

The band started informally -- eight to 10 guys got together regularly at a community center in downtown Los Angeles for jam sessions.

"Everyone came from their own music," said Bella, who has been with the band since its inception. "We all brought our own flavors."

Band members have changed over the years and have included "Mexicans, African-Americans, Creole, Japanese, Jews, Filipinos, Cubans and a Scotsman," said Bella. "It does feel like a United Nations kind of vibe in the band."

That multiracial and multicultural background contributes to the group's style. "Ever since the band started, we never stuck to any particular theme," continued Bella. "We weren't afraid of playing hip-hop in front of a salsa crowd. Because of this we've got a really eclectic fan base."

But, you probably won't find many conservatives in the audience. Ozomatli vocally opposes the war in Iraq and actively supports lefty causes.

Shows begin with a samba line through the audience -- so concertgoers should keep an eye on back and side doors before the show to catch the band's entrance.

"They have a good rapport with the audience," said Mark Schroeder of The Other Side, a record store in Towson. He has seen the group four times.

The samba line breaks down barriers between the performers and the audience, said the band's trumpet player and lead vocalist, Asdrubal Sierra. "If we were not on stage, we'd be in the audience," he said.

After the show, band members snake through the crowd beating their drums. Sometimes they will stop and talk to fans, sometimes they will keep playing, and a party atmosphere will spill onto the streets.

This got them in trouble this year in Austin, Texas, when the band provided an impromptu encore outside a club. The police, enforcing a city noise ordinance, dispersed a crowd with pepper spray and arrested two band members and the band's manager.

"Oh, you know, music is really dangerous," Sierra said. "But thank God that is over," he continued. Charges will be dropped if, after a six-month period, they've caused no additional trouble.

But, Sierra admitted that as the band is becoming more and more popular, it is getting more difficult to pull off the samba lines. "It can become mayhem, people starting pushing," he said. "If it gets really crazy, we march all the way out."

The group can usually control the crowd though, he noted. "We've been doing it for 10 years," he said.

Ozomatli plays at the Recher Theatre on Monday. Tickets cost $20, and doors open at 7 p.m. Brazilian Girls are also billed. The Recher is at 512 York Road in Towson. Call 410-337-7178 or visit www. rechertheatre.com. For more information about the band visit www.ozomatli.com.

For more club events, see Page 34.

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