Who:  Ozomatli

Where:  World Cafe Live Philadelphia

When:  Wednesday February 2nd, 2011

In their fourteen years together as a band, celebrated Los Angeles culture-mashers Ozomatli have gone from being hometown heroes to being named U.S. State Department Cultural Ambassadors.

Ozomatli has always juggled two key identities. They are the voice of their city and they are citizens of the world.

Their music— a notorious urban-Latino-and-beyond collision of hip hop and salsa, dancehall and cumbia, samba and funk, merengue and comparsa, East LA R&B and New Orleans second line, Jamaican ragga and Indian raga— has long followed a key mantra: it will take you around the world by taking you around L.A.

I can distinctly remember seeing Ozomatli sometime in the late 90’s as regulars at a local hip-hop club in Los Angeles I used to frequent called The Rootdown.  Ozomatli often shared the stage alongside other underground (and now famous) hip-hop/soul acts such as Blackaliscious, Breakestra, and Jurrasic Five.

The members of the band met through their affiliation with the Peace and Justice Center of Los Angeles, and their first performance was for pickers during a strike.  They began their career in the Los Angeles/San Diego and Mexican border-area club scene, and added MC Chali 2na, turntablist and world-famous Cut-Chemist, drummer William Marrufo, and sax player Jose Espinoza (DOB Unknown – January 5, 2011). Following an appearance in Vibe magazine, the group broke into the mainstream, releasing Ozomatli, their eponymous debut album, in June 1998 under the Almo Sounds Label.

Not having seen Ozomatli live in well over 10 years (ala 2001 at a Democratic National Convention protest in LA), I was a bit curious to see how they had evolved musically. The group has gone through a number of line-up changes while becoming highly visible in the anti-war and human rights political movements.

Ozomatli started with”Getting Ready for Saturday Night”, an uptempo hip-hop jam which was appropriate being that it was a cold and shitty Wednesday.  Led by MC Justin “El Nino” Poree, Ozomatli wasted no time in getting the audience hyped and dancing, while lead singer and trumpeter Asdrubal Sierra drove the band into Ozomatli’s staples “City of Angels” and the latin groove “Cumbia De Los Muertos”.

Displaying the group’s diversity, Ozomatli broke into a series of traditional Mexican Banda tunes, followed by a slowed down, and breath-taking version of the Arabic influenced “Believe” from their 2004 EP Street Signs. Guitarist Raul Pochecco brought out the Tres for the salsa jam “Dejame’ En Paz” which followed with a medly of latin infused covers including the U2 rock anthem “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.

As Ozomatli’s high-impact set winded down, band members slowly jumped off the stage joining the crowd with their horns and percussion instruments.  Ozomatli busted into a drum circle while slowly making their way toward the doors, leaving the audience wanting more.  Brilliant way to close it out.