The Los Angeles band Ozomatli was born in a tumultuous time in its city's history. Rodney King. Reginald Denny. "If it don't fit, you must acquit." The Northridge earthquake. Rage Against the Machine on the radio and gangsta rap on the rise.
Its socially conscious, bilingual collision of musical cultures -- rock, funk, hip-hop, jazz, Latin -- and multiracial make-up reflected L.A.'s conflicted cosmopolitanism of the early to mid-'90s. In fact, group founder and bassist Will "Wil-Dog" Abers was known in political circles as a leftist activist, and his band's first performance was not a traditional concert but in support of picketers during a strike.
So, even though it has been 18 years and time has a way of smoothing out even the roughest edges, it is still a bit of a surprise to find that Ozomatli's just-released Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz, is a children's album. In 1998, the group -- named after an Aztec god of dance -- sang of Coming War, not exactly lullaby material. Now the band is singing about Moose on the Loose.
What happened, guys?
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"We were on the road in Chicago about 2 1/2 years ago, doing a gig at the House of Blues on a Tuesday, and no one [was buying tickets]," says Abers on the phone from Los Angeles. "We couldn't figure it out. We had played six months earlier on a Friday, and it was fine. We started asking around and everyone was saying, 'I can't find a babysitter.' Then our drummer said, 'Maybe we should do a kids' album.'"
It might have been meant as something of a joke, but for the band -- which will headline the MusicArte de Fort Worth festival Saturday -- it was an idea that stuck. In the meantime, other kids-related projects came the group's way -- Ozomatli scored the soundtrack for the Happy Feet Two and Sesame Street: Elmo's Musical Monsterpiece video games and was included on a PBS Kids collection.
But Ozokidz is the first time the band has put out an entire album of children's music with its distinctive "Ozo" logo. Abers says making it wasn't all that different from making any other album.
"It's fair to say that if we had made an adult record, it would have probably been the same musically," he says. "Though we went more simple, instead of more complicated, in terms of the playing."
The guys have even done shows for children.
"It's not an easy audience," laughs Abers, 39. "You don't just stand there and play and hope they like it. You've got to engage every minute.... It's different and it's awesome at the same time. In 40 minutes, I'm so drenched and tired, more than at a [regular] Ozomatli concert."
Big in Nepal
But it's not as if Ozomatli shows aimed at adults are quiet, polite affairs. The shows are known for a danceable enthusiasm that at least one time has gotten the band into trouble.
In 2004, Abers, percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi and their manager were arrested after a South by Southwest showcase in Austin when they took the show out of the club and into the streets with a huge, snaking conga line. Because it was after 2 a.m., they were violating the city's noise ordinance.
While the guys won't be aiming to get arrested Saturday, Abers says they won't be playing songs from Ozokidz. Instead, the audience should expect tracks from the group's near 20-year career, a polyphonic spree of global rhythms informed by recent trips to Asia and Africa. In 2008, the sextet became cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department and got the opportunity to travel to Nepal, India, Jordan, Tunisia, South Africa, Myanmar, Madagascar and Egypt.
At first, Abers was a bit nervous about playing in places where he thought the band might get a hostile reception. "Everyone was saying they might start throwing rocks if they don't like you. Other bands have had that experience," he recalls. "We were the first band to ever play in Nepal. All these famous people go there for spiritual reasons but they never bring their culture there."
But Abers found he didn't need to worry. "It was super-cool," he says. "If you're from Nepal and all you know from America is some movie or something, and here comes this band playing hip-hop, half-singing in Spanish, learning some of their nursery rhymes and playing them onstage, and saying 'What's up, Nepal?' in Nepalese, well, it wasn't what they expected."
Almost broke up
Also a bit unexpected for Abers is that Ozomatli has been going for nearly two decades despite a constantly shifting lineup of singers, rappers, players and DJs that has seen the band balloon up to as many as 10 members at times. Abers has also kept himself busy with side projects like his alter ego, El Gavachillo, which does banda (traditional music of northern Mexico) takes on tracks like the Clash's Police on My Back.
"I've never been in a relationship for 18 years," he jokes. "We've had some conflicts and a couple of the guys have said they didn't want to do it anymore. About six years ago, we were asking, 'Should we keep doing it?'"
Still, Abers has persevered, even if the political fire from which the band emerged doesn't burn quite as brightly as it once did.
"We're not young anymore and that's a young person's movement and they are the ones that drive that," he says. "But we still support those movements, like the Occupy movements where we went and played. Our involvement has changed from the frontlines to more of a sideline support."
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571