I first heard of Ozomatli from an old roommate of mine, who went to one of their concerts last year and reported back to me that “they rock!” Thanks to the internet, musical exchanges between generations is now commonplace. Again and again, I’m surprised and impressed when I hear high school, middle school, and even elementary school students singing along on their Ipods to some old Beatles or Led Zeppelin song. In addition to newer bands, most of whom I’ve never heard of, they are familiar with all the bands that I grew up listening to. Their musical knowledge is truly encyclopedic. My former housemate is no exception. Although she is only thirty to my fifty, her eclectic knowledge of the musical world is truly astounding, and I bought more than one CD I’d never heard of based on her recommendation, and never regretted a single one of these purchases. So when she texted me last month to let me know that Ozomatli would be playing in Portland this month, I promptly went online and got tickets.
Now, days after the concert, not only do I not regret this purchase, but for the first time feel that I can finally understand Deadheads. You know, those people that loved the Grateful Dead so much that they followed them everywhere, selling T-shirts and glow sticks just to earn enough money for gas to get to the next city where they’d be playing. Ridiculous, or so I’d always thought. Careers were put on hold, sometimes permanently. Family and friends were abandoned, destined to receive nothing more from them than postcards from obscure venues or perhaps a short visit if and when a venue was coincidentally booked near home.
Like many have said of the Grateful Dead, sometimes the singing wasn’t really anything to write home about, even on a postcard. But I’ve heard tell that there was some kind of magic in that particular configuration of human energy, that combination of instruments, a certain timely genius of lyrical creation and delivery in that political and social space and time. And so it is with Ozomatli. I won’t go into the impressive details of the band’s considerable global accomplishments now, but here is a link if you are interested in learning more about them. www.ozomatli.com/sit.php?content=about
Where I want to take you is to the concert itself. I will, however, say first that the very fact that Ozomatli exists as the nine member band that it is, with the particular members it has, is a slap in the face to the status quo. For example, Chali 2na, rapper extraordinaire of the band, is an African American Muslim, while the kick-ass breakdancing bass player is of Jewish descent. Other ethnicities, including Asian, Latino, Indian, and Caucasian are also represented. So if they can do it, why can’t we? That is the question that their sheer existence, their ability to successfully combine, and together, to rock this jam-packed house from the first note to the last forces us to ask ourselves.
The audience at the concert is as diverse as the band itself. Dreadlocked youth reeking of marijuana sway alongside clean-cut college students drinking beer. In the under-18 section, children frolick, sliding on the wood floor of the Crystal Ballroom in their socks, collapsing on top of each other in laughter as their parents chat, watching from the corners of their eyes. Graying bureaucrats straight from work, still dressed in their official credibility costumes, make space for white-haired, tattooed, old folks with multiple facial piercings. Balding middle-aged white men in Dockers stand stiffly beside Latina hotties wearing big hoop earrings and red mini-skirts with matching heels.
But they only stand stiffly until Ozomatli hits the stage and begins to play. It’s then that these men are relieved at last of the white man’s burden, leaving them free to dance, free of the punishment of the many for the sins of the few, free to celebrate with others the beauty of our common humanity. For when Ozomatli plays, it is E Pluribus Unum made manifest in the physical world. From many, one. Under their musical tutelage, we all become one beat, one rhythm, one people. All the individual contributions of our formerly separate collectives are showcased, honored, celebrated and revered by the magical human sythesizers that are Ozomatli.
Individually, a saxophone belts out some happy blues, an electric guitar screams a hard rock riff, a trumpet drives us to Dixieland before beaming us to down to Rio, a drum marches us onto glory. But together, ah, together, it is salsa, rhumba, hip-hop, rock. We are India, Africa, Iraq and Cuba. We are America. Go ahead, try not to dance. I dare you. Try not to feel the joy that is seeping into your bones, the celebration of the marriage of all that is best in every culture and it’s expression in music.
There are times that our babblefish translators become overtaxed as the song lyrics switch back and forth from Spanish to English and back again, moments that nobody knows for sure exactly what is being said—but none of us care. It does not stop our jubilation, because we all understand instinctively the spirit in which it is being said. It is the spirit of respect and acceptance, of celebration and hope. It is the spirit of refusal to participate in, or profit from, injustice. It is this spirit that Ozomatli embodies, from their first moment onstage, to the moment in which they bring beaming children up to the stage to play their instruments, introducing them as the next generation, to the moment at which they wind their way through the audience, playing, touching hands, to the moment they stand signing autographs on t-shirts and ticket stubs.
I had the opportunity to say to Chali 2na on my way out “This was the best concert I’ve ever been to in my life—and I’m old!”. As I said it, I realized that it was completely true. I’ve been to far more concerts than most people my age, starting back in the 70’s, when I often ditched school and hitchhiked to the Forum in L.A, where I saw everybody from the Rolling Stones to Earth, Wind, and Fire. Just this last year or so, I’ve seen Stevie Wonder, Modest Mouse, and Cheryl Crow, just to name a couple of the more famous ones, in addition to others less well known. Although my voice was only one of many surrounding him, his hand, busy signing an autograph, froze in mid-air, and he turned and looked directly into my eyes and said “That’s the highest compliment we could have gotten. Thank you.” This final exchange was merely one more instance of a two hour exchange of appreciation between band and audience. I praise Ozomatli’s contributions towards making all human interactions more of that kind of exchange.
That is all.