By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
From early protest gigs, Ozo sold out residencies at the Viper Room and Opium Den with lines stretching down the Sunset Strip. The band signed to a label called Almo Sounds, the post-A&M project of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and released their anthemic, self-titled debut, which established them as one of the go-to bands of the so-called “Latin rock” scene. They’ve won two Grammys and a Latin Grammy. The awards have fed more opportunity, especially in a changing media landscape trying to adapt to the much-belated realization that the Spanish-speaking markets were not only demographically ignored but also that television shows need funky Latino music to support certain scenes.
Blackman says when the band is feeling jaded, they call their demographic niche “Spanish-language music for gringos,” a truth that they’ve all had to grudgingly accept. The band itself has appeared in an episode of Sex and the City and performed on last season’s Dancing With the Stars. “NBC loves their stuff,” Blackman says. They’ve done CSI, Ugly Betty, Shark, Las Vegas. HBO used “Saturday Night” for their fall promos; the Los Angeles Lakers use their song “City of Angels” a lot. Last week they performed “Afterparty” on The Today Show, and Al Roker did his funkiest dance.
“They’ve become their own paradigm,” Blackman says. “Supervisors will say, ‘I need some upbeat, Latinesque, party-sounding Ozo-like music in this scene.’ It’s like they are their own genre, in a way.”
It was this so-called paradigm that attracted the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs, via a broadcast on one of America’s most popular gringo news outlets, National Public Radio. A department official had heard an interview with the band, and was looking for an act to perform in different parts of the world where the bureau believed it might send a message.
Blackman did a little research on the history of the government’s cultural-diplomacy efforts, and what she learned helped her to make a case to the band. Beginning in the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower started what was to become a landmark series of globetrotting musical programs sponsored by the Department of State. Among those who traveled on the 20-year program were Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.
“The State Department still kind of looks back and admires what they did in the ’50s and ’60s with Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck and all these people,” says Tim Receveur of the Bureau of International Information Programs at the State Department. “It was really effective with sending jazz musicians over, but we’re trying to evolve, see what people are listening to now, younger kids, hip-hop/rap and rock.”
Blackman took the idea to the band in early 2007, and was ready to argue her point: “Our mantra in general has been to say yes to most opportunities. Just say yes. And this was just one of those things. It was like, ‘Okay, this sounds cool and kooky and weird — and let’s try it!’”
It was a polarizing pitch.
“I was, like, ‘Fuck this shit,’” Porée says. “I was totally against it.” When the band started, he says, he wasn’t that politically active. But he learned and absorbed, and became part of an L.A. musical movement that was based on protest and consciousness. So his reflex response at the time was, “Basically, they’re just using us, and we’re like puppets. The U.S. government’s image around the world is shit, and they’re just using us to soften the blow.”
Pacheco, though wary, paid close attention to his moral compass, one that gets tested a lot in a business where the best-paying gigs often come from the cigarette companies. “We had contradictions within ourselves even without going to the State Department. We’ve played music for booze companies. People say we sold out — but we sold out when we signed a record deal. Do you know what it means to start caring about money coming in every month?”
Plus, he adds, “We were the only band they could ask. We’re mixing up way more stuff. We’re rocking, using beats that are Middle Eastern, playing reggae music over cumbia beats and all this type of fusion.”
Ultimately, it came down to a vote. Over the years, the band has supported as many as 15 full-time touring musicians. A core of six remain from the initial lineup, along with drummer Calire, and though it hasn’t been all roses, and the band has nearly disintegrated a few times for reasons either financial, chemical or personal, they banged out a deal among the half-dozen members that splits all publishing rights evenly, which creates a democracy among them. It’s a bitch being in the studio with six equal voices — apparently they nearly break up every time they step near a mixing board. (In fact, the band is in the beginning stages of recording a new full-length for the New York–based Mercer Street label, an offshoot of the high-flying Downtown Records imprint.) The democracy makes for a lively discussion when something like songwriting structure, sequencing or “representing the Bush administration” gets thrown in the mix.