Last night at the Gibson Showroom in Beverly Hills, polyrhythmic LA band Ozomatli celebrated the impending release of their fifth studio album, Fire Away, to a crowd of friends and industry folk. The collective, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, played a 40-minute set of mostly new tracks, along with a few classics featuring longtime on-again-off-again member Chali2na.
Most bands lucky enough to celebrate fifteen years as a band have released twice as many records as Ozomatli by this point, but such creative births apparently don't come easy for the band. A six-member democracy (augmented with longtme drummer Mario Calire), Ozo's players each has to sign off on the direction the sound is going to take, and with so many hard-headed, well-intentioned musicians contemplating each move, the process in the studio can get messy. (Longtime manager Amy Blackman says that the band nearly falls apart during the recording of every album, and that this one was no different.)
Yesterday was bassist Wil-dog's birthday, and after a quick burst of "Happy Birthday," the band stepped onto the Gibson Showroom's stage, seven members strong, to display what had been so hard to create. They have a new record deal with Mercer Street/Downtown Records, and played a few of the album's highlights, the best of which, "Gay Vatos in Love," is a wonderfully anthemic celebration of the Underdog -- gay Latinos who have to express their affection in hiding. Singer/guitarist Raul Pacheco introduced the song by explaining that the band, from its start a protest group, was merely continuing its tradition by addressing an inequality. It's a beast of a song. "The more I hear Morrissey the more I feel all right," he sang, as saxophone player Uli Bella hummed his horn along.
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The band performed the first single, "It's Only Paper," a catchy song about money sung by Asdru Sierra and featuring a rap interlude by Justin Poree (who sings on a fantastic track called "45"). Another song, called "Malagasy Shock," is about the near-electrocution of Raul Pacheco while the band was performing as U.S. cultural ambassadors in Madagascar, and features frantic percussion by Jiro Yamaguchi. (I traveled to Burma with Ozomatli last year, and wrote an LA Weekly cover story on the adventure; read it here.) In fact, the band continues to travel to all corners of the globe for the U.S. State Department; they're headed to China and Mongolia in the spring, and were invited to play in Pakistan -- which they had to decline, deeming such a trip a bit too heavy-duty for a band with family and kids back in the States.
But while it's great that they're ambassadors, it's not necessary to ride along with them; their records feel like travel documents because of the way they incorporate so many sounds. Fire Away comes out on April 20.