OZOMATLI | 04.13.07 | LONDON

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Words by: Sarah Hagerman :: Images from www.ozomatli.com

Ozomatli :: 04.13.07 :: Shepherd’s Bush Empire :: London, England

Friday the 13th was lucky for London’s Ozomatli fans. This was the band’s first gig in the Big Smoke in nearly two years and the buzz was spilling out into the streets in front of the Empire as ticket scalpers desperately searched for extras to sell. Inside, the crowd downed their pints and argued with security lackeys who didn’t want them standing in the aisles.

Opening act, Cultura Londres offered up a serviceable if not particularly exciting blend of Latin jazz infused hip-hop and soul. Singer and guitarist Angelita Jimenez had great range and her voice meshed well with the mix of instruments and samples, but MC Tiago’s rapping was muddled and incoherent. Perhaps this had to do with the sound at the Empire, or perhaps he was trying to sound like Andre 3000 and forgot that annunciation is an important skill to master before attempting vocal speed. No matter, they are a young band with potential and have time to develop better stage presence and a better stage show. Although it was fantastic to see some Brazilian capoeira dancing, the dancers seemed a bit awkward and ran out of moves too quickly, with a lot of starts and stops that killed the momentum. Perhaps I am vastly ignorant of that style of dance, but kicking and punching the air out of time to the backing band is more of a distraction than a welcome addition.

To be fair, opening for Ozomatli would intimidate most bands. Although a solid studio band, the gritty, explosive fire of Ozomatli’s live shows has earned them a reputation as a must-see concert act. Having seen them before, I can throw my support behind the hype. Still, with expectation and pressure high for this show, and an audience of famously bored and jaded Londoners, I was half expecting to be disappointed. Then the house lights went down and the seated audience stood (yes the whole audience, even the guy on crutches behind me). People were clearly anxious to move.

Bombastic opener “City of Angels,” from their new album Don’t Mess with the Dragon, gave MC Jabu an opportunity to show off his skilful rhyming over a dirty funk beat. This shifted into the driving percussion and salsa trumpet trilling of “Dos Cosas Ciertas,” which turned into a booty-shaking clap along.

Ozomatli’s horn section has always been, from my experience, what gives joyous heart to their hip soul. The set veered between old and new songs much like this, with drum line bridges connecting Jabu’s old school style hip hop and the brass section’s sharp, fast staccato. Older party anthems such as “Saturday Night” were wedged in with more overtly rebellious material. New song “Magnolia Soul” is a damning criticism of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, set to a bouncy Creole jazz backdrop. When the stage banter turned to “screw the president!” mode, the background music turned Middle Eastern, gradually growing into a cor anglais-accompanied wail that broke down into a punk song. Ozomatli connects musical styles that represent the oppressed (Creole jazz, Middle Eastern funk) with those that, at least initially, were founded in the spirit of political rebellion (punk rock). The genre shifts are directly connected to the message.

It’s a fine balance between politics and partying, and it could be argued they sacrificed a bit of the former for the latter at this show. Yet, it is a welcome change to find a political band that chooses immense positivity over dour screeds. Their activist roots are still firmly intact, but they seem to have resolved themselves with the fact that having a good time is its own form of empowerment. After all, if we are still singing and dancing “The Man” hasn’t completely got us down. In that spirit, this show had a distinctive house party atmosphere. At one point, Jabu asked everyone to introduce themselves to the stranger next to them. I’ve heard bands make similar requests before, but I was pleasantly surprised that a London audience actually complied.

There were a few cover song mash-ups, including “The Tide is High” (once again reaching back to the punk roots albeit with one of Blondie’s pop numbers) while Jabu jumped from stage to audience and back again. Everyone in the band was dancing and switching instruments while percussionists Jiro Yamaguchi and Justin Poree threw their various drums and noisemakers into the air during their solos. It got the whole audience moving, and by the end, from my vantage point on the first floor balcony, the Empire was a sea of waving arms and shaking butts.

As per usual, Ozomatli ended the show by jumping into the audience and playing their way out into the street. I watched them disappear into the sea of faces chanting “Ozomatli ya se fue!” Security had long given up trying to keep people out of the aisles and just let everyone spill out of their seats, fated to eventually wander out into the street to face last trains home or search for a pub with a late license. For a few hours the Empire was turned into an East L.A. house party, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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