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.
Ozomatli's socially conscious, bilingual collision of musical cultures -- rock, funk, hip-hop, jazz, Latin -- and multiracial makeup 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's 18 years later and time has a way of smoothing out even the roughest edges, it's still a bit of a surprise to find that Ozomatli's just-released Ozomatli Presents Ozokids 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 it's singing about Moose on the Loose.
What happened, guys?
"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 the band -- which is headlining the MusicArte de Fort Worth festival Saturday -- says the idea stuck. In the meantime, other kids-related projects came Ozomatli's way. The band scored the soundtrack for the Happy Feet Two and Sesame Street: Elmo's Musical Monsterpiece video games and were included on a PBS Kids collection.
But Ozokids is the first time the group has put out an entire album of children's music with its distinctive "Ozo" logo. And now the guys even do shows aimed specifically at children.
"It's not an easy audience," says Abers, 39, laughing. "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.
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 Ozokids. Instead, expect tracks from the group's nearly 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 chance 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 says. "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."