LOS ANGELES -- Turntables, Latin horns, Indian tablas ... why not turtle shells, too?
Bassist Wil-Dog Abers and alto-saxist Jose Espinoza of the Los Angeles band Ozomatli tossed the idea around while sitting in the Silverlake district's Café Tropical.
"We're willing to put ourselves out there and bring whatever style [we can] into the music," the 24-year-old Espinoza said. "Most musics around the world are never heard [outside of their culture], and if we can bring some aspect into our sound and say, 'That's where this is from,' then that's cool. ... People try to keep their music to their own ethnicities -- that's something we're trying not to do."
Turtle-shell drumming, they added, would be an appropriate enhancement to the Ozomatli sound. It's a musical technique used in Jamaica, and the goal of their band, which recently released a self-titled debut album, is to embrace as many different-culture musical styles as possible.
On Ozomatli's debut, salsa-driven songs such as "Donde Se Fueron" and the single "Como Ves" sit alongside the dance-funk number "Cut Chemist Suite" and the Mexican-folk-turned-dub-reggae rap "Super Bowl Sundae."
Even if Ozomatli did stick with music derived from their own ethnic backgrounds, they'd still have a lot to work with. The band features 10 L.A.-based members of Latin, African, Asian and European descent, who incorporate hip-hop, funk, jazz, ska and a wide variety of Latin styles into a multi-layered, unfailingly buoyant sound.
"I wanted a band that would play any function, learn any type of song," said the 25-year-old Abers (born Will Abers), who founded the group three and a half years ago. "I just wanted to play anything. If somebody doesn't know that style of music, they work on it until they do, and then it just becomes us. We don't stay in one pocket, and that's how it's always been. We try to take a little of each one and build something, and hopefully a couple percent of each of those fans will dig us."
With vocals sung in Spanish and rapped in English, Ozomatli's lyrics are politically and socially charged. Since the band was essentially born out of protest, the confrontational nature of the lyrics is natural.
The Ozomatli story began with a conflict between the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and 30 of its workers, Abers among them.
A month-long sit-in strike over working conditions left Abers and co-workers without jobs. However, the resulting settlement gave them a year's use of a building, which they turned into a community center for L.A. youth, with Abers assembling the band to raise money for the center at benefit concerts. (Political and social benefits remain a priority on the Ozomatli agenda).
Ozomatli also feature guitarist/vocalist Raul Pacheco, trumpeter/vocalist Asdru Sierra, tabla-player Jiro Yamaguchi, DJ Cut Chemist (born Lucas McFadden), rapper Chali 2na (born Charles Stewart), percussionist Justin Poree, drummer William Marrufo and multi-instrumentalist Ulises Bella. (Both Chali 2na and DJ Cut Chemist also work with the highly regarded hip-hop group Jurassic 5.) Unlike Abers and Espinoza, who have only known each other for four years, many bandmembers go back much further -- some having met in junior-high school. "We all came together and were like, 'Hey, I know you,' " Abers recalled.
Calling Ozomatli "the soundtrack to the revolution," Abers attributed the celebratory quality of his band's music to its first public forums, which included block parties as well as benefits. Celebratory or not, though, Ozomatli's subject matter strays far from party themes.
"Chota," with a Spanish-sung chorus that translates to, "Careful, here come the cops," zeroes in on police brutality, while the soul-rap number "Coming War" predicts a revolution, with Chali's rap beginning, "Can you imagine this world without oppression?"
"[In 'Coming War'] we all got together and brainstormed what we wanted to say in the song," Abers said. "Everybody put their own issues in -- really specifically what they wanted to say -- and Chali took that and wrote a verse out of it."
"The rhythm will make you move, but I think the best part of the record is the messages in the songs," Espinoza added. "Lyrically, we go from the stupidest things to the heaviest things. We talk about a monkey who can dance [and talk] about social and political issues, how things are, police brutality, gang violence, how history is written in a weird way -- things that are real."
From all evidence, Ozomatli -- who have toured on the new-rock festival H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) and the more punk-oriented Warped tour -- love challenging their audience.
For several minutes on the day they were interviewed, Abers and Espinoza actually entertained the idea of opening for the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys on a teen-dream pop tour. While they cracked up at just the idea of the hypothetical jaunt, Abers insisted he wasn't entirely kidding.
"I think that would be dope!" he said, raising his hands up in the air for emphasis and leaning back in his chair. "Believe me, I called my booking agent. That's a challenge.
"You want to challenge those teeny-boppers," he continued. "Because there would be like 10 percent that would be like, 'Ozomatli's down with the Spice Girls, all right!' "