Easily one of the best live bands around today, Ozomatli have been playing their infectious mixture of hip hop, cumbia, funk, salsa and merengue for the best part of 14 years. Throw in the Indian raga influence and a little drum ‘n’ bass and the music is all instantly recognisable but also brilliant to dance to – the hallmarks of the Ozomatli sound. They’ve always displayed a huge commitment to social causes too, but their activism has always come with a positive message rather than with a self-righteous fury.
Their last album “Don’t mess with the Dragon” came out in 2007, so this gig isn’t to promote new material as such. Ozomatli tend to visit the UK around festival time and they are the perfect festival band. The line up tonight is a seven piece but I’ve seen them with as many as ten members on stage before. Of the seven here, four of them take it in turns to perform lead vocals on different songs so it keeps things fluid with four potential front people. Asdru Sierra, the trumpet player (and occasional keyboards) is the main vocalist tonight and has a great vocal range, singing all the songs in Spanish and punctuating them with horn riffs that are jazzy and funky.
Their songs are complimented by percussionist Justin Poree’s rap vocals which are good in that party time MC style but not great. Still, the original line up of Ozo had Chali 2na from Jurassic Five on rap vocals and his distinctive deep baritone would always be impossible to replace (maybe wth the possible exception of Chuck D’s for loudness and resonance).
Justin is a good front man though, easily splitting his duties between playing various percussive instruments, rapping or dancing wildly and hyping up the crowd. The other main vocalist is guitarist Raul Pacheco who is delighted to announce that his cousin is in the front row of the audience and he hasn’t seen him for years. Also singing in Spanish, his guitar playing is funky with occasional rock riffs yet all the while restrained. You get the feeling he could really solo if he wanted to but this band is about a collective sound. A lot of the songs lend themselves to crowd participation either though chanting or syncopated clapping and the Brighton crowd are keen to participate. It’s a good mix of age ranges too so you get the feeling the band have a fairly universal appeal, a testament to the style of music they play. Their univeral appeal was also demonstrated a while back when they received a grant from the US State Department to play a series of gigs and give workshops in Nepal, representing the US as cultural ambassadors.
A big contributor to their sound tonight comes from Ulises Bella who plays saxophone as his main instrument. Depending on the song though, he’ll also play clarinet, melodica, guitar or keyboards and will even switch instruments during a song. There’s no denying that they can all really play, and their set seems to fly by as the cry of “Ozo-mat-li, ya se fue, ya se fue!” emanates from the stage. This literally means “Ozomatli have left!” (or “Ozomatli have gone away”) but just signifies the start of their encore which is still one of the best ways of doing an encore I’ve seen any band do.
An Ozomatli encore involves all the band members holding a drum or some sort of percussive instrument, they then weave their way from the stage into the crowd keeping up a steady drum beat until all the band members are in the middle of the dancefloor. The steady drumming then becomes a mass of polyrhythms as they play and chant amidst the dancing crowd. The frenzied drumming morphs into the Hokey Cokey, the Birdie Song or the Sesame Street theme tune before resuming intensity, then they weave their way through the crowd creating an impromptu conga line. After about fifteen minutes of drumming, by which time all the band members have wound their way through to the back of the venue, they finally stop playing and the house lights come up. Ozomatli are fantastic live, worth seeing at least once whatever genre of music you’re into.