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What an offensive, stupid, arrogant phrase “world music” is. Over the last ten years or so, as my horizons have broadened, I have become a devotee of many musicians from outside the English speaking world, and— surprise, surprise— they’re all very different. Virginia Rodrigues and Vinicius Cantuaria from Brazil, Ali Farka Toure from Mali, Baaba Maal from Senegal, Karsh Kale from New York (via India), and Johnny Clegg from South Africa, to name just a few, all make regular stops in my stereo. In that list of six artists, we have a stunning diversity of styles and influences flung wide across four continents. Only a putz would lump all this together with samba, Dervish music, Balinese gamelan music and Tibetan devotional throat-singing and call the whole “world music.” One imagines a less couth time when the British, sitting comfortably at home at the center of a decaying empire, would have complacently dubbed such alien sounds, “wog music.”

It is better to reserve the term “world music” for those truly adventuresome pairings that defy easy categorization. A gentleman I worked for a few years ago had a vision of a future in which, thanks to broadband internet, a musician could set up a beat on a calabash in Timbuktu and have it embellished in real time by a tablaist in Mumbai and a bassist in Paris, the whole being mixed and chopped by a DJ in London as it was sent out to thousands of listeners around the world. Although sadly for him his grand vision has yet to pan out (that last mile of cable is so expensive!), he’s on to something. We live in a time where previously unimaginable opportunities exist for collaboration and cross-fertilization, and things are finally coming to a point where globe-trotting music seems natural, even obvious. “World” music, then, means music that draws upon the whole world (or at least parts of it)—much better than simply being code for “music from where the brown people live.”

Sometimes late at night I stumble onto performances on local Spanish-language cable stations by no-name musicians who effortlessly step between top 40 pop, Latin, funk, and rap without thinking about the ramifications. It’s usually Friday night, and the party is on no matter what the music is called. Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli are one of these anonymous groups gone gold. Recently nominated for a Latin Grammy for their 2003 EP, Coming Up, Ozomatli are part of a new generation of (formerly) underground collectives who combine Latin American rhythms with hip-hop and whatever else sounds right to them (they even have a full time tabla player in the band). Ozomatli intended their new album, Street Signs to be a bold statement of purpose, a giant step beyond the Los Angeles street party sound they have already perfected, and for the most part they have succeeded grandly.

The group put their lofty ambitions right up at the front—“Believe,” the opening track on Street Signs, augments the band’s Latin rhythms and wah-drenched guitar with the keening sintar of Moroccan Hassan Hakmoun, French-Gypsy violinists Les Yeux Noir, and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Oh, there’s also several verses in Spanish and the English-language flow of the band’s MC Jabu. World Music, y’all!

The rest of the album is just as eclectic, bouncing from traditional Latin rhythms (I’m a big fan of Latin American music, but I can’t yet reliably tell a guaguanco from salsa, but you probably can’t either, so it doesn’t matter) to rock, hip-hop, and dancehall, often at the same time like fifty different radios tuned to fifty different stations at once. The press release makes reference to “Chicano funk-rock” and “urban globe-trots,” and for once the hype actually reflects what’s on record. Street Signs deserves to be a street-level hit from Sacramento to Soweto.

Although it took me five or six listens to figure Street Signs out and decide whether I like it, since that time I haven’t gone through a day in two weeks without getting something of theirs lodged in my head. (I also suspect the record makes for outstanding driving music, although my shoddily-manufactured review copy won’t play in my car.) Ozomatli even proved to be the cure for the dreaded Disney virus, in which “It’s A Small World” runs around and around in my head until it hurts. Usually only Frank Zappa does the trick, but sometimes old Frank goes down a little rough and it’s nice to have a more pleasant and party-friendly alternative for kicking the Mouse ‘n’ friends to the mental curb.

Lyrically, Ozomatli toe the generic leftist-platitude line, but not so much that it’s irritating or off-putting. If the Spanish-language lyrics are a little trite, and the English-language lyrics a little overdone, it’s not a big deal; not everyone needs to be Elvis Costello and rhyme “lie here mopin’” with “shellac of Chopin.” Ozomatli pride themselves on their commitment to social consciousness and political awareness, and the group at least has the good taste and common sense to make their slogans thoughtful, uplifting, and singable.

Ozomatli are legendary in some circles for their terrific live shows, and that energy is hinted at on album. Sometimes the hinting is all we get, as bright production, up-and-down playing, and heaps of multitracking sterilize a little of the funk growing in the grooves. Nevertheless, Street Signs is an infectious, masterful, thoughtful, deep and eclectic party album from a band who have exceeded their already high expectations.

Look for Ozomatli on tour throughout August accompanied by Plastalina Mosh, Kinky, and Del Castillo as well as organizations like Rock the Vote, Refuse and Resist, Move On, Amnesty International, Not in Our Name and Code Pink.

17-Aug — Orlando, FL — House of Blues
18-Aug — Miami, FL — La Covacha

20-Aug — Boston, MA — Warped Tour 10th Anniversary
22-Aug — Washington, DC – Nation
23-Aug — New York, NY — BB King’s
25-Aug — Detroit, MI — Majestic Theater
26-Aug — Chicago, IL — House of Blues
27-Aug — Minneapolis, MI — Quest
29-Aug — Denver, CO — Paramount
1-Sept — Sacramento, CA — CA State Fair
3-Sept — Los Angeles, CA — Universal Amphitheater
4-Sept — Las Vegas, NV — House of Blues

This post also appears at the Ministry of Minor Perfidy. Go visit the Ministry: your cooperation is appreciated, indeed it is compulsory.

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About John Owen

  • godoggo

    oZo just explode live; the little studio stuff I’ve heard doesn’t come within miles of capturing their power. They really should come out with a live recording, although I suppose the free stuff available on their site (last time I looked) makes it unnecessary.

  • I’ve never had the pleasure, unfortunately. They have always sounded to me like a band who are best experienced in the flesh.

    Like Phish, except not sucky and more competent.