Ozomatli has one of the coolest gigs. For the last few years, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, this Los Angeles-based band has been flying around the world to far off lands like Nepal and Egypt, entertaining the local populace with a unique slice of American culture.
Describing their intoxicating mash-up of hip-hop, salsa, funk and cumbia as "the people's music," these multi-ethnic cultural ambassadors have so far ignited crowds in South Africa, Madagascar, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Tunisia, Jordan and most recently, Burma and Vietnam. Later this year they will journey to China and Mongolia.
In Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City they played for a few thousand appreciative folks.
Circling — and uniting — the world with song.
Through music Ozomatli leads listeners into a world full of excitement and emotions," noted Thanh Nien Online. "Attending Vietnamese had not to sit still, but had to get up and dance to the rhythmic music."
"We were told they would all sit down unless we demanded they stand up," reports Ozomatli's bassist and co-founder, Wil-Dog Abers. "So we said, stand up and dance, and they did."
Traveling to Burma's capital city where they performed for orphans and disabled kids, they encountered an amazing heavy metal band comprising four blind musicians.
* Ozomatli performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. Tickets are $35, $30 and $25 plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
"That was incredible, we were so wowed," Wil-Dog says. "But it's not unusual to see someone in a blind community playing music. They were awesome."
In Nepal in 2007, the band's trip was part of a celebration of the country's newly ratified peace accord. Their historic, free concert in Katmandu, which was broadcast live on national television, drew around 15,000 people. The first Western band to present a concert in Nepal, their show marked the nation's first peaceful mass gathering that was not a political protest or religious ceremony.
"It was really cool being there, the mixture of the people and what was going on politically with the communists having some power," he recalls. "There was a big scare that people would hate us and throw stuff and riot. There were riot police and the people were supposed to be 100 feet away from the stage. We negotiated with the authorities and moved the people closer. We said, just be ready for people to enjoy what they will hear, and they went crazy. We do a lot of styles and rhythms, so we'll come out and play one song, and then do something completely different, and eventually we'll hit the chord of the country that they can relate to. We're not like every other band; we're into all kinds of different music."
Formed in 1995 to help raise money for a center where a labor group had been striking, Ozomatli took their name from the Aztec god of dance. Over the years they've maintained their political activism, whether it's performing at anti-globalization rallies, opposing the war in Iraq, or helping with programs to stop violence on school campuses in Los Angeles.
Deftly mixed multiple musical genres, in 2002 they won a Grammy for Best Latin Rock/Alternative album for "Embrace the Chaos," and captured another one in 2005 for their brilliant "Street Signs." With guests including legendary Latin pianist Eddie Palmieri, the Prague Symphony, the French gypsy group Les Yeux Noir and Moroccan musician Hassan Makmoun, "Streets Signs" fused Indian, Middle Eastern and North African sounds along with splashes of merengue, electronica and jazz.
With a new album out in April, Ozomatli has just released a single, "It's Only Paper," a catchy, groove-laden, socially conscious track featuring contributing vocals by Jack Johnson.
"It wasn't planned," Wil-Dog explains. "We've been recording at the Brushfire studios in L.A., which is all solar powered. He was there one night, and heard us working on a song, and said he had some lyrics for it. So he co-wrote and sang on the song."
The upcoming CD, "Fire Away," includes the upbeat "Malagasy Shock," which recounts how the band's guitarist Raul Pacheco almost died from being electrocuted on stage during the band's trip to Madagascar.
"We were getting ready to play a big show at a festival and the PA wasn't grounded," he recalls. "As soon as Raul went to sing he was severely shocked and thrown 30 feet, and came close to losing his life. He had a near-death experience and within a minute he saw a bunch of milestones in his life."
"With an unending devotion to the power of rhythm, Ozomatli is like a dozen bands fused into one," raved a recent Napa Valley Register review. "Like the Los Angeles landscape from which the group emerged, Ozomatli's music is a polyglot of cultures, ranging from Puerto Rican salsa to Cuban son, inner city hip-hop to Brazilian batucada, in-your-face rap to Latin rock - all dropped into a wild party atmosphere along with a substantial helping of social consciousness."
"We're into what we do, and we take pride in our art," Wil-Dog concludes. "And we put pressure on ourselves to connect; we really try to connect with our audience."
Probably more folks than usual will head to Kihei's Kalama Park on Saturday with Cecilio & Kapono headlining this year's free Whale Day Celebration. Other entertainers on the bill include Na Leo, recent Hawaiian Grammy winner George Kahumoku Jr., John Cruz with Bonnie Raitt's band bassist "Hutch" Hutchinson, Marty Dread and Anuhea. Comedian Augie T will emcee.
C&K just headlined an "Island to Island for Haiti" benefit concert on Oahu, to aid survivors of the catastrophic earthquake. "Right now we're doing a few dates, we're trying to plug in wherever we can," says Henry Kapono.
Following in the tradition of his popular "Duke's on Sunday" gig in Waikiki, Henry will perform occasionally at the new Duke's Beach House in Kaanapali beginning this Friday.
"They asked if I would be interested in playing Maui, and it will just be me playing solo," he says. "I'm excited, I get to play and it's free." So far he's also booked for Feb. 26, March 5, 12 and 19.
Currently working on a new album, Henry says he's amassed around 26 new songs. "Last year I wrote a lot of songs that I'm really happy with," he notes. "Now I'm trying to narrow them down to 12 to 15 songs. And the 'Wild Hawaiian' is getting a lot of attention, so I'm working on 'The Wild Hawaiian 2.' I'm excited about that. Hopefully it will be out by midsummer."
The Whale Day festival will feature lots of children's activities, a silent auction, a skateboarding competition and displays about the environment and whales.
All proceeds benefit the Pacific Whale Foundation's marine education programs.
The Whale Day Celebration runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
San Francisco rockers Third Eye Blind will play an acoustic concert on Feb. 27 at the Royal Lahaina Resort. For advance tickets call 661-3611.
Mana'o Radio will host its monthly Jazz Caf at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Caf Marc Aurel, featuring Jimmy C. Performing some songs from his latest CD, "Reunion," Jimmy's set will include material by Frank Sinatra, Michael Franks, Kenny Rankin, Nat "King" Cole and Bobby Darin. He will be backed by Shiro Mori on piano, Marcus Johnson on bass, and Michael Buono on drums. No cover charge.