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Don’t Mess With The Dragon

By Marty Lipp

Published June 25, 2007

Ozomatli proves, once again, that geography is destiny. In the case of this big Los Angeles-based band, it’s not just the city but the precise locus of their birthplace. The members first came together as part of a protest rally to keep the government from shutting down a beloved community center. Having won that battle, the members stuck together, evolving into a steadily touring crew that still represents community with every note it plays.

L.A. might have a reputation as a sun-dappled paradise of superficiality and beach-loving airheads, but Ozomatli is a ragtag bunch of ethnic working stiffs that are the forgotten bricks underneath the glitzy surface of Tinseltown. They mash up rap, merengue, soul, and rock, ready to high-five just about any culture they can reach out to.

They’re an unabashed party band, but they’re as political as they come. From the diversity of their members and genres they cover to the chanted choruses of their anthemic songs, Ozomatli is a band of the people and for the people. The band starts and ends its concerts marching through the crowd, symbolically and literally breaking down the wall between performers and audience, letting fans know that all are equal. And the band supports the progressive movement by continuing to play benefits and using their website as a meeting place for their fans to share information about issues and organizations worthy of activism.

Don’t Mess With The Dragon starts out strong, with a string of fist-pumping, uplifting songs. A bit past the halfway mark, they stumble a bit, still playing with power, but lacking some of their creative brillance at arrangements.

The album opens with the rocker “Can’t Stop,” which at first sounds like a power pop hit, but is a song of affirmation. “No more sad songs singing the blues, we keep it moving,” Jabu Smith raps, then sings a rousing chorus: “We got faith in what love can do.” Then comes an effortless segue to “City Of Angels,” the band’s celebration of its hometown, with rap front and center and punchy brass and electric guitars making for a seamless mix of old and new schools. East Coasters might be slow to embrace a paean to the Left Coast, but the song is sure to win them over even if the city itself doesn’t.

“After Party” calls up the spirit of classic soul with a bit of Latin rhythms, an easygoing swing that makes it a pure party song. Then comes the band’s homage to Asian culture–including a solo from a Chinese erhu fiddle–on the title track, which hurtles along with the energy of a ska band. The group then jumps to the Latin side of its persona with the rowdy, swinging cumbia of “La Gallina” and the vertigo-inducing merengue beats and chants of “La Temperatura.”

In the midst of all this genre-hopping comes the band’s salute to the indefatigable spirit of New Orleans, “Magnolia Soul.” A shout-out to the post-Katrina Crescent City, the song urges them to “let the good times roll and the bad times go.” Even though it’s meant with the best of intentions, it’s hard to not feel ambivalent about telling a city that has been devastated to essentially just turn that frown upside down. There’s some politician-bashing (always appropriate) and some reminders of the disaster that give the party-urging some depth, though. The band finishes up with some second-line horn and drums that show their ability to tackle just about anything.

“Violeta,” which has Asdru Sierra in crooning mode, is the album’s only slow number, but the band kicks it to a pretty heavy beat to make it a power ballad, rather than the sweeter interlude it might have been.

A couple of the tunes toward the end of the album lean too heavily on what sounds like a drum machine, which is so much less interesting than what this big band can do with its hands. “Creo,” unfortunately, has a repetitive electronic beat that’s not nearly as interesting as the more creative parts of the song.

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