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POP MUSIC

Ozo Rising

The indefinable Ozomatli has defied the industry to blaze its own path to grass-roots success. Can the mainstream be next?

July 25, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a staff writer

Sometimes, the symbolism is just way too easy.

There they were, last winter, the 10 members of the Los Angeles ethnic and musical mishmash known as Ozomatli, on a stage in Philadelphia, opening for the Offspring in front of several thousand kids.

Then lead singer and trumpeter Asdru Sierra dedicated the set to death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted in Philadelphia of killing a cop after a controversial trial that some say was unfair, and that, no doubt, many Philly-Offspring-fan types (most of whom came to hear their personal theme song, "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)") think was justice.

"It was like mentioning Rodney King in Simi Valley," says Ozomatli bassist Wil-Dog. "Then we started singing in Spanish. Forget it. People literally wanted to kill us. We got booed the whole time, by 5,000, 6,000 kids. . . . But even in the middle of all that, there were a few fists raised, guys yelling 'Ozo! We came to see you.' It felt like we'd won a revolution in a way, like this is what it's all about. This is what we can do."

Since releasing its self-titled debut album on ALMO Sounds a year ago, Ozomatli--the nation's most aggressively indefinable pop band--has defied industry predictions that its bilingual, horn-heavy scramble of cumbia, rap, merengue, hip-hop, salsa, ranchera and '70s funk was too broad and, well, weird to sell.

As the band prepares to open for Santana and Mana on their arena tour (which includes shows at the Coors Amphitheatre in Chula Vista Aug. 7-8, and the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim from Aug. 11-14), it appears the naysayers may have been wrong about Ozomatli after all.

With practically zero commercial radio support, and next to no music video play, the album has sold 110,000 copies, according to SoundScan. It's a success that even surprised Paul Kremen, ALMO's general manager and the man who signed Ozomatli. And the band's manager, Amy Blackman, is certain sales will reach 200,000 by the end of the year.

While being nowhere near the Backstreet Boys' one-week record-breaker of 1.13-million albums sold, Ozomatli's relative success has industry leaders taking notice of ALMO's "guerrilla marketing" campaign for Ozomatli, one that hearkens back to the 1960s and '70s, when relentless touring and a great live performance could make a band.

Because the usual commercial radio route was not an option, ALMO publicist Robb Moore focused on touring, pitching articles to print media and landing interviews on public and college radio stations and Spanish-language television.

The approach worked. Newsday said the band was "the finest example of pop music the way it will be heard in 2010." Ozomatli has been praised from Buffalo to Fort Lauderdale, and ended up No. 31 in the Village Voice's poll of hundreds of U.S. pop critics to name the best albums of 1998.

The media coverage--and the live shows--impressed retail executives such as Bob Bell, new music buyer for the Wherehouse Music chain, who decided to stock Ozomatli's album in the pop section of all 550 stores nationwide, even though the band often sings in Spanish and did not come to his attention via the usual channels.

"It's a pretty extraordinary situation," Bell said of Ozomatli's nontraditional route to mainstream retail, likening the band's tireless grass-roots path to that of the Vermont rock band Phish.

For Leila Cobo, pop music writer for the Miami Herald and a longtime follower of the band, Ozomatli's relative success in the past year also represents the arrival of the future sound of American pop music, as well as an impending change in the way labels and radio will design the boxes into which they stuff bands.

The real challenge, Cobo and others say, will be getting radio to accept the new sounds.

"Radio is very corporate," said Ozomatli's Sierra. "Even though the deejays are cool and they want to play us, there's a battle they can't win with the guy in the gray suit who tells all the kids what to listen to. It's our biggest conflict, because we really believe these guys are denying people the right to listen to something different, something new, something that might actually help them grow as individuals."

Blackman says most radio support for Ozomatli has come from public radio, with only a handful of commercial radio stations taking a chance on the unique band.

In Los Angeles, KROQ's (106.7-FM) programming director Kevin Weatherly opted to put Ozomatli into rotation based on a massive fan base in Southern California; according to Ozomatli's manager, more than a quarter of the album's sales have been in Los Angeles, where the band has had a big following since its inception four years ago.

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