Ozomatli is the United Nations of music. The band's 2004 Grammy winner, Street Signs, added influences of Punjabi Bhangra and Islamic nasheeds to their already potent, multiethnic mix of funk, soul, salsa, hip-hop, rap, reggae and border pop. Many of their songs reveal an acute political awareness with a human-rights bent. Tellingly, representatives of the Border Action Network were in the lobby with "Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime" postcards.
On the theory that peace starts between two people, the band paused mid-set and played the theme from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" while having us all introduce ourselves to each other. Corny? Maybe. But an Ozomatli show is nothing if not empowering, and the crowd got into it. Once 1,100 people have been clapping, jumping and waving their arms in the air on command, what's a "how-de-do" to the person you're sharing less than a square yard of floor with? Likely all the dancing had by that time incurred a lot of physical contact anyway.
Dancing is unavoidable. Beat after beat is irresistibly seductive, and the nonstop dancing onstage, by all 10 performers, inspires imitation. Oozing talent from every pore, perpetual-motion rapper-percussionist Justin "Nino" Poree is the Harlem Globetrotter of the African shekere. His action is all but totally transfixing. You want to move just like that.
But all the Ozomatli players perform as if they're obliged to fill up the stage by themselves. Between the performance and the music, the energy could power the United Nations building. Their set spanned their catalog and introduced a lot of new material. "Ya Viene el Sol" was a set highlight, featuring lyrics chanted in Spanish over an Indian raga, with a guitar solo sounding like a sitar. The band dedicated the next new son salsa to George Bush, having us all first chant "George Bush is a pendejo." The chorus of the song goes "Creo cuando lo veo" ("I'll believe it when I see it"). After an extended cumbia jam--including three kids from the audience playing maracas and tambourine--the evening closed with the band's tradition of jumping from the stage with drums and percussion to lead the crowd out the doors, happily chanting "Ozomatli ya se fue."
Ozomatli is upbeat, even when their lyrics are voltaic. Luckily for fans, much of the excitement is captured on the band's 2005 release, a CD/DVD called Live at the Fillmore, celebrating their 10th anniversary.