Ozomatli: Street Signs

Street Signs

For a brief period of time, before the phrase came to stand for regimented quotas, exalted tokens, and earnestly bathetic pieties from starry-eyed, oatmeal-brained folk singers like Holly Near, "politically correct" was a positive signifier. The music of Ozomatli resurrects that moment, exuding old-school, multi-culti camaraderie with an organic fervor that turns "correct" into a sage and hedonistic verb.

I could get carried away and call Ozo's grooves the wave of the future--just look at all the brown-skinned kids suffused in a swirl of their classmates' urban hip hop and their papas' liquid salsa and cantering merengue. They understand poverty and prejudice, but because their historical touchstone is guerrilla immigration instead of slavery, it's easier for them to blend hope and joy with the anger and wariness.

On Street Signs, Ozo dares to imagine a worldwide melting pot. "Believe," the CD's lead track and the group's purposeful response to 9/11, incorporates sinuous Middle Eastern rhythms into their customary Latin/hip hop meld, courtesy of vocalist Hassan Hakmoun and French Gypsy violinists Les Yeux Noirs. Then, for the cherry on top, they add strings from white dudes formerly under the thumb of communism: the Forte Music City of Prague Orchestra. Cajoling listeners at the ground zero of abject apathy, the band proclaims, "This is my world/This is your world/Do you believe that much?" while unabashedly surfing on the keening sitar, the sawing Gypsies, the Latin horn section, the Czech orchestra, the wah-wah guitar, and the funky percussion.

And off we go. The title track busts out some hand-clapped salsa, tosses in some hip hop, and struts its dedication to "the black, white, and Asian/And Latinos and bambinos." "(Who Discovered) America?" brilliantly uses a conquering lover-man trope but substitutes the country for a woman, then climaxes with a wailing rock-guitar solo. "Déjame en Paz" is a breakneck merengue jam sliced and diced by DJ Cut Chemist. There's "Santiago," a wistful paean guest-starring Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, and "Nadie te Tira," featuring salsa god Eddie Palmieri fracturing his crazy-quilt piano phrases in all the right, hip-shaking places.

Throughout Street Signs, Ozomatli clambers all over the musical jungle gym, as befits a band named after the Aztec monkey-god of dance. If you think this is one of the braver, more invigorating discs that will be released this year, you will be correct.

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