Jewish Journal

Ozomatli’s Bassist Funnels His Life Into Music

Ozomatli’s Wil-Dog Abers performs in Baltimore in October. Photo by Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez

Carved into the sidewalk outside Willy “Wil-Dog” Abers’ front door in Silver Lake is “OZO,” a large circle with a Z inside and an O on either side of the Z. It’s the abbreviated version of his band’s full name, “Ozomatli.”

Abers is the only Jewish member of the primarily Latino, six-member group, which for 22 years has fused multiple genres to create a sound reflecting the city. Take old-school hip-hop, classic rock and Latin music, mesh them together and Ozomatli is what you get.

The secret to the band’s success has been its ability to absorb its surroundings, Abers, who plays bass, said in an interview at his home recording studio, in advance of Ozomatli’s performance at the Saban Theatre on Dec. 9. His passion for music helps explain why Ozomatli continues to thrive, decades after its first concert in a building the musicians inherited in a legal agreement after attempting to unionize a group of marginalized workers.

Abers, 44, whose late father was Jewish and whose mother is not, describes himself as “half-Jewish, from the waist-down.” It’s a circumcision joke he picked up when he was young and hanging out with his paternal grandfather in Art’s and Canter’s delis.

“Years later, now I am using the joke,”
he said.

Abers has come a long way since he was a high school dropout, addicted to drugs and not always so vocal about being Jewish. Who would be, when raised in the MacArthur Park area surrounded by Catholic kids whose parents said Jews killed Jesus?

His parents, including his late Jewish father, were communists. Abers did not talk much about his Jewish roots until a formative experience at the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Brotherhood/Sisterhood Camp. The camp tackled anti-Semitism, among other topics, and today Abers is more comfortable in his Jewish skin.

“For me it’s culture … it’s comedy … it’s the friendships I have in life,” he said.

Ozomatli’s music showcases a commitment to social and political activism. The 1998 song “Coming War” addresses wealth disparity, the military-industrial complex and health care inequalities. The 2004 song “Believe” contains a rap verse with an anti-war, environmentalist message.

During the interview, Abers wore a baseball cap, eyeglasses, a T-shirt and black pants, and was surrounded by five keyboards, a piano and two computer monitors. He played back a demo he’s been working on with session musicians, which he will bring to his Ozomatli bandmates.

He said the demo’s sound reminds him of the 1980s music of the Thompson Twins, then segued into a history lesson of music from that era — the Pretenders, English Beat, the Clash —  bands that made an impression on him.

When he was 6, Abers saw the Clash in concert. That night, he said, he decided he wanted to become a musician.

About 18 years later, Ozomatli created its self-titled debut album (1998), which featured a stew of verses from an underground rapper as well as turntable-scratching, horns, danceable rhythms and bilingual lyrics representing street culture. They’re sounds Abers heard while frequenting break-dancing clubs in his youth, back when they called him “Breakdance Willy.”

Ozomatli has since released eight albums, including its Grammy-winning 2002
record, “Embrace the Chaos,” and the family-friendly 2012 album “Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz.” The group also has toured with Carlos Santana and served as the house band for stand-up comedian Gabriel Iglesias’ television show. An Iglesias action figure sits on a shelf in Abers’ studio.

Bandmates continue to fight for the underserved, promoting music education in lower-performing schools, including Ellen Ochoa Learning Center, a public school in Cudahy.

And Abers, whose wife is from Guatemala, expressed support for immigrants in the United States as debate continues over their status in this country.

“I think immigration has been happening since humans have been on Earth, and I fully support the migration of human beings for better opportunities for themselves and survival,” he said.

The band’s progressive politics are associated with the left. It performed at Occupy L.A. a few years ago. And on the topic of Israel, Abers isn’t anti-Israel, but he sympathizes with the Palestinians. In essence, his relationship with Israel, as it is with many Jews, is complicated.

“We can yell at each other all day but what’s going to come of that?” he asked, after several minutes of arguing about Israel’s place in the world.

The conversation veered to his hobbies. When a reporter showed up to Abers’ house, he was in the middle of researching RVs for sale. He explained he would like to buy one and hit the road with his wife, veterinarian Evelyn Sagastume, who runs Petsadena Animal Hospital.

Wherever he goes, though, Los Angeles will be his and his band’s home.

Ozomatli will perform Dec. 9 at the Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information, call (888) 645-5006.