January 22, 2019

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.

Voices of LA arts fest brings ethnic, religious diversity to city

A new summer cultural arts festival is bringing a fresh Jewish feel to Los Angeles.

Voices of LA: The Krupnick Festival of the Arts pairs a diverse array of Jewish and non-Jewish artists from all genres and mediums to create new and exciting works with strong local roots. A co-production of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCF), Community Arts Resources (CARS) and Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the festival runs through Sept. 14 at various locations throughout the city.

Voices of LA (voicesoflafest.com) is firmly focused on reaching the larger Los Angeles population, something that was done by design, according to JCF President and CEO Marvin Schotland. The festival is named in honor of the late Harry Krupnick and his wife, Belle. 

“He was someone that was very proud of his Jewish heritage,” Schotland said of Krupnick. He described him as “very much interested in the ethnic diversity of L.A. He celebrated it; he loved it.”

When the idea arose to do a multicultural festival in Los Angeles — with Jewish culture woven in at all levels — Schotland knew who to ask for help: Aaron Paley, president and co-founder of CARS. 

“What we asked Aaron to do … was to find artists in various ethnic communities that were representative of Los Angeles and pair a Jewish artist with an artist from an ethnic community.”

Jarell Perry

The plan resulted in some unique couplings. Wil-Dog Abers of the alt-Latino-world fusion band Ozomatli will be performing alongside alt-R&B singer Jarell Perry. Yuval Ron and his ensemble, which focuses on world music, will be paired with Grammy-winning group La Santa Cecilia. The events will include a visual arts exhibition, a dance performance at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and spoken word events featuring artists from many ethnic communities in L.A.

Wil-dog Abers

Selecting the artists for the festival often came down to practicalities, Paley said. 

“What’s going to work? What’s possible to do? And who do we think is also really good at collaborating?” 

The one thing that everyone agreed on from the start, as Paley tells it, was that everyone had to be local, with a direct connection to Los Angeles.

Most of the artistic duos will perform twice during the course of the festival, one time at each of two different venues. The concept — though it wasn’t realized in every instance — was for each set of artists to perform at both a Jewish community location and a non-Jewish site. For instance, the Yuval Ron Ensemble and La Santa Cecilia will perform at the Pico Union Project on July 28 and at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes on Aug. 26. Other venues hosting events include Fais Do-Do, the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, the Breed Street Shul, the Echoplex and Beyond Baroque.

La Santa Cecilia

All the artists, however, will be coming together for a culminating performance as part of the festival’s closing event at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on Sept. 14 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event will be free to the public and feature family-friendly workshops, food trucks with kosher options, live music and performances from the previously featured artists.

For Paley, putting together events like Voices of LA has been a job and a passion for more than 30 years. He said he was eager to help create Voices of LA after being approached by JCF. 

CARS is a “double bottom line company,” according to Paley, which means that while it’s not a nonprofit, its focus is both on meeting its bottom line and improving the Los Angeles community. 

“I’m from L.A., and I grew up in the Jewish community,” he said. “I was brought up with this idea that Jews had a role to play in the larger picture of Los Angeles.”

Schotland said he has enjoyed working on the festival and feels that it has opened up new artistic horizons for him personally. 

“If I had talked to you before doing this festival, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who [Wil-Dog Abers] was,” he said. “I think it’s a fascinating experiment, and we at the JCF are really proud to be the catalytic institution to make it happen. In particular, it’s a great way to honor the Krupnicks.”

Paley is simply thrilled to see the whole thing come together. “We’re all so excited because it feels like magic when everyone’s together,” he said.

Schotland said that even though the festival has been planned as a one-time event, he’s open to the idea of doing more programs like it. 

“I think people are looking for opportunities that celebrate our unity with each other, even though we come from different backgrounds, and one of the nice things about this festival is that it really provides an opportunity for that,” Schotland said. “There’s a universal language connected to art, and creativity is good for any community.”

Voices of LA: The Krupnick Festival of the Arts runs through Sept. 14.

Ozomatli: Band of the people

The Latin band Ozomatli is rocking out on the flatbed of a truck parked on a closed-down Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a Saturday in early November, and the band is playing for a motley group of aging and 20-something hippies, union workers and even some Jews from the Westside, all of whom are dancing in the street a few hundred yards from the Occupy L.A. encampment on the grounds outside City Hall.

Ozomatli is there to show support for the protestors, and to do so they play a remixed version of their funky tune, “City of Angels.” Justin Poree, the band’s master of ceremonies, raps into the microphone: “Party people from the front to the back, say, ‘Occupy.’

The vocalists reply in unison: “Occupy!”

Mixing samba, salsa, hip-hop, rock and soul with English and Spanish lyrics, Ozomatli’s tunes reflect the diversity of the band’s Los Angeles hometown. The sound is crisp, proof of its ability to capture live what its members have done in the studio over the course of their 16-year career.

On Dec. 9, the band will perform again downtown, this time at Club Nokia, a very different venue. As to what fans will get there, bassist and co-founder Wil-dog Abers said to expect the unexpected.

“It’s going to be raw energy, and it’s going to be different than any Ozomatli show,” Abers said.

The band’s first performance took place in 1995, a fundraiser for an at-risk youth community center, again in downtown Los Angeles, where Abers was working. When the employees went on strike, Abers formed Ozomatli to play during a sit-in.

Abers has inherited the activist edge of his father, a non-practicing Jew and a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Abers also has drawn from his rough upbringing, which included living in a school bus in Venice Beach’s homeless community.

The then-newly formed band had a knack for playing for justice. Over the next year, it performed at numerous benefits, including a show for the Mexican insurrection group the Zapatistas, as well as gigs on behalf of women’s issues.

By 1998, the band made its first, eponymous record, which was hip-hop heavy. In subsequent releases, it began exploring other sounds: In 2004, the group’s career-defining, Grammy-winning third record, “Street Signs,” still featured hip-hop verses in the material, but also explored a range of world music, including Arab and North African influences.

All the while, the band continued building a strong touring reputation, constantly on the road — both in the United States and abroad. When it performs live, there is plenty of material to draw from — five studio albums, including 2010’s “Fire Away.”

There have been plenty of highpoints along the way. The band has earned three Grammy awards, including best alternative Latin rock album in 2005 for “Street Signs”; in 2007, the U.S. State Department asked the members of Ozomatli to serve as cultural ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored tours overseas, taking the group to Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. Last year, the Los Angeles mayor’s office declared April 23 “Ozomatli Day,” solidifying the group’s role as hometown heroes. 

Despite the accolades and shows at upscale venues like Club Nokia, its members continue to find ways to serve the people beyond the ordinary artist-fan relationship. Earlier this year, they performed at a MusiCares benefit, raising money for musicians recovering from substance abuse; in 2010, they shared the stage with President Barack Obama during a rally for the Democratic Party; and, in 2005, they played at the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Justice Ball, a benefit for the firm’s pro bono services.

“There seems to be a perception that [after you become successful] you don’t do as much,” Abers said.  On the contrary, “The world becomes bigger, and there become more things to associate yourself with.”

Case in point: They agreed to play Occupy L.A. for no fee. Their brief but impassioned set featured four songs, including “Saturday Night” — off of “Street Signs” — a song that in characteristic Ozo-fashion, features romantic lyrics calling for change.

“The revolution will begin this Saturday night!” Poree declares in the song.

On that afternoon at Occupy L.A., Ozomatli’s concert was sandwiched between a lecture by Robert Reich, former U.S. labor secretary during the Clinton administration, and Robert Scheer, editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism Web site TruthDig.

Addressing the Occupiers, Ozomatli, Reich and Scheer all gave similar advice:  to remain united not just in the face of outside resistance but despite conflicts that may arise among themselves.

It’s a message that the members of Ozomatli have applied to their own organization, their movement — their band.

“We’re a group of men, and we’ve learned to support each other emotionally,” Abers said. “I think that’s the biggest aspect of going through changes — becoming an adult in this band.”

Since forming, they’ve had six core members, with Ulises Bella (saxophone and clarinet), Raul Pacheco (guitar), Asdrubal Sierra (trumpet) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla) rounding out the lineup. (They’re currently playing live with the addition of Mario Calire on drums.) One way they’ve managed to stay together, even in rough spots, is through a true devotion to egalitarianism — splitting equally all songwriting credits and, therefore, all the money, even when not all of the band members contributed equally to the songs.

“With us, even if one guy wrote all of the song, it’s through the band, or the collective efforts of the band, that their song is being showcased,” Bella said. Sounding more like Freud than saxophonist, he added, “Sooner or later, we realized that the sacrifice of the ego was more important for the betterment of the band.”

As the band’s members get older, they are content with touring less and working in the studio more. At the time of Abers’ and Bella’s phone interviews with The Jewish Journal, which took place in early November, the guys were living as close to a 9-to-5 schedule as they may ever get, going into a recording studio on Larchmont Avenue every day to record music for video games, including for “Happy Feet Two: The Video Game.” Abers also spoke of ambitions to do film scores, and he talked of a kids’ album in the works, tentatively titled “Ozokids.”

With all they’ve accomplished in crafting records that are joyful and socially conscious, Bella said that what he’s most proud of is the band’s ability to endure.

“From the beginning, we realized there were certain things that we needed to do in order to survive as a band,” he said. “We stuck to them, and we’re still here.”