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Breaking sound barriers

Ozomatli has spent the past decade pushing political and musical boundaries with a unique blend of Latin rock, hip-hop, funk and everything in between.

Its efforts have won the band devoted fans who pack concerts, heaps of critical acclaim, even a Grammy. Yet Ozomatli still seems to be a secret that pop audiences have yet to discover.

The band's biggest album was its first, the 1998 self-titled Ozomatli, which sold 255,000 copies. The followup, Embrace the Chaos, sold a paltry 78,000. The latest, Street Signs, released this summer, is at 50,000 units sold so far.

"We're not hiding from mainstream success; we would love to have it. I think our music is pop, whatever you want to call it, and could be loved by millions of millions of people, the way it is," bassist Wil-Dog Abers says.

"I think we've always wanted to be big, but we never followed the formulas that were out there," says guitarist Raul Pacheco. "We kind of always wanted to do it with our own style, and our own sound."

Though the multiracial, multiethnic group is often pegged as Latin rock _ the band recently performed at the Latin Grammys and in 2002 won a Grammy for best Latin rock/alternative album _ Street Signs continues in Ozomatli's tradition of mixing multiple genres.

As always, there's a rap component _ an MC and a turntablist _ but the bilingual band also mixes a bit of electronica, funk, and on this disc, Middle Eastern rhythms.

"We're always in exploration mode," Abers says. "We're always trying to understand different music and people and cultures from all over the world."

Perhaps the one genre the band wasn't identified with was jazz _ until an unlikely alliance with the jazz label Concord Records, its new home. (The group parted ways with Interscope after the release of Embrace the Chaos.)

Television producer Norman Lear, co-owner of Concord, says the band is part of a jazz tradition because it's "so innovative and expansive and inclusive. Ozo, they're not a jazz band, but they explore the way a jazz musician does.

"You don't know what to expect from Ozomatli, and you never know what to expect from a great jazz musician," Lear says.

One thing that fans do expect from Ozomatli is activism. It's evident on Street Signs with tracks like (Who Discovered) America? and Who's To Blame.

Even the use of Arabic music, Abers says, is "kind of like our way of understanding people from that part of the word and what they're going through."

"It's our way of dealing with the politics involved, and there's so much pressure from that region."

Politics helped the Los Angeles-based group get its start. Abers gathered the original lineup in 1995 as a way to raise money for a center where his labor group had been striking (though the band consists of six members, it can swell to as many as 10 when touring).

Over the years Ozomatli has kept its political side, whether performing at rallies for celebrity death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, opposing the war in Iraq or helping local high school kids protest the military by performing for them.

"They would invite the military recruiters into their meetings, and then give them hell. They were like, "We need money for these protests,' " Pacheco recalls. "Something like that, it hit our hearts."

But the group is far from an angry, in-your-face band. An Ozomatli show is like a freewheeling, funky party _ from the chants and banter with the audience to the traditional conga line with fans that ends each show.

Ironically, it was a conga line that gave Ozomatli perhaps the biggest scare of its career. The line spilled into the street at the end of a performance at the recent South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Police were called and a skirmish ensued. Abers, percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi and the band's road manager were arrested _ Yamaguchi was accused of assaulting a public servant, a charge the band denied.

Abers calls the March incident "scary."

"It was happening, it was kind of bizarre . . . there was no indication in my mind that I was going to be arrested at all. There was none of that. I was having fun. And then I was in jail," he says.

Charges against Yamaguchi were later downgraded and the case resolved, but not before costing the band a lot of time and money, Pacheco says.

"The whole scenario was ridiculous," he says.

The incident helped bring the band closer. It's one aspect of the group that the band is probably most proud of _ its ability to stay together over the years. There's no one leader, and all have a say in the production of the music.

"Raul always says this is the longest relationship than any of us has ever been in," says Abers, only half-joking.

And while they may have no platinum albums to their credit, just the fact that they've been able to perform as Ozomatli for so long is a major achievement.

"We are already successful," Pacheco says. "We want to just take it to a bigger level, to be able to reach people and have fun."