Album Reviews

Ozomatli – Don’t Mess With the Dragon

(Concord) UK release date: 9 July 2007

Catching bands you’ve never heard of before at festivals is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you come to them without any preconceptions, free of hype and free of any baggage they may have dragged with them through more than a decade of the moderately successful career that has completely passed you by.

At the other end of the spectrum, you arrive in front of the stage so loved up on the Glastonbury vibe that not only are you actually prepared to stop and watch the kind of music that would never usually darken your MP3 player (in Ozomatli’s case, politically charged world music with a urban/calypso/Latin beat) but you leave the scene of the crime convinced that Ozomatli are in fact one of the best groups you have ever seen live in your entire life.

Back home, away from the mushroom risotto tent and Dance Village vitamins, you soon realise that your experience may have been rather warped by circumstance but nonetheless resolve to reinvestigate Ozomatli at some point in the future in the hope that at least they might not be complete and utter tosh.

And so it is that I arrive at Don’t Mess With the Dragon, the fourth studio album from Ozomatli, a multi-ethnic musical collective who look (and sound) just a little bit like a Los Angeles franchise of Goldie Lookin’ Chain and who’ve spent a good deal of their 12 years so far involved in anti-war protests, human rights issues and other things that don’t sound as if they should sit well with sunny, jazz-tinged street-party anthems.

And yet, against considerable odds – including my usual dismissal of anything that doesn’t sound as if it should be wearing black in the Jack Daniels tent after learning everything it knows about life (and bass lines) from Joy Division – it does work. It works very well. Latino trumpets, on La Temperatura in particular, along with catchy, pop-friendly sensibilities of several songs including title track make Don’t Mess With the Dragon completely listenable and ideal summer party music.

After Party is a much fun as it sounds, and in places they weave in elements of dub, R&B and hip-hop while on tracks such as City of Angels you can draw comparisons with Eminem. It might just be me, but on the chorus of When I Close My Eyes there’s even a touch of My Chemical Romance at their most bombastic. If MCR were ever likely to smile and wear Bermuda shirts, that is.

Their political affiliations are still there, but they’re hidden well enough that it’s easy enough to just sit back and enjoy the music while you leave the worrying about the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and immigration marches to another day. Unless you want to worry about that, of course, in which case you’ll have a lot more fun doing it with Ozomatli that you will by letting Bono and Billie Joe whine on at you.

In other words, Ozomatli were well worth the wait.

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More on Ozomatli
Ozomatli – Don’t Mess With the Dragon
Ozomatli @ Jazz Cafe, London
Ozomatli – Street Signs
Ozomatli @ Royal Festival Hall