“What the hell are we doing? Where are we going?”
My partner-in-crime and I were attempting to follow directions to the home of Ulises Bella, sax/clarinet/keyboard/requinto jarocho/background vocalist multi-instrumental-extraordinaire for Los Angeles based Afro-Latin-salsa-hop-funk group Ozomatli. Sound like a mouthful? It is. With a band that currently boasts 10 full-time members, all of which frequent many more than a single instrumental talent, sensory overload is all too appropriate in Ozo territory. Named after the Aztec God of Dance, they’ve got quite a reputation to live up to, and not surprisingly, they pull it off without a hitch. Pick a show, any show, and the first thing you’ll experience is everyone in the house bobbin’ and wigglin’ and shakin’ and getting’ down, and it doesn’t stop until well past the final note.
“This is the house!”
“Are you sure?!?”
“Lemme see…right street…right address…gotta be!”
Though the signs pointed the right direction, we still couldn’t help but feel like cops in a bagel shop…close but no cigar. Our sense of expected-rockstar logic was thrown a bit off-kilter as we pulled up to children playing in the street, cars propped up on cinderblocks with their wife-beater clad owners fiddling under the hood, painted bars on the windows, you get the picture…the barrio in all its grandeur. Forgive us for being a bit baffled to find ourselves in what many would consider one of the less-savory neighborhoods in the county. After all, we were headed to see a man who not only played with Carlos Santana, but whose band has been called ‘the future of music’ by the man himself. By now, we should have known, it’s all a matter of perspective.
“Ah, home sweet home.”
As Ulises welcomed us into his home, signs of the creature comforts of a recognizably grounded and familiar life lie strewn about the house -- a coffee-table littered with magazines, matchbooks, and junk mail; an overcrowded bookshelf; a collection of ‘Simpsons’ figurines. The one discernable difference was the dusty Grammy marinating on the mantle. “They wouldn’t let me sell it,” he jests. “It’s illegal or some shit like that.”
Since he was supposed to be in Amsterdam with the band until a last minute snag in tour preparations, he figured he’d console himself by bringing a bit of Amsterdam to himself, and the comfort level only rose as he made his peace offering. After casually relishing in this impromptu session, we figured it was a good time to begin the actual interview session. We started by talking about where Ozomatli currently stands in their career and the path that got them here.
Considering the melee surrounding the 9-11 release of their second studio album, 2002's Grammy-winning Embrace the Chaos(Interscope), the group figured it would be a good time to start anew. New sounds, new ideas, starting with a new label. Due to a post-911 industry-wide slump, most were unaware of the release. It was at this point that Interscope’s commitment waned, forcing an inevitable need for change. “It felt like they just didn’t really know what to do with us, and it was a mutual decision,” Ulises says of the split with Interscope. “It was just better.”
So in swoops an eager Concord Records, and out comes Ozomatli’s third and most ambitious studio album to date, Street Signs. In addition to a much anticipated reunion with their original MC Chali 2na, who joins them on up-tempo tabla booty bouncer “Who’s to Blame?”, and DJ Cut Chemist (now both part of hip-hop pioneers Jurassic 5), among those the band invited to join them were legendary Latin jazz & salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri, veteran Moroccon sintar master Hassan Hakmoun, French-Jewish gypsy violinists Les Yeux Noir, and Los Lobos singer/guitarist David Hidalgo, spicing up ‘’Santiago” with his soulful solos. “That dude’s on some weird silent genius tip. He’s fuckin’ amazing” declares Uli.
Perhaps the most interesting collaboration was their tech-inspired numbers with the Prague Orchestra. “We recorded that shit via internet, bro,” Ulises explains. “At first we were just thinking a small ensemble of strings…at most a chamber orchestra, but we never figured a full fuckin’ orchestra! We sent them the tracks and the charts, and they recorded it live via the internet. There’s like a 2 second delay so you can be like ‘you know what, play back that part…lay back a little more here.’ Stuff like that. It was crazy! And they did a good job man.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of the record was not only the methods, but the timing of its content. There was intentionally more than just a hint of North African and Middle Eastern influence. This sound played such a pivotal role in Street Signs that they open the record with “Believe,” a track emblazoned with Middle Eastern strings and vocal approach. “People have been into that music for a minute, ever since the second record. We felt like, especially with what’s going on right now in the world, with the stereotypes that are being shoveled, and the basic dehumanization of a culture and a population, we have to represent.”
Reflecting upon a darker period in the band’s history, Ulises confides “the worst was the 6 months right after 9-11, when any sort of criticism was frowned upon. I remember Wil-Dog did an interview that mentioned that, as tragic and fucked up as 9-11 was, there was a reason why whoever was crazy enough to fuckin do that…to do it. You have to at least analyze their reasons and the history and the circumstances before you jump to conclusions. He started getting all kinds of hate mail and death threats and shit so we were trippin’ out playing in New York. It was this really weird feeling. It was like walking on eggshells, but at the same time, if there was any time to really stand your ground, it was that time, and we did it.”
In the face of a nation filled with fear, Ozomatli felt it their duty to soldier on, holding firmly to their beliefs and eventually witnessing, if not contributing to, an inevitable shift in the tides of popular belief. “Now, even the slowest of us can finally see that there’s something funny going on. Sooner or later it’s the ordinary people that are paying for this war, especially if we stay there a long time like Vietnam. It’s going to get ugly.”
Ozomatli are no stranger to political protest and social activism. In fact, they were born from it. Bassist/vocalist Wil-Dog and Ozo’s original drummer Antoine “were hired by the California Conservation Corps, a program set up to give jobs to high-risk youth, but they would never let them work enough to get their benefits, no medical, nothing, yet all the management got that. As a form of protest, they did a sit-in at the building. They lost their jobs, but they got to keep the building, so they opened up this community center called the Peace & Justice Center as a spot for anyone to go up in there and do their stuff, whether it be graffiti, art, skateboarding, poetry, music, anything.” These were the breeding grounds that gave birth to Ozomatli.
Anyone that has ever worked in a group setting knows how difficult it is to keep everyone on the same page without butting heads and personalities, and, as you can imagine, it’s no different for a 10-piece band comprised of Chicano, Black, White, and Asian descent, but it is Ozo’s perseverance and outlook that makes them unique. They have managed to keep their eyes, ears, and hearts focused on a much deeper and more satisfying sentiment than personal difference. “Our music is all about inclusion, not exclusion. We all have a potential…we have the potential for destruction. We can really fuck things up if we wanted to, but we have the potential to do the opposite, and I think what we want to do is inspire to do the opposite. Inspire people to reflect on what good they should be doing.”
The Avalon in Hollywood recently played host to a unique event mired in reflection of these politically charged times surrounding this pivotal election year. PostGen graced us with the launch of “Be The Revolution,” a poster trio by legendary urban artists Mear One, Shepard Fairey, and Robbie Conal (“I came out of retirement for this…I figured it was a good reason”). Each artist provided their highly critical and satirical rendition of George W. Bush, and this was their first stop on a community-by-community campaign to take these posters around the nation. Hosted by KPFK’s Jerry Quickley, this particular evening’s entertainment included S.T.U.N., DJ Z-Trip, Medusa w/Feline Science, Culture Clash, and, of course, Ozomatli.
“One, it was just one of those things we had to make time for,” explains Ulises. “Shepard and Mear and Robbie? Robbie’s fuckin’ legendary in L.A.” It was a way of telling people not to lose hope or feel defeated in the face of an administration that has continually ignored the needs and pleas of its people. Describing rallies and protests and gatherings as a ‘catharsis,’ Ulises suggests that the reasons behind all those people being there lie much deeper than the banners they stand behind. “All those other people are there for a group re-affirmation. We all fuckin’ feel the same together, and especially when there’s more and more people involved. That’s when the energy of those numbers makes whatever it is inside of you that makes you a human being…it fuckin’ boosts that shit up!”
Though this dedication to spreading a positive message oozing global unity has catapulted Ozomatli to new heights both musically and spiritually, not much has changed about these cats except the sheer number of fans and followers they’ve managed to accumulate over the years. It all boils down to their unwavering commitment to the people and to their roots. “I think we try to be as specific with whatever we feel is the most important at that moment, so lately, it's all been about the war and the occupation. I think that (the world population) knows that not everybody’s down for it, but it gives it much more validity when we’re speaking up and talking about it and making it important.” Ulises' eyes widen as he recounts a recent show at the Istanbul Jazz Festival in Turkey, where Ozomatli “mentioned the war and how we felt about it, and it raised the energy up in the show in a totally positive way…like ‘wow, we are all in the same boat. Even though we’re from L.A. and you guys are from here, we all have this thing that connects us right now.’ It was dope!
“There’re a lot of things the government does that we know are wrong and they try to pass it off as right. So forget about what they consider patriotic or unpatriotic or morally evil or good, because whatever measurement they’re using is on some wacky shit. Everyone’s laughing at us. The world is laughing at us, and the way I feel about it, the last thing I want is for Bush to win again. I can’t handle him being president anymore.”