Globetrotters Ozomatli celebrate coming of age with a yearlong bash

:: Ogden Theatre :: November 19 ::
:: Belly Up (Aspen) ::  November 20 ::
:: Fox Theatre :: November 21 ::

By Jonathan s. Gang

All over Latin America, a girl’s fifteenth birthday is a hugely important event — a symbolic crossing-over from childhood to young-womanhood is marked with an extravagant celebration, or quinceañera. Despite being far from a young girl (they’re actually a bunch of men in their 30s), Los Angeles Latino-by-way-of-the-globe party rockers Ozomatli are celebrating their 15th with an on-going party big enough to befit a Telemundo version of MTV’s “My Sweet Sixteen.”

“We’ve kind of been celebrating it all year,” said saxophonist Ulises “Uli” Bella, during a recent interview with The Marquee. “We’re doing our whole winter tour based on a quinceañera theme. For our L.A. show we’re going to have all the trimmings. People dressing up, the decorations, everything.” Those not lucky enough to celebrate with them in their beloved hometown of L.A., according to Bella, will have to be satisfied with an unadorned presentation of the six-piece’s unique take on rock, Afro-Cuban rhythms, salsa, hip-hop (Chali2na and Cut Chemist of Jurassic 5 fame were early bandmembers), funk, dance, and world music.

In addition to their quinceañera, Ozomatli return to Colorado with a new album to celebrate. Fire Away, released this April, is the band’s fifth proper LP, and it brings the band’s globetrotting and culture-mashing to new genre- and border-busting heights. This was inspired in a large part by their work as U.S. State Department cultural ambassadors, a gig that has taken them to places like China, Mongolia, Tunisia, Jordan, India, and Nepal (where they were the first Western band to perform publicly since the fall of the country’s military dictatorship).

“A lot of the material [on the new album]is based both on jams we did early in the recording, as well as a lot of field recordings that we made while we were traveling as part of the Cultural Ambassador thing,” said Bella. “We would continually jam out with musicians from all over the world, so we brought back some of those recordings from Madagascar, South Africa, the Middle East and places like that, and incorporated that into the recording. Also, everywhere we go we try to come back with a bunch of CDs just to try to digest the different kinds of groups and sounds that are going on all over the world.”

However, as far as Ozo’s travels have taken them, their connection to the East L.A. streets that birthed them remains as tight as ever. The band has described their sound as a combination of all the music you can hear blasting while driving down Sunset Boulevard on a summer day with the top of a lowrider down. “The beginnings of the band really came out of this youth community center called the Peace and Justice Center in downtown L.A.,” said Bella. “The place was a haven for youth to come and express themselves, whether through social action, art, drama, skateboarding, or music. You name it. In order to keep this place going there were benefit parties every weekend. The people who ended up playing music at these things all the time eventually became Ozomatli.”

The band credits this experience with inspiring the multicultural bent that has taken them around the world. “Growing up in L.A., you’re immediately immersed in all sorts of other peoples’ cultures. Just going to high school, my school had one of the largest populations of Korean students, and my whole bus drive was going through mainly Mexican and African American communities. It makes you accept that there’s a lot of different cultures in the world and that they all have their own thing, you know? I think at a certain point I realized this is just a micro of the macro, of what goes on in the world,” said Bella.

Fifteen years later, Ozo have become bona-fide hometown heroes. In addition to the aforementioned quincenera celebration, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigoso declared, this year, April 23 to be the first annual official Ozomatli Day in the city of Los Angeles. According to Bella, the band would have preferred the 20th, but the City Council balked at this request. In celebration, the band continued its tradition of giving back to the community. “We got 10 different high schools to participate in the event,” he said, “Musicians from each one came up with different interpretations of our songs, and at the end of it all we just had one big jam.” Another recent project, “Grooves on the Move,” saw the band bringing music to underprivileged kids all over L.A. “We took a big old tour bus, gutted it out, and filled it with ten little mini-music workstations. Then we take it to low income areas, for the most part, park it in a city park, and let kids get on and express themselves musically.

For all of their convictions and activism, however, Ozomatli remain a good-time party band. They pride themselves on being able to make fans dance as well as think. “[Our jams and our activism] are symbiotic,” said Bella. “It’s not all about politics, but that’s a big part of what life’s about. Us using the band to push what we’re all about, that’s a big part of who we are.”

Fifteen years down the line, they’ve certainly earned the right to celebrate their big day. Felicidades Quinceañera, Ozo!

:: Ozomatli ::

:: Ogden Theatre :: November 19 ::

:: Belly Up (Aspen) :: November 20 ::

:: Fox Theatre :: November 21 ::

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1 Comment

  1. Great article. Saw these guys about 10 years ago in NY and can’t wait to see how they’ve grown.