The only time one hears of bands entering the political fray nowadays is when they are complaining about their songs being used at candidates’ campaign events without their permission, but for Latin rockers, Ozomatli, their activist leanings have always been an integral part of their identity.
The original members of the Grammy Award-winning group, named after the Nahuatl word for the monkey astrological sign on the Aztec calendar, met while trying to form a workers union in Los Angeles. After releasing their self-titled debut album in 1998, the band got their break opening for Santana on his Supernatural world tour in 1998. Seventeen years, seven albums and a rotating cast of fourteen of the most talented musicians in the industry, including turntablist, Cut Chemist and rapper, Chali 2na, later, Ozomatli are still going strong, stopping at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz on Sunday as part of their fall/winter tour.
While the group has made several lineup changes over the years, original band member Ulises Bella (saxophone, background vocals, keyboard) has been there for them all.
“We’re like a well oiled machine,” says Ulises. “We’re like those diesel engines. As long as you change the oil and feed us fuel, we’re good. When we first started we were young – in our 20s, just getting out of college. Obviously we partied way harder and abused our bodies back then. Nowadays we try and take care of ourselves. Twenty years ago there would be rolling papers and Jack Daniels. Now we have kombucha and kale.”
Known for their political and social activism as well as for their music, Ozomatli have sought to provide a voice for disenfranchised Latinos, advocated for workers’ rights, served as Cultural Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department and gave a stirring TEDx performance exploring urban identity in a world of growing extremes in 2010.
The TEDx lecture was a collaboration between the band and LA author and scholar, Josh Kun, a communications professor at USC who also hosted a popular local music video show.
“He wrote out this whole thing about our history as a band and activists, and what it meant for LA and the Latin American community there,” explains Ulises. Playing while the professor narrated, Ulises said the experience for the band was was fun, “but rehearsal was tough. They were very strict on time so we couldn’t be off at all.”
While the band has been very active in social justice causes over the years, they feel their work is far from done.
“Here’s the tragic part of it all,” says Ulises. “Some of what we’ve been bitching about for 20 years – immigrant rights, immigration reform, workers rights – is still relevant today. Everyone is getting assed out of living affordably. Having a job and a living wage is all of a sudden some mystical thing.”
It is not all doom and gloom and disaffection however. Perhaps showcasing their inner optimism and positive outlook better than anything else is one of the band’s more interesting projects, OzoKids, a special live music set and album geared towards kids and families.
“Knowing that a lot of our fans have kids of their own, we wanted to create a record that was true to Ozomatli but with a subject matter that was relate-able to kids,” says Ulises. “Most importantly, as parents, we wanted to make it so that after listening to it 10 times in the car you won’t want to kill yourself.”
In some cities, Ulises says, the band will do “double-header” performances, with Ozo kids shows happening around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and the adult shows getting wild, long into the night. When they play The Fillmore in San Francisco, the front section is reserved for families.
“We want everyone to be able to come out and have fun,” he says.
Die hard Ozo fans who have not procreated yet needn’t fear, however. Ozomatli is still dedicated to recording regular studio albums, and when asked about what the band has coming in the future, Ulisses was stoked to talk about a new project currently in the works.
“For our newest album, we are doing something we have never done before – a covers album. We are taking songs from the Mexican songbook, both old and new, [and giving them] the Ozomatli reggae treatment. For example we just redid “Besame Mucho,” [one of the most recorded and popular boleros in the world]. And we’re not just doing it all one reggae style. What we did was try and pick certain styles of Jamaican music that would complement that song. We have some ska, some one-drop reggae, it’s not just a blanket thing. There’s going to be some jams on this one. We’re hoping it will be our La Bamba.”
Santa Cruz fans will get a taste of some of these new projects when Ozomatli takes the stage at The Catalyst on Sunday. And if it’s anything like the last time they were in town, it’s gonna get wild.
“Oh man, Santa Cruz is always a good one,” says Ulisses, reminiscing about that one time.
“One time when some of the guys from Jurassic 5 were in the band, we played at the Catalyst and some people hotboxed the van. We were loading out and leaving and I was driving (or at least I think I was – I know I was in the car), and going the wrong way down one-way streets for way too long. Sure enough a PD catches us off the Laurel Bridge. We thought we were boned as band members and the van reeked like weed. We mentioned we just played The Cat and he goes, ‘Oh you guys are Ozomatli, when is Chali 2na going to get back in the band. Is Chali 2na in there?’ We were like, ‘Ugh, Chali isn’t in the band right now, but we’ll tell him you said hello‘ and they let us go. It was totally cool.”
Totally cool indeed.