Ozomatli Crosses Cultures With Vibrant Musical Mix3 min read
Ozomatli is America’s secret weapon to promote peace and human understanding. As official Cultural Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, the recipients of the 2010 Los Angeles Local Heroes Award, three Grammy Awards and countless other honors, the unlikely band of urban musicians travels the world. Their music is a kaleidoscope of Latino, hip-hop, salsa, samba, funk, merengue, Jamaican reggae, Indian raga and the native styles of the newest L.A. immigrants
Ozomatli’s spokesman, Ulises Bella, is a veritable one-man band. He plays saxophone, clarinet, keyboard, melodica and the requinto jarocho, which he describes as a traditional small guitar from Veracruz, Mexico. Its style and shape were influenced by the Africans who emigrated to Mexico.
Bella has been in the band since its beginning 16 years ago. Growing up in a musical family, he was guided by his father, a violinist with perfect pitch who did not permit “messing around.” Bella took advantages of the many musical opportunities for kids in L.A. at that time. There was wonderful music instruction in the public schools and the Saturday Conservatory was open to all children who wanted to attend. They may have missed out on the TV cartoons, but they learned music and were encouraged by their professors that they could do whatever they wanted to do.
Bella did just that, becoming a member of the Youth Symphony West, an all-star orchestra, and the Los Angeles Youth Symphony. He and several others had just formed a band when forty labor strikes paralyzed the city. Their first official performance to support the picketers led to other gigs throughout the area.
By the time their self-titled debut album was released in 1998, they were performing everywhere, from inner-city schools to protest rallies, fundraisers and activist events. Ozomatli quickly became the official band of their hometown. Their name, the Nahuatl word for the Aztec astrological symbol of the monkey, incorporates his qualities as god of dance, fire, the new harvest and music into their purpose.
With community service in their own city a major goals, Ozomatli established oZoKidZ to share their love of music with the next generation and their parents. At the same time, they were impacting audiences on six continents. The unified multi-racial ensemble committed to shattering stereotypes was exactly what the U.S. State Department needed to break boundaries.
Since 2007, they have toured the world as our nation’s representatives, performing free public concerts, presenting master classes and jamming with youngsters and local musicians in such unexpected locations as Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam and a Palestinian refugee camp.
Bella recalls how surprised the people in Jordan were by their appearance because it did not conform with their perception of America. He is especially touched by the children they meet wherever they go. One of his biggest surprises came during a trip to Burma. As they were walking up to a school where they would perform, they heard music by an amazing band coming from the building ahead. It was so good, they thought members of a professional local band they expected to meet had arrived ahead of us. Upon entering, they discovered that the band members were blind students. When the students asked them to join in on their next number, Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You,’ the members of Ozomatli almost lost it.