“What are you guys up to right now?”
It seems like an innocent question. And for most bands, it is. But Ozomatli, the Los Angeles-based outfit that will play Thursday in Bend (see “If you go” ), is not most bands.
Indeed, Ozomatli is a living, breathing collision of cultures, a vibrant reflection of its multi-cultural, concrete jungle of a hometown, and a bubbling gumbo of sounds ranging from rock, hip-hop and funk to cumbia, salsa and dancehall, plus points in between and beyond.
And Ozomatli is busy, busy, busy. When multi-instrumentalist and co-founder Ulises Bella picks up the phone to talk to The Bulletin, he’s ready with a laundry list of the band’s ongoing projects: writing and recording music for video games and films, working on an album of tunes for kids, flying all over to play shows, and, in true Ozomatli style, getting involved in various social and political causes.
“There’s tons ... on our plate,” Bella said. “We’re just trying to get sleep.”
It’s been 16 years since Bella and his mates came together to play a Los Angeles labor protest, and the band’s resume is fattening up nicely. They have a half-dozen acclaimed albums to their name, have played for myriad people across the planet, won a Grammy award and earned their own official day from the city of Los Angeles. (Ozomatli Day is April 23 every year.)
But it’s the band’s role as U.S. Department of State-designated Cultural Ambassadors that sparks a fire in Bella. When he talks about Ozomatli’s music, he sounds excited. When he talks about its overseas work, he sounds inspired.
Since 2007, the band has traveled to Nepal, India, Myanmar, Madagascar, Jordan, Tunisia, South Africa, Egypt, Mongolia and China on official government business, playing free public concerts, conducting workshops and doing community outreach in, as Bella puts it, “places no bands go to.”
To wit: Last summer, Ozomatli performed for thousands of people in a public square in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. They were the first Western band to play there. Ever.
“We feel like some pioneers. Like, yo, we’re gonna go into this country and ... maybe a handful of people might know who we are,” Bella said. “In a weird way, it’s a great litmus test for letting the music stand on its own.
“In a lot of ways, there’s something in our music, especially rhythmically, that you can latch onto and be like, ‘Hey, I kind of know this. This kind of seems familiar to me,’” he continued. “We start playing and immediately the reaction is for the most part overwhelmingly positive.”
Bella said one of the most striking things about the band’s travels has been seeing the spread of hip-hop culture to even the most remote corners of the world, as found in the form of an Argentinian breakdance crew or a Mongolian MC who raps about very typical hip-hop subjects. Both stand as evidence of music’s power and ability to transcend the things that separate humans into categories, Bella said.
“The more and more we deal with trying to just be relatable to other people, the more and more I realize that most of the sh-- that we consider differences is more illusionary ... than the things we have in common,” he said. “The basic needs of people all around the world are very, very much in common. Everybody wants clean water. Everybody wants a good education for their kids. Everybody wants shelter. Everybody wants a certain level of liberty and freedom in their lives and to be able to express themselves in a certain way. And everybody loves to express themselves artistically.”
Ozomatli’s ambassadorship is as much about interacting with other people and soaking up their art and culture as it is about spreading the band’s uniquely American melting-pot sound, which draws from sources as varied as West Coast hip-hop, Southern jazz and soul and Mexican norteņo music. And it’s that kind of cultural exchange that breaks down societal walls in a hurry, Bella said.
“When you go, ‘Hey, man, I love this music you’re playing,’ it opens the door to a certain kind of communication among human beings that goes beyond (religion and) politics,” he said. “Art and culture is a universal language. It’s like hey, I’m a human being, you’re a human being and we’re exchanging ideas and communicating on a certain level that can’t be confined.
“All the little boxes we put ourselves in, whether it’s country, religion, ethnicity, you name it,” Bella said, “it comes down to certain core values and instincts that we all share as human beings.”
That’s the big picture. On a smaller scale, Bella answers simply and honestly when asked if, 16 years ago, he could’ve guessed just how far Ozomatli would someday take him and his friends.
“No,” he said with a laugh. “Sixteen years ago, I was just trying to play music, period. Did I think we were going to do all the things that we’ve done in this band? Oh no way. It’s unbelievable. It’s been a blessing for us.”