The multiethnic, multiracial, multitalented nine-piece from Los Angeles known as Ozomatli is living proof that music can transcend cultural boundaries. The band and its music combine different languages, cultures, genres, and instruments, resulting in a universally appealing sound that they describe as a “mash-up of hip-hop, salsa, cumbia, dub, and Latino and Middle Eastern funk.”
It seems strange, given Ozo’s oppositional politics and outspoken criticism of the current administration, for the politically progressive band that began as part of a labor protest to play gigs bankrolled by the government. But when the State Department invited them to represent the United States as cultural ambassadors with the funds from a Fulbright-Hays grant, they jumped at the opportunity to “give a different image of America.”
Recently, bandmember Uli Bella rapped about Ozo’s latest album, his role as a cultural ambassador, and touring on the government’s dime.
You guys haven’t been home much this year. You were in India and Nepal in February, and Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt over the summer. Both tours were sponsored by the State Department, right? Ozo and the State Department make pretty strange bedfellows : We do. How it all started was, the woman who worked for the cultural affairs office heard us interviewed on NPR, and it piqued her interest. When she first called, we were like, “Do you know who we are? Do you know how we started? Do you know what we’re about? Are you sure?” And they were really interested. After negotiating so both [sides] felt comfortable, we went ahead and did it, and it turned out to be a great experience; particularly in the Middle East. To be in that part of the world, playing for people that, if it weren’t for this opportunity I’d never have gotten to play for, and to connect with people and share opinions and views. : I remember, at the beginning of the first Gulf War, wishing I could just talk to somebody there and tell them that we don’t all support this, and that was one of the opportunities given to me this time around. We were at the Pyramids in Egypt, and me and this one Arab cat started rapping. He’s like, “I love Americans, they’re so nice : but I can’t stand what’s going on right now. I can’t stand your president.” I was like, “Hey man, I feel you. I don’t really agree with what’s going on either.” From that point, the conversation turned to more of an exchange. It was really cool.
It speaks surprisingly well of the State Department to have chosen Ozo as cultural representatives for the U.S. I knew that my band wasn’t going to “make it all better” over there, or be an apologist for anything that’s going on. I took this as a wonderful opportunity to connect with people I would have never gotten an opportunity to connect with if it wasn’t for this. We had to consider the pros and cons of each camp. It was like, “Fuck the State Department!” But then, “We’re not going to be able to do this or this :” After quite a bit of internal debate amongst ourselves, it was like, “We have to do this.” If the government’s gonna spend any money on something cool, it’s like, “Fuck it, take Ozomatli!” Finally, The Man pays for something cool for us, you know?
So when you were saying, “We’re not going to be able to do this or that,” what were the things you had to restrain yourselves from doing? We weren’t only guests of the country that we were in; we were guests of the Embassy, too, so we couldn’t just say whatever we wanted. : We had to be a little more reserved than we would normally be. But they never told us that we can’t express our opinions about how we felt about the situation, whether with the press or with people, so we did meet at a certain place where we both felt comfortable. But it’s not like we weren’t fucking with them either, playing around, trying to see how far we could take it with them sometimes. I remember in India, a guy who worked for the Embassy was telling us what we could and couldn’t do, and I made a joke, like “So what you’re saying is we can’t burn Bush in effigy onstage?” And I swear to God, for two fucking seconds, he totally believed me.
Don’t Mess with the Dragon is different from your other stuff. Definitely more : : Poppy? Polished?
Yeah. Are you guys vying for more radio play? There was definitely an attempt to go there with a couple of songs, like “Can’t Stop.” We were like, “Let’s see if we can do a song that’s Ozo, but has that quality that might work out for radio.” We did get a little love, but I don’t think it made the impact necessary for us to be like, “This is what we’re always going to try to do.” At the same time, I think there were songs on there that kept with the tradition of what we’ve always been about, like mixing musical styles that a lot of people hadn’t done before. I think that the producer, KC [Porter], helped with the evolution of this particular record, because he was a little more about refined pop, song structures and choruses. To have him in the mix helped our songwriting, our song structures, our hooks, and our choruses to be a little extra, you know?
Who knows what the next record’s gonna take. We’re already brainstorming ideas of what we might want to do for the next one. Even though we’re not a multi-million-dollar-seller kind of band, we have a very healthy fanbase and a very healthy touring career, so we’re just figuring out what the next move is gonna be. We’ve been a band now for 12 years, close to 13. To keep that kind of momentum going and keep the main core group of people together like that is a struggle, but it’s something that we’re proud of too.
Last question, and I’m going to make it a cheesy one. What would your fantasy show be? Where, and sharing the bill with whom? It can be anyone, dead or alive. You know what? I really do like to play the Santa Barbara Bowl. That’s a sweet venue. So, I’ll say the Santa Barbara Bowl, and we’re gonna be playing with The Clash, Eddie Palmieri, Fishbone : Wow, that’s a big show already.
That’s okay, it’s your fantasy. : Public Enemy : although we did already play a show with Public Enemy, so they might get booted out of this lineup. Who else would be hot? I want to get someone off the beaten path, like a Mercedes Sosa, or Susana Baca, or someone like that. Someone who’s not that well-known, but is a legend. Or Ces¡ria vora-someone like that.
Ozomatli plays the Lobero on Monday, November 12, with SambaD¡ supporting. Call 966-4946 or visit lobero.com.