In their 15 years together as a band, celebrated Los Angeles culture-mashers Ozomatli have gone from being hometown heroes to being named U.S. State Department Cultural Ambassadors.
Ozomatli has always juggled two key identities. They are the voice of their city, and they are citizens of the world.
Their music—a notorious urban-Latino-and-beyond collision of hip hop and salsa, dancehall and cumbia, samba and funk, merengue and comparsa, East LA R&B and New Orleans second line, Jamaican ragga and Indian raga—has long followed a key mantra: It will take you around the world by taking you around Los Angeles.
This has never been truer for Ozo than it is in 2011. More than ever before, the band is both of the world and of Los Angeles.
Originally formed to play at an L.A. labor protest more than a decade ago, Ozomatli spent some of their early days participating in everything from earthquake prep “hip hop ghetto plays” at inner-city elementary schools to community activist events, protests and city fund-raisers. Ever since, they have been synonymous with their city: Their music has been taken up by both the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Clippers, they recorded the street-view travelogue “City of Angels” as a new urban anthem, they were featured as part of the prominent L.A. figures imaging campaign “We Are 4 L.A.” on NBC and they have the distinction of headlining the Hollywood Bowl twice—in 2008 and 2010.
In recognition of their efforts toward Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles officially declared April 23, 2010, as “Ozomatli Day,” as well as every following April 23, in perpetuity. Ozomatli were also recipients of the 2010 Local Heroes Award by Los Angeles PBS station KCET-TV, recognizing the band’s longstanding accomplishments and community service throughout Southern California.
“This band could not have happened anywhere else but L.A.,” saxophonist and clarinetist Ulises Bella has said. “Man, the tension of it, the multiculturalism of it. L.A. is like, we’re bonded by bridges.”
Ozo is also a product of the city’s grassroots political scene. Proudly born as a multiracial crew in post-uprising 1990s’ Los Angeles, the band has built a formidable reputation over five full-length studio albums and a relentless touring schedule for taking party rocking so seriously that it becomes new school musical activism.
“Just being who we are and just doing what we’re doing with music at this time is very political,” says bassist Wil-Dog Abers. “The youth see us up there and recognize themselves. So in a playful, party-type of way, I think it’s real easy for this band to get dangerous. We are starting to realize just how big of a voice we actually have as a band and how important it is for us to use it.”
In 2007, the reach and power of that voice went to new global heights. The band had long been a favorite of international audiences—playing everywhere from Japan to North Africa and Australia—and their music had always been internationalist in its scope, seamlessly blending and transforming traditions from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East (what other band could record a song once described as “Arabic jarocho dancehall”?), but that year they entered the global arena in a different way.
They were invited by the U.S. State Department to serve as official Cultural Ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored international tours to Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, tours that linked Ozomatli to a tradition of cultural diplomacy that includes the esteemed likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong.
In places like Tunisia, India, Jordan and Nepal, Ozo didn’t just play rousing free public concerts, but offered musical workshops and master classes and visited arts centers, summer camps, youth rehabilitation centers and even a Palestinian refugee camp. They listened to performances by local musicians and often joined in for impromptu jam sessions with student bands and community musicians. Most shows ended up with kids dancing on stage and their new collaborators sitting in for a tabla solo or a run on the slide guitar.
In the case of Nepal, the band’s trip was part of a celebration of the country’s newly ratified peace accord and they arrived with a direct message: “Different instruments but one rhythm, together we can make a prosperous Nepal.” Their concert, which drew more than 14,000 people, was a historic one—Ozo were the first Western band to do a concert in Nepal, and the event was the country’s first peaceful mass gathering that was not a protest or a religious ceremony.
In 2009, Ozomatli traveled to Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand performing free concerts and extending humanitarian outreach, including HIV and AIDS care clinics, visits to schools for the blind and deaf, orphanages, Methadone clinics, and outreach programs to refugees and disadvantaged youth.
In 2010, Ozomatli journeyed to the earthquake zone in Dujiangyan, China, an area still ravaged by the devastating 7.9 temblor of May 12, 2008, that killed at least 68,000 people and injured countless more. Ozo’s outreach in this area focused on extending the value of music education to children in orphanages, schools for migrant workers families and schools for the handicapped.
Ozomatli were honored to help celebrate the Boston Pops 125th Anniversary, performing songs from the band’s latest release Fire Away, as well as Ozo classics from their previous discs, accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In November, Ozomatli made an appearance at TEDxSF—the first musical talk ever given at any TED conference—mixing discussion and sound to explore the challenges and promises of musical identities in a global age.
Ozomatli has spent 15 years working diligently to spread its message of peace, communication and understanding through music, with a longstanding tradition of performing for children all over the world, from the schools of north St. Louis to the orphanages of Southeast Asia. In 2011, the band focused on “oZoKidZ,” a special family-friendly set geared toward performing for children and adults alike.
The band will perform in Fresno on April 20 at the Tower Theater.