Monkey God Music

Political and diverse, Ozomatli returns to a town that 'gets' their music

The symbolic image of a cultural melting pot has long been associated with the Americas in general and the United States in particular, but the idea always made me feel uncomfortable. Often, the process amounts to throwing in all those colorful and flavorful ingredients of the separate cultures that make up our country and allowing them to melt together into a bland sludge. Scrapings from the bottom of that pot often end up being called "world music" of indeterminate origin.

Better that we honor the traditions that make our communities diverse by setting all the ingredients out on the same table so we can taste each in their unadulterated state, discovering and learning to appreciate the similar, distinct flavors that many of them share.

Which is pretty much the raison d'être of the Los Angeles band Ozomatli, which has played salsa, funk, hip-hop, Latin jazz, Middle Eastern music and rock music for the last decade.

Ozomatli formed 10 years ago this April, says tenor saxophonist Ulises Bella, one of the band's founding members.

"Many of us, as individuals, were involved in different bands and jobs or whatever, and the main focus of each of our energies was on the building of the Peace and Justice Center in L.A. It was a community center that started at the time," Bella says by cell phone after a sound check the other night in Sacramento.

"We would play to raise money for art supplies, or wood for a skateboard ramp, drama projects, graffiti projects. So the people who came together to play whatever instruments they had became the skeleton of the band at that point."

The band's name is also that of the monkey god on the Aztec calendar. "He represents fire and the new harvest and all kinds of things, including music. He basically orchestrates everything that goes on in the jungle," Bella says.

In Ozo's jungle, survival of the fittest meant being able to play to different audiences.

"That was part of our strategy when were coming up," Bella says. "We never really just played for one particular scene. We opened punk rock shows, salsa shows, for hip-hop artists. We knew we weren't always going to be playing for our own crowd, but we hoped that if we weren't, they would hear something new and maybe be open to that."

The 10 members of Ozomatli--who have Latino, African-American, Asian and Caucasian backgrounds--are themselves always open to hearing, and playing, something new.

For instance, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and subsequent vilification of all things Arab, the band began exploring the rich history of Middle Eastern and North African music. For the band, it represented an attempt to reach out and understand a region and culture that many in our country considered the enemy.

That effort resulted in the decidedly Middle Eastern influence on its dynamic latest album, Street Signs, released earlier this year on the band's new label, Concord Records.

"We've always been major fans of that music--North African and all the sounds from the Middle East," Bella says. "The big reason we really, seriously decided to incorporate it in this new record is that we felt it was a necessity in a sense, with some of the post-Sept. 11 dehumanization of Arab and Middle Eastern cultures. The time was right to find a place for all those sounds."

And the classically trained and jazz-schooled saxophonist says that "just like reggae, (Middle Eastern music) has found itself in so many different places, especially in just about any music that comes from a country where they speak Spanish."

Ozo even invited noted Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun to play on the record, which also features French-Jewish gypsy band Les Yeux Noirs and the Prague Symphony among its guests.

Not that Ozomatli has abandoned its roots. Chicano funkified hip-hop and infectious Latin jazz carry most of the album. Fortifying the record are other guest musicians such as Latin jazz king Eddie Palmieri, Los Lobos singer-guitarist David Hidalgo and two former Ozo members: rapper Chali 2na (now with Jurassic 5) and DJ Cut Chemist.

Social issues, obviously, are of great concern to the members of Ozomatli--racism, health care, education, human rights, global politics, immigrants' rights and women's rights, to name a few.

The band's concerns are illustrated in the remarkable song "(Who Discovered) America?" on the new album. It's about identity--national and individual--and the role of the immigrant in empire-building.

"My family is first-generation immigrant--both my parents got here in the late 1960s," Bella says. "And the struggles of the immigrant are very much in mind for all of us, as well as the constant attacks on new immigrants and a lot of the ways that government and other citizens try to prevent them from getting an education or decent health care."

As adamantly liberal as the group is, Bella says there is a higher power that supersedes ideologies.

"If there's something we can bond over, when we can't agree on politics, it is music. I'm all about that. You can be a serious John Birch Society motherfucker and still come to our shows. And enjoy it."

Judging from the turnout at its shows in Tucson over the years, Ozo's messages and grooves are not falling on deaf ears.

"We've played Tucson quite a bit. Beside the fact that it is kind of on the way to and from L.A., Tucson was one of the first cities when we were starting out as a touring band that really seemed to 'get' us. So Tucson has been a good place to place for us, not just because of its proximity."

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