Born 20 years ago, after its members met at a labor rally, Ozomatli has always been a band equally rooted in message and music.
In Tucson—one of the first cities to embrace the multi-genre, multi-racial Los Angeles group—Ozomatli performs regularly and had already lent its music to the local Mexican-American student effort to save their ethnic studies program.
Now the widely respected Ozomatli—the Grammy winners were selected as U.S. State Department Cultural Ambassadors in 2009—returns to perform at the 2015 Concert For Civility, a benefit to support the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding. Ozomatli also joined the star-studded lineup of the first benefit concert for the fund, created by Ron Barber and his family after the Jan. 8, 2011 shooting.
"Essentially, we're always going to be who we are. Anything we support, we always do it wholeheartedly with our band and our presence," says Ulises Bella, who plays saxophone, clarinet and more.
The band has long been known for its efforts in support of Latinos, immigration, workers and women, and is eager to speak out again for the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding.
"It's a bigger angle here," Bella says. "Ozomatli is a multicultural experience. Anything to promote that mindset and that idea, Ozomatli is all about it. We want to lend our music to that."
Bella and his bandmates have watched closely over the last several years as Arizona politicians representing the white, Republican majority in Maricopa County have set their agenda in vehement opposition to immigration and the rapidly growing Latino minority.
"Whether it's the sheriff or the governor or this or that, even when there was this crazy boycott, it feels like Arizona is this battleground in a lot of ways," he says.
So it's no surprise to find Ozomatli in Tucson—and elsewhere—defending the underrepresented.
"For us, it's part of our DNA. We started with activist groups before the band," Bella says. "Some of the things that we supported, we would've supported regardless of whether we were in a band. From that to now, sometimes I wonder.
"I really thought there was going to be a lot more hoopla from the artist world about the whole Ferguson thing and police brutality. I'm waiting for somebody who is really, really big to speak up about it," he says. "But I can't lose sleep about whether somebody is going to speak up or not."
Ozomatli's activist streak is just one crucial element of the band's identity. The band's unique sound—calling on salsa, cumbia, hip-hop, funk and more—represents the crazy blend of Los Angeles itself. The sound has evolved, but has stood the test of time.
"Ramping up to this 20th anniversary, it's crazy that we're sill around and creating music together. For any relationship, let alone a band, hanging around for 20 years is a big deal," Bella says. "When you're first starting, it's all about just trying to hustle it in a way that you can be a working musician. We just wanted to be feeding ourselves by playing music. When I was able to quite my job, 17 years ago, I thought I was successful."
Ozomatli has performed with symphony orchestras—including a New Year's Eve show with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.—and released a kids album in 2012.
"One of the main motivations of why we wrote a kids album is we saw that our fans are having children and we wanted to create music that our fans could dig on and their kids could dig on," Bella says. "In a lot of ways, I hope that we fall into that kind of legacy vibe. You already see it at Ozomatli shows, the kids are there, their parents are there and sometimes the grandparents are there too. It's a multigenerational kind of things and it trips me out when people say 'I grew up listening to you.' You don't put that into consideration when you're in the thick of it. It's crazy how much are you are a part of people's lives.
"People's connection to the band can be from digging on the activist trip, or the party trip. The overall vibe of an Ozomatli concert is jubilation and partying and sharing and seeing all kinds of people together," he says.