Latin hip-hop group still adding new sounds after 14 years
Steamboat Springs — Every time Ozomatli goes on an international tour, saxophonist and founding band member Ulises Bella heads to a local CD store.
He asks whoever is working what locals are listening to and looks for new styles to add to Ozomatli’s sound: a community yard-sale mix of salsa, hip-hop, jazz, funk, punk rock, meringue, North African classical and just about every other kind of music the band’s members have ever heard.
On Sunday, Ozomatli helps close out the season with a free concert at the base of Steamboat Ski Area. The band just finished a tour of South Africa and Madagascar, and in the past few years has completed global runs of shows as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department.
With each tour, Ozomatli adds a layer to a tumultuous sound that started in a tumultuous place: mid-1990s Los Angeles. As the melting pot gets bigger, the band maintains its relentless live energy, pumping out shows that don’t allow audiences to stop dancing.
Bella talked with 4 Points about where Ozomatli got its start, how the band’s sound has evolved through the years, and how it incorporates music from every corner of the world.
4 POINTS: At this point, Ozomatli plays Latin dance music, hip-hop, punk, funk and just about every style of music you could name. Where did you come up with that list of influences?
ULISES BELLA: It pretty much started, I think, from the beginning. When we first started the band, people already had super-individual musical histories, where one guy was super into funk and reggae, and another guy was super into salsa and meringue and jazz – you name it, every member kind of came from something.
And from that foundation we came to come up with a really individual and unique blend of music that kind of represented what L.A. is.
And after that, I think we were super-influenced by touring around the country and absorbing all the sounds from the states and music scenes. And then after that, it was all our travels around the world, and hearing music that is completely off the radar with Western audiences.
4 POINTS: How do you get at some of those off-the-radar styles?
UB: It’s funny, when you go to these really remote places, or just anywhere, they always have their own music scenes. : Sometimes the subject matter is all the same (stuff), which is funny: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, love lost, love gained – the human condition is pretty set.
4 POINTS: What are some instances where you’ve discovered a new world sound and used it in an Ozomatli song?
UB: North African, Arabic classical music was a super-big influence for us two records ago. It started with straight up listening to it a lot, checking out some of the newer artists and also checking out some of the more classical artists.
After listening to a lot of it, for me at least, I try to have an interpretation of it, because I know that what I’m going to play is not going to be straight up that style, but I can at least interpret it in my own way.
4 POINTS: Do you ever run across music in the countries you’re touring that’s just not good, that you wouldn’t want to touch?
UB: That’s the other common thing about every culture’s music, is that there’s always a good amount of schmaltz and cheese and (stuff). : It is what it is – everybody has their candy music. : You don’t recognize a word they’re saying, but you can tell it’s cheesy.
4 POINTS: You were saying Ozomatli came about as a uniquely L.A. band. What do you mean by that?
UB: L.A. is already a huge melting pot of a city. : For me growing up it was hip-hop, obviously, whatever pop was popular at the time, rock, punk rock. And then there’s all these underlying things going on too in this city. A perfect example is that L.A. is home to some of the biggest communities outside of their home country. : So you get this crazy blend and you get to experience this crazy music, and it’s almost easier for me to digest something that I can’t understand.
I think in a weird way L.A. was our kind of womb; it set us up for being able to appreciate music from all over, and it set us up to have that musicality to be able to be diverse enough.
4 POINTS: Where do you think the sound might go next?
UB: The last big international trip we were on was in South Africa and Madagascar, but in about a month we’re going to be going to Vietnam, Burma and Thailand. I’m sure that trip is going to be a big deal for us, and being able to absorb whatever music is going on there. :
That’s one of the cooler things about some of the places that Ozomatli has been able to go – we go to these places and we get to hook up with musicians too, and we get to jam out with musicians from these local areas. And it’s crazy, because we don’t know each other’s music at all, but we get to hook up on this basic level.
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Summer is around the corner and Steamboat Springs is gearing up for a busy one.