Ulises Bella is one of the founding members of Ozomatli. The Latin/hip-hop/rock band celebrated their 21 anniversary this April when we spoke with saxophonist Bella about the band’s origin, addressing social issues in music and authenticity.
Emiliano: When Ozomatli first began, after the release of your first album, you toured with Carlos Santana on his Supernatual Tour. Could you tell us about that experience?
Ulises Bella: To start with the whole idea of Santana, his music and his repertoire are obviously pretty influential in Spanish-speaking communities. Especially if you’re a musician, someone would always scream out one of his songs at a party and you would learn it. His sounds and his musicianship have always been pretty influential in the band.
The story is that Sal Santana, Carlos’ son, got ahold of our first album and showed it to Carlos. Carlos heard it, was really impressed by it and that’s when he offered us our first try-out gig opening up for him at the Anaheim Pond. We played and it went really, really well. After that I remember they offered us an opening slot for the national tour.
E: And that exposed you to more people?
U: Yeah. It’s crazy because – like I mentioned before how influential his song book is – he would have us jam with him every night. For me playing saxophone, we were basically three or four songs in his set also. We were his horn section for that tour. That was really, really a trip! It totally blew our minds to be able to play these songs we’d been playing all our lives with the guy who popularized them.
E: That then gave you guys a bigger platform, because you went on to win multiple Grammies after that. Even for your following albums.
U: We had actually already established a pretty heavy following in L.A. and California. There were two tours, one with Mana and Santana that was ginormous. Really being the first band out of these three, and trying to – we were all in our early 20s – we were out for blood, we were trying to rock it so hard. We were really trying to parlay a lot of fans.
E: In your music, Ozomatli doesn’t shy away from addressing politics. What do you feel that you guys are trying to accomplish through your songs?
U: I don’t know if we’re necessarily thinking in this way where it’s like, ‘through our music we are trying to accomplish this or that.’ I think more what it is, is that since the beginning of this band, as a collective we have always backed certain things and supported certain things, and there are things that resonate in our heart. Most of the time it’s been social issues, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, music education, education in general, anti-war stance. With us, it’s always been part of our DNA, ever since we started as a band. What I’m trying to say is that whether or not it’s popular or trendy or accepted we’ve always been this way.
E: Are there any particular artists that Ozomattli came up listening to that influenced you to be that way?
U: I think there are two definite “protest musics” that personally influenced me and in a way influenced Ozomatli too. In one tradition, it’s me in high school being super into punk rock and being into bands that were heavy into politics, whether it was the Dead Kennedies or Crass or Fugazi or Minor Threat. Bands that had something to say, and it was pretty uplifting.
The other flip of that protest music was music that was really danceable. That influenced the trajectory of what Ozomatli has been. Bands like Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, James Brown, Public Enemy, where there were really heavy things that were being said, yet it was behind a really, really danceable beat.
E: Coming more to present day, are there any contemporary artist that you guys look at and you have an appreciation for?
U: As far as “message music”?
U: The one name that comes to mind, just because of his performance too – and he’s from L.A. – is Kendrick Lamar. I think he’s one of the few guys that, at least for me personally in the hip-hop world, not only in the hip-hop world, but one of the guys who’s popular in the hip-hop world, that’s really presenting something deep.
E: Do you think there’s a need for more of that in contemporary music? That depth?
U: That’s a good question. I’m not completely sure, just because we’re living in a moment now where music is consumed and distributed in radical, different ways then it was 20 years ago. Personally, yes I do wish there were more bands speaking up about a lot of different things, but at the same time, I really feel that if it’s not coming from a sincere place then it’ll come off that way.
E: One thing I’m really interested in talking to members of bands about is: What’s the line between you as an individual and the music that you put out? How much of that is that you as an individual, or is it more of a shared idea of the group?
U: Definitely a shared idea. Since we started, that’s what made the band so unique. We had a horn section that was individually and collectively influenced by salsa, merengue, jazz, skaw, reggae. Then we had a guitar player that was really into nueva canción and folk music, and a bass player who was super into reggae and funk. We had Cut Chemist, one of the best DJs ever, we had Chali 2na, Giro on the tablas. All these individuals are what made Ozomatli so tasteful.
E: Do you think there is a song or two from that you feel are really representative of your group?
U: I’ll say Cumbia De Los Muertos, some of our best music is collaborative when we’re all just jamming in a room. I remember that one for sure was a jam. Also because of the message of the story and the lyrics and how deep it is. And, how it actually is something that personally and individually, for [trumpet player] Asdru, resonates real deep for him. The lyrics of the song are having to do with his brother who has passed away tragically from gang violence. It’s the story of his brother’s spirit coming back and dancing with his mom on Day of the Dead. Then the breakdown with Chali 2na, it really put a lot of different elements together that hadn’t been put together before.
This year, Ozomatli plans on releasing Ozo-fied Volume 1: A Century of Mexican Classics, a collection of contemporary and classic Mexican music being given “the reggae treatment” with legendary reggae producers Sly and Robbie. Ozomatli can be found on their website, Twitter and Facebook.