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Interview: Ozomatli's Ulises Bella

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Ozomatli is one of my favorite bands, and not just because they're from my home town, Los Angeles. Their music fuses Spanish with English, rock with funk, hip hop, pop and any other form that catches their attention. Don't Mess With The Dragon is the name of their new album, and it's simply irresistable, a party on a disc.

I spoke to Ulises Bella who plays sax and clarinet as well as providing some of the band's vocals. It was a chance to ask some of the questions that were on my mind and learn more about this unique and dynamic collective.

I was trying to file your new album, Don’t Mess With The Dragon into my collection, and I wasn’t sure what section to put it in. How would you describe your music?

It’s kind of indefinable in a way because we mix so many different genres of music and different traditions. Usually we like to say that it’s people’s music. Some people call it Latin alternative, some call it world music, whatever. We’re at a point that we just write and we don’t even think of labels.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got together as a band?

Twelve years ago, a couple of the band members were part of this labor dispute that was going on in downtown Los Angeles and what ended up happening is that they occupied the building they were in as a form of protest. We named the building the ‘Peace & Justice Center’.

It was an old building right in downtown L.A. and what this building turned into was a very vibrant youth community center. There were all kinds of things going on: poetry, dance rehearsals, band rehearsals, art, skate boarding. And what happened, in order to keep this place functioning, every weekend there would be parties there. The people who ended up coming to the Peace and Justice Center, contributing their music to keep this place going, slowly became the lineup of what was later to become Ozomatli.

I was listening to your song “La Temperatura” about last year’s May pro-immigration marches and found it interesting because there was a pro- immigration rally downtown this week and only about 3000 people showed up. Last year, my website was inundated with readers giving their opinions, both pro and against some of the immigration issues, it was a hot topic, and a year later, only 3000 people show up?

I think there was a huge momentum with the May 1st march. There was definitely an anti-immigration sentiment going on and I think that played a huge part in it. Now, whether or not this rally was well promoted, I don’t know, we weren’t here. But I think that particular song, “Temperatura” was definitely influenced in a lot of ways by the May 1 marches. We were in the middle of recording the album at that time and I remember going out to the marches with our bass player.

Personally, I felt that it was it was very inspiring to see – you know with immigration, at least here in Los Angeles, it’s mostly Mexican and Central American issues. But the way I see it, there’s a deeper historical context. This country was founded by immigrants, whether it was the Irish, the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Italians. I felt that it was very much a scapegoat issue, bashing the immigrants, when its obvious we’re having problems in different places.

You know what’s interesting is that a lot of immigrants from different countries were the most opposed to it.

Yeah, and I think that’s what usually happens. Once a certain immigrant group gets assimilated into American society, then sometimes they feel we’re OK here, now that’s enough. Forget about the new guys.

Look at Bill O’Reilly, I’m sure that when they first came here, his ancestors probably weren’t treated that well, either..

Can you comment on what you feel is musically new in Don’t Mess With The Dragon?

I think, first, the process we went through to come up with the music was different. When we first start the songwriting process, it’s normal for us, as a band, to hole ourselves up in a typical band rehearsal studio, you know? They have them here in Los Angeles and they’re usually these big buildings where hundreds of bands are rehearsing all at the same time. They always smell like beer and piss.

This time around, what we ended up doing, we had the wonderful opportunity of taking over an art gallery that was owned by the friend of a fan that was overlooking downtown LA. The name of the gallery was “Tropico de Nopal”. In this gallery, each guy ended up setting up his own installation and we would spend our days there writing music. It all culminated in the exhibition opening where we basically presented these new ideas.

After being in this more creative environment, we continued with the songwriting. And more than ever, I think that on this record we concentrated a lot on the hooks, on the choruses, on a feeling of a lot of inclusion among the different band members where before, even though we were mixing Spanish and English, we would be like one voice, two voices. Now we’re trying to throw in 3 or 4 different voices. I also think that, in a lot of ways, we were at a point where we felt that there were a lot of things that we had conquered as a group, but the one that has always eluded us has been radio and we needed to get a couple of songs that were Ozomatli but that weren’t over radio’s head. Stylistically.

I think that, with our first single “Can’t Stop” and our second single “After Party” we were trying to do that in a way, by using a certain songwriting form that radio could consume. At the same time, though, I think the experimental spirit of the band is still alive. With tracks like “Segunda Mano” we are mixing different forms of music that I’ve never heard any other group do. Also, a song like “Don’t Mess With The Dragon” is such a huge hodge-podge of styles that it turns out to be even more hybrid.

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