In 1995, a few musicians teamed up to help raise funds for a community center in their neighborhood. Years later, after taking many political stances and recording several albums, a core of seven artists—six of the original founding members—come to find themselves with Grammys under their belts and touring the world as U.S. Cultural Ambassadors. The City of Los Angeles even proclaimed April 23 “Ozomatli Day.”
Ozomatli has seen MCs and DJs come and go from the likes of Chali 2na, Cut Chemist and the infamous William Marrufo to Tre Hardson and Kinetic Source. But at the end of the day, six original members (Wil-Dog Albers, Raúl Pacheco, Justin “El Niño” Porée, Asdrubal Sierra, Ulises Bella and Jiro Yamaguchi) teamed up with Mario Calire to become a band of seven.
“It’s been the seven of us for two or three years now. Everybody in one way or another is irreplaceable, but at the same time they’re replaceable. Everyone is expendable, but he brings a certain flavor to the band that no one can recreate,” says Ulises Bella, who has been with the group for 15 years. “Sometimes I think that no one in the band’s bigger than the band; the band itself is bigger than the sum of its parts.”
Through all of the creative minds that have come, gone or stayed, five full-length albums were recorded with the most recent full-length being Fire Away (released this past April). On Saturday, the band comes to the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside in support of the new album.
“It’s very jam-based . . . There are tracks on there that are really different from what Ozomatli has done,” Bella says of Fire Away. “The album itself has a certain sound and energy that other records don’t have.”
In 1998, three years after playing for social and political causes and frequenting the local Hollywood clubs, Ozomatli released their self-titled first album. Along the way Chali 2na, Cut Chemist, William Marrufo, Jose Espinoza, Kid WIK, Kinetic Source and Andy Mendoza played with the band later to be replaced with Mario Calire, Sheffer Bruton, MC Jabu and DJ Spinobi. “The self-titled record is the one that made the biggest impact for sure,” Bella says. “I think for fans of Ozomatli, it’s a classic reference record. It was our declaration of who we were in that moment using all the styles that represented Los Angeles musically.”
Ozomatli’s second record, Embrace the Chaos, was released in 2001, earning them a Grammy.
The band’s third release came in 2004 with Street Signs, in many ways laying the foundation for aspiring towards bring the band international. “I’m definitely proud of that album,” Bella says. In 2007, Ozomatli released Don’t Mess with the Dragon.
With Fire Away, Ozomatli’s fifth and most recent release, the band changes things up, but remain true to their political roots. One of the most controversial tracks, “Gay Vatos in Love,” is a homage to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in support of gay marriages.
“It’s a declaration about how we feel about [gay marriages]. Love is not a discriminatory thing. People want to express themselves. Who am I to stop them? Who am I to tell them that what they are doing is wrong?” Bella asks. “In society right now, we have a lot of walls that eventually need to be knocked down. These hang-ups that we have are really holding us back. It’s not like homosexuality was invented in the last 100 years. It’s sort of ridiculous that we’re still at a point where we see it in nature, we see that people are born with it and we still have these archaic ideas that it’s a choice, that they are wrong, that they shouldn’t be happy this way . . . So, in a lot of ways we thought we would throw the gauntlet down and support our brothers and sisters who are fighting for their rights.”
With the new album, the band members continue to be U.S. Cultural Ambassadors and touring the world—including places where Ozomatli is largely unknown.
“There might be a handful of people who know us or our music, but we play in front of people who don’t know anything about us and they react positively to the music so I guess it adds a certain validity to the band,” he says. “We just do what we do.”
Ozomatli at Fox Performing Arts Center, 3801 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 779-9800; www.foxriversidelive.com, www.ozomatli.com. Sat, Nov. 13. 8PM. Tickets $20-$35.