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Ozomatli's Diverse Music Gets Personal


The Grammy Award-winning group, Ozomatli is one of the most ethnically diverse bands around today. Diversity is reflected in the band's music. It's full of energy, a mix of funk, Latin, rock, reggaeton, R&B and hip-hop. There's even a little taste of Louisiana.


YDSTIE: That's "Magnolia Soul" from Ozomatli's latest CD titled, "Don't Mess with the Dragon." Joining us from the studios of NPR West are Ozomatli band members Ulises Bella and Jiro Yamaguchi. Uli plays several instruments and Jiro is a percussionist. They both sing background vocals. Welcome to both of you.

ULISES BELLA: Hey, thanks for having us.

JIRO YAMAGUCHI: How's it's going?

YDSTIE: That song, "Magnolia Soul," chastises President Bush for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, but a political attitude isn't unusual for Ozomatli.

YAMAGUCHI: It's really how we started. It's part of the identity of the band. Our roots came from a community center where there was a stand-in and a sit-in. And the role of the band was actually to come in and play music to raise money for this community center. And like for the first year, we did nothing but benefits behind different causes from, you know, the Zapatista movement to women's issues. And so we've always done that, and it's actually how we started.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. You even served as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. to India and Nepal.

BELLA: Oh, yeah.

YAMAGUCHI: That's Uli's title. It's on his card.

BELLA: Yes. Yes.

YDSTIE: Is that right?

BELLA: I am a cultural ambassador.

YDSTIE: Your new CD is "Don't Mess with the Dragon."

YAMAGUCHI: That's right.

YDSTIE: It's your fourth CD. It's clear it's a little different from what's come before. Are you trying to move in a particular direction?

BELLA: Well, we're always evolving and we've always seen each album as like almost a different chapter in this - with big book of what Ozomatli is.

YDSTIE: One of the really great songs on this album is called, "City of Angels."


YDSTIE: You guys are based in L.A. and you really see yourself as a reflection of the city.

BELLA: I remember in the beginnings of this band, we're like how can we describe our sound to people when they ask us. And one of our favorite quotes is always, like, you drive down Sunset Boulevard and turn off your stereo and roll down your windows, and all the music that comes out of each and every different car, whether it's salsa, cumbia, meringue or hip-hop, funk or whatever, it's that crazy blend that's going on between that cacophony of sounds is Ozomatli, you know. And I think we totally use the city as the source of inspiration especially through it's - you know, the people and things like that, you know.

YDSTIE: The band's been together for 12 years now. And I wonder about a cut on your new album called "Can't Stop," sounds like it's written sort of as a reminder of the struggle and the struggle that maybe the band has got.


ZACK DE LA ROCHA: (Singing) So you feel you can't go on, that you got nothin' left to lose. That there is no one left to love that you got nothin' left to choose. You can't stop now for another day because we got to move on in a different way. Today is another day. You can't stop now today is another day.

BELLA: As a band, we've had to deal with our own struggles, whether it's, you know, leaving our families during tour, even addiction and things like that. And I think in a lot of ways that song is our, you know, statement to ourselves almost that we can't stop this love, this love of the band, this love of life. I think in a lot of ways we worked on that song - it's kind of like a declaration of our own, you know, personal and collective, you know, aspirations.

YDSTIE: Keeping the band together is I would think a challenge. I mean, you've got what, six members and then you have a number of people that play with you as well.

YAMAGUCHI: Yeah, it is a challenge, you know, people grow in different ways and sometimes, they don't want to do it anymore. Sometimes, they have other projects, you know. Sometimes, you know, they go crazy.

YDSTIE: Are both of you original members?



YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

BELLA: As of right now, we're a nine-member band, and when you go see Ozomatli that's what you're going to see, nine guys just going up on stage.

YDSTIE: You guys have so many different influences and so many different styles. Do you ever get worried or do you ever stop and say, whoa, too much. You've got too much going on this song.

YAMAGUCHI: Well, you know the thing...

YDSTIE: You got to dial it back a little bit.

BELLA: Less is more, we're - more is more.


YAMAGUCHI: No, but that is true and sometimes, when you're in the studio it can kind of get out of control. And I think we've gotten better at it, you know, kind of self-editing. And, I think, on this last record, you know, it helped to have a producer.

YDSTIE: Right.

BELLA: I think in certain ways, though, that is the beauty of what is Ozomatli. It's, like, throwing blends and mixes and music and traditions from around the world that I don't think other bands have done, you know. And it's like - that's one of the beautiful things about touring, as we get to go to places like Turkey and Nepal and India and, you know, New Orleans, Cuba, wherever it is, and we get to listen to that music from the source, you know.

YDSTIE: One of the really sweet songs on this album is called "La Gallina."


YDSTIE: It has a little (unintelligible) sound, I think. A really...

BELLA: Definitely, it's like a cumbia, like, but in a more of a Mexican style and a Colombian style.


YDSTIE: Ozomatli's "La Gallina."


YAMAGUCHI: That song is about bringing your inner chicken(ph) man.


YAMAGUCHI: We're actually making a video for it right now, as we speak.

YDSTIE: There's one more song on "Don't Mess with the Dragon," that I want us to hear. It's about a soldier in Iraq, "Violeta."


YDSTIE: Can you give us the content of the lyrics in English?

BELLA: Well, it's a song from a point of view of a soldier who, I guess, reaches a point of epiphany at that moment of being on the other side, of being shot, being, you know, passing and he's just basically questioning the motives of it all, you know, at that moment.


YDSTIE: Let me ask you about the name of your band - Ozomatli - where does it come from?

YAMAGUCHI: Our band originally had another name called Todos Somos Marcos. When we first started for the - about the first six months, and our original drummer Anton Morales came up with the name Ozomatli.

YDSTIE: Does it have a meaning? Does it, you know...

YAMAGUCHI: It does. It's an Aztec character on...

BELLA: On the calendar.

YAMAGUCHI: On the calendar, yeah. And it's a little monkey guy, and he represents fire, passion, harvest. He's the orchestrator of the jungle. He's kind of...

BELLA: Mischievous.

YAMAGUCHI: Yeah, mischievous. And so it seemed appropriate for the personality of the band.

YDSTIE: Was it a conscious effort to have an ethnically diverse band or did it just happen that way?

BELLA: Well, yeah, we put ads in the paper, man. We're, like, we need a Japanese guy playing percussion. We need a Jewish guy on bass, if that, you know, and everybody answered the ad.

BELLA: Yeah.


BELLA: You know, actually, I think that's one of the beautiful things about growing up in places like L.A., London, New York, you know, where there's a lot of mixes of people going on. And, I think for us, it's one of those things that other people point out more than we realize it, you know. But if there's any message that I think we've ever had that's kind of a credo or, you know, party line of Ozomatli is that we celebrate the difference. We celebrate diversity. We celebrate all the things that each person in this world has to offer.

YDSTIE: Ulises Bella and Jiro Yamaguchi from the group, Ozomatli. The band's latest CD is called "Don't Mess with the Dragon." Thanks a lot guys.

YAMAGUCHI: Thank you for having us.

BELLA: Thank you so much.

YDSTIE: You can hear more of Ozomatli's hip-hop, funk fusion songs on our Web site at npr.org/music. This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm John Ydstie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.