The US State Department has been sending musicians overseas as musical ambassadors of culture, peace and acceptance for decades. Over the years, the ranks have included famous jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. In this spirit, they’ve selected a new artist to represent this cause over the past couple of years. Our current ambassadors are none other than Ozomatli. This diverse and enthusiastic group covers such a wide variety of genres that it’s no surprise that they’ve been selected to represent our country. Their music encompasses Latin, Salsa, hip hop, rock, funk, blues and even jazz. Having begun in Los Angeles, it seems only fitting that their genres are as far-reaching as each member’s background. They’ve palyed in orchestra’s, hip hop groups, Latin fusion acts, and their current drummer— Mario Calire—was even the previous drummer for the Wallflowers. OurStage wanted to dig a little deeper. So, we sat down with saxophone/clarinet/keys player Ulises Bella, who gave us the inside scoop about their touring and their music.
OS: You all come from diverse backgrounds (Latin, hip hop, salsa, funk and rock). How did you meet and how did the current lineup come about?
UB: The genesis of the band was in a community culture space in Downtown LA called the Peace and Justice Center. It was at this center that we all started playing parties to help raise money for any and all costs for the building. There are 6 of us who were there from the beginning and continue to be in Ozo.
OS: You guys played a bunch of shows with the Boston Pops earlier this year. How difficult was it to to incorporate orchestral instrumentation into your song arrangements?
UB: Thankfully we had an amazing arranger to help us with writing out the parts for the orchestra. Also being that a couple of us played in orchestras, we realize the caliber of musicianship involved.
OS: What was it like to look out and see a Symphony Hall audience out of their seats and dancing?
UB: It was amazing…being that we’re not the usual standard fair for an orchestra setting and for it to get the reaction the way we did was out this world!
OS: How did you guys end up being chosen as US Peace Ambassadors?
UB: After a NPR interview, we were contacted to see if we’d be interested in being cultural ambassadors. After much debate internally we decided that the opportunity was extremely valuable.
OS: What is it like representing your country and promoting peace through your music on government funded tours?
UB: Even though we are representing, we don’t go to these places as apologists to anything involving the foreign policy. We’re there to create a human connection through art that goes beyond the walls of division society creates.
OS: You’ve made such a mark on society that you’ve even had a holiday created in your name in Los Angeles. What was this like and how should we celebrate “Ozomatli Day”?
UB: It was crazy…we got kids and schools involved by having them all come up with there own unique interpretation of an Ozomatli song. Then at the end of the show, we had a super jam with everbody!!!! Even the mayor came through to say a few words! How you celebrate Ozomatli Day…give love and dance all day!
OS: The upbeat “Malagasy Shock” off your new album Fire Away is about an accident on tour concerning your guitarist/singer Raul Pacheco. Can you tell us more about what happened and the message you’d like the listener to take away from the song?
UB: Basically in the first minute of the first song playing in the capital of Madagascar, Raul’s guitar and microphone connected the loop of electricity for the whole stage. Being that the stage was not properly grounded, over 240 volts seared through his body making it seem that he was dancing wildly. He collapsed and was sent to the hospital. This life threatening experience gave cause for “Malagasy Shock” to carpe diem and “move your feet or you will die”!!!
OS: Having such an eclectic set of festival dates this summer, was there one in particular that the band enjoyed the most?
UB: We just got back recently from doing the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. For sure one of the Top 5 music festivals of the world!!! The band had two amazing gigs there and got to see MGMT, Massive Attack, Atoms for Peace, Buffalo Daughter and a crazy funk band from Japan called Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro that could school fools back in the States.
Check out the rest of the band’s festival/touring schedule into this fall!
9/17 – CSU Chico, Chico, CA
9/19 - KCRW World Festival- Viva Mexico!, Hollywood, CA
9/26 – San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival, San Jose, CA
10/1 - Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, NC
10/9 – Austin City Limits, Austin, TX