From L.A. to the World
In their fourteen years together as a band, celebrated Los Angeles culture-mashers Ozomatli have gone from being hometown heroes to being named U.S. State
Department Cultural Ambassadors.
Ozomatli has always juggled two key identities. They are the voice of their city and they are citizens of the world.
Their music-- a notorious urban-Latino-and-beyond collision of hip hop and salsa, dancehall and cumbia, samba and funk, merengue and comparsa, East LA R&B and New
Orleans second line, Jamaican ragga and Indian raga-- has long followed a key mantra: it will take you around the world by taking you around L.A.
This has never been truer for Ozo than it is in 2009. More than ever before, the band is both of the world and of L.A.
Originally formed to play at an area labor protest over a decade ago, Ozomatli spent some of their early days participating in everything from earthquake prep "hip hop
ghetto plays" at inner-city L.A. elementary schools to community activist events, protests, and city fundraisers. Ever since, they have been synonymous with their city:
their music has been taken up by The Los Angeles Dodgers and The Los Angeles
Clippers, they recorded the street-view travelogue “City of Angels” in 2007 as a new urban anthem, and most recently, they were featured as part of the prominent L.A.
figures imaging campaign “We Are 4 L.A.” on NBC.
"This band could not have happened anywhere else but L.A.,” saxophonist and clarinetist Ulises Bella has said. “Man, the tension of it, the multiculturalism of it. L.A. is like, we're bonded by bridges."
Ozo is also a product of the city’s grassroots political scene. Proudly born as a multi- racial crew in post-uprising 90s Los Angeles, the band has built a formidable reputation over four full-length studio albums and a relentless touring schedule for taking party rocking so seriously that it becomes new school musical activism.
"Just being who we are and just doing what we're doing with music at this time is very political," says bassist Wil-Dog Abers. "The youth see us up there and recognize
themselves. So in a playful, party-type of way, I think it's real easy for this band to get dangerous. We are starting to realize just how big of a voice we actually have as a band
and how important it is for us to use it."
In 2007, the reach and power of that voice went to new global heights. The band had long been a favorite of international audiences—playing everywhere from Japan to
North Africa and Australia—and their music had always been internationalist in its scope, seamlessly blending and transforming traditions from Africa, Latin America, Asia
and the Middle East (what other band could record a song once described as “Arabic jarocho dancehall”?), but last year, they entered the global arena in a different way.
They were invited by the U.S. State Department to serve as official Cultural Ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored international tours to Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East, tours that linked Ozomatli to a tradition of cultural diplomacy that also includes the esteemed likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and
For those who wondered how a band known for its vigilant anti-war stance could become a partner with the very Bush administration they have so vocally critiqued in the past, the band was clear about their position: it was all about responding to a global “cry for change” by using music to promote messages of peace and understanding.
As Bella told The Los Angeles Times during the band’s visit to an orphanage in Cairo, “Our world standing has deteriorated. I’m totally willing and wanting to give a different image of America than America has given over the last five years.”
In places like Tunisia, India, Jordan, and Nepal, Ozo didn’t just play rousing free public concerts, but offered musical workshops and master classes and visited arts centers,
summer camps, youth rehabilitation centers, and even a Palestinian refugee camp. They listened to performances by local musicians and often joined in for impromptu jam
sessions with student bands and community musicians. Most shows ended up with kids dancing on stage and their new collaborators sitting in for a tabla solo or a run on the
In the case of Nepal, the band’s trip was part of a celebration of the country’s newly ratified peace accord and they arrived with a direct message: “different instruments but one rhythm, together we can make a prosperous Nepal.” Their concert, which drew over 14,000 people, was a historic one—Ozo were the first Western band to do a
concert in Nepal and the event was the country’s first peaceful mass gathering that was not a protest or religious ceremony.
For the U.S Embassy in Nepal, Ozomatli were a model of how diversity promotes change. According to an official embassy release, “Ozomatli is living proof that diverse
backgrounds make a stronger and more prosperous whole. Ozomatli’s nine members are committed to addressing social issues of local, national and international importance
and they use the power of their own diversity to achieve this.”
Suddenly the lessons of L.A. had found their way into the world at large.
“I’ve always felt that music is the key to every culture, the beginning of an understanding,” says vocalist and trumpet player Asdru Sierra. “It’s a language far more universal than politics.”
Giovanni Castilhos: Gio, brazilian born in 1980 moved to California in 2004, bringing his exotic melodies to the westside. Composer and singer for his former californian based band Birdfish, formed in 2005, Gio has surprised fans by his unique blend of styles into a comfortable and progressive melodies. He released the first full album with the band in 2006, called "Birdfish in town" where they mixed Reggae, groove, punk and brazilian music altogether. Two years later, he released the "Moonfire Acustico", which has had amazing reviews throughout the brazilian community in Southern California. After that, his composing abilities and production techniques helped him to evolve onto a live acoustic looping production performance. Laying tracks from his guitar and wavedrum on top of another, he blends contemporary brazilian groove and californian styles. His contemporary approach to music appreciation and his roots in the brazilian culture allowed him to come up with an interesting fusion. Always supporting the local scene hosting events and promoting artists, he has helped several music projects to come into reality. "An urban appeal mixed with the peaceful paradise breeze" resume the sensation to listen to Gio's music. Beach vibe melodies to an subtle message of love and understanding craft the songs he always put up an is known by.
A rounded, grasp and young voice followed by dynamic slap attach approach on the guitar creates the ambience and natural bonding with his music. Played at several venues in Los Angeles and San Diego, such as Whiskey gogo, The Joint, The Lighthouse, Cannes, Wavehouse, Brennans and several festivals and venues in Brazil. Surfer spirited, his appreciation of the nature reflects on his music as his awareness message travels with his sounds.