Interview: Ozomatli’s Uli Bella!

Six-piece Californian groovemeisters, Ozomatli, are bringing their full band and a booty-shaking selection of their epic hits down under next month. Their unique sound, encompassing Latin salsa, jazz-funk, reggae, and urban hip-hop is sure to have crowds up and partying across the east coast. No strangers to our shores, Ozomatli have previously played festivals, including Bluesfest and the Falls Festival. This time, the Grammy winners will be bringing the party via a set of headlining dates which will feature their beloved hits, as well as material from their new album, Nonstop: LA -> MEXICO -> JAMAICA. Thanks to our good friend, John Howarth of Bullet Proof, we had the great pleasure of catching up with the super-talented, multi-instrumentalist, Uli Bella, who talked about the upcoming tour and all things Ozomatli!


SR: Can you tell us about Nonstop: LA -> MEXICO -> JAMAICA, and what it was like to work with Sly and Robbie?

UB: What happened is that we’ve never really been a band that does the whole covers thing, and about six months ago we started playing particular songs that were really kind of like classic Mexican songs. And we started giving them a kind of reggae treatment, and our crowd was really, really into it. Then we realised that we were really kind of onto something and had this idea of choosing different songs that were pretty big hits. With the help of Sly and Robbie, we gave them the reggae treatment.

SR: Were you a fan, as many of us are, of Sly and Robbie’s?

UB: Oh yeah. I mean, we grew up on their music and on their production – whether it be Peter Tosh, or you name it – we’d always been really, really big fans of Sly and Robbie.

SR: I read that when you were growing up, you were really into punk, especially bands with political messages, like Fugazi and the Dead Kennedys. Then you also liked the funkier stuff, like James Brown and Bob Marley, and I know you’ve said you like Kendrick’s work, too. Do you still listen to the same music now that you liked back in the day?

UB: Oh, a lot of it, but then there’s always new music and new bands, so you’re always trying to keep up with everything. But all that old music still resonates heavily.

SR: Aside from the political nature of your music, it’s very life-affirming, uplifting stuff. What sort of music lifts you up and gets you in a party mood?

UB: I was just listening to a compilation of Spanish rumba music – rumba flamenca. It was a style popularised by the Gypsy Kings, but I guess this was the less commercial-sounding stuff. It was kind of the big sound in Barcelona for a long time. It’s real party music.

SR: You guys played at Bernie Sanders’ rally. What was it like and how did you get involved?

UB: It was great. I mean, that boat’s kind of sunk already, unfortunately (laughs). But Bernie’s message definitely resonated with us as a band, you know? We were hoping that he was going to go a little farther than he did. But the one thing that was definitely inspiring was how heavy the backing was, well especially with the youths, towards Bernie.

SR: How do you feel about the remaining candidates, as you head towards the election?

UB: It’s kind of disheartening, you know? It’s almost like… Oh, how can I say it?… For some of Hillary’s rhetoric, she may as well be a Republican; but, then again, when she’s standing next to a quasi-fascist like Trump, she sounds like a progressive.

(Both laugh)

UB: So, we’re kinda stuck between a shit sandwich and turd taco, you know? It’s kinda fucked up. And if Trump does win, at least we can look forward to some good art coming out of it.

SR: Yeah, and some really good protest music.

UB: Oh yeah, Margaret Thatcher-style!

SR: Now, you were talking about tacos. I was watching your Taco Tuesdays webisodes on YouTube, which were great fun. I’ve got to ask you, now – what makes for the perfect taco?

UB: Well, I will say this: what, for me, really makes a taco is usually the tortilla. When it’s hand-made, you can tell and it really makes the difference.

SR: That’s it? No favourite toppings or anything?

UB: Well, that’s the thing. Everyone’s into the certain meats that they like, and they have vegetarian options for the tacos. So, I mean, to each their own. But the thing really is the tortilla, and also the condiments – the sauces and things like that.

SR: Oh, well I’m a hot sauce fanatic. What are your favourite  sauces?

UB: Well, I really like habanero sauce – with nice habanero spices. Guacamole’s always really good – spicy, avocado-based salsas, you know? That’s the other thing – certain sauces and salsas go better together with certain meat. So like an avocado salsa will go better with an al pastor kind of marinade, where like a pico de gallo might be better for a gordita for deep-fried pork.

SR: Nice. Well, to you now: Was the sax your first instrument? Can you take us on a bit of a journey through your musical background?

UB: Classical piano was my first instrument. My father always said that the piano was the best base, so I studied classical piano for a long time. Then I switched to the clarinet, and the logical progression from clarinet to sax is a fairly obvious one. Most saxophone players have studied clarinet at some time in their lives; and, being into the music I was at the time, I just started studying the sax. Then I picked up the guitar and started learning rock songs and stuff like that. But it wasn’t the formal training I’d had with those classical instruments – I just did it to have fun and learn the songs I wanted to. Obviously the background I’d had gave me a leg up on learning these instruments and kind of set me up as what I am now: kind of the multi-instrumentalist guy in the band.

SR: Did you have a multi-instrumentalist hero, or role model, growing up?

UB: Not really. There weren’t too many of us like that. There wasn’t really one guy who made me think, ‘Oh man, he plays it all!’… Well, actually, I take that back. If I was going to say that I had any multi-instrumentalist hero, I’d say it would be Prince.

SR: I thought of him but didn’t want to prompt you in case you weren’t a fan.

UB: No, I mean, that guy… I’ve seen Prince perform at least over half a dozen times. There would be moments during the show where he would just hop on different instruments and completely obliterate the sound. He’d really mash up whatever it was, whether it was the bass, the keys, you name it. So it’s maybe between him and Stevie Wonder. They’re my two favourite multi-instrumentalists.

SR: Speaking of mash-ups, you guys very famously fuse a range of genres, including Latino, hip-hop, funk, and reggae. Do you ever see yourselves as belonging to one genre more than the others, or is there one that is more appealing to you, personally?

UB: I think if there’s one unique, unifying quality of all our music it’s that it’s all dance-based. It’s all meant to get people dancing and moving around, you know? It’s all based on getting bodies moving.

SR: When you were first starting out, did you have your sights set on being part of an ensemble outfit, and what’s it like playing with a big band like that?

UB: Oh, not really. I’d already been in a couple of bands, but they were more traditional kind of 4-piece, 5-piece bands. Then, when I started getting into the ska scene, it definitely starting upping the ante in terms of big bands. When Ozomatli first started, it was not strange to have over 12 or 13 people on the stage together.

SR: You must be pretty laidback guys. You must have to set egos aside in order for it to work, right?

UB: Well, we’re coming up on 21 years. For a band to last 5 years or 10 years is a big deal, let alone 20, you know? It’s a testament to our communication skills and just the kind of people we are. We’ve been able to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that break up other bands.

SR: Aside from your albums, you’ve also worked on movies and video games, including SIMS, Happy Feet, and Elmo’s Musical Monsterpiece. What were those experiences like and have you got plans to do more work along those lines in future?

UB: I mean, if the opportunities arise, for sure. One thing that’s kind of refreshing about it is that, in a weird way, we’re not even in the driver’s seat, as far as the content and as far as the quality goes. We’re rallying for somebody else and somebody else is calling the shots. In a lot of ways, we can’t pull the kind of egotistical artist card on them, because they’re the clients and we have to deliver a product to them. So, in a weird way it helped us in our own writing as a band in terms of there being less ego involved in the writing process.

SR: What have you got lined up for your shows down here in October? Will you be showcasing some tracks from the new album?

UB: Yes, definitely. We’ve been playing three or four different songs from the album live. So far, it’s been going really, really well. So, we’re going to be playing at least three or four of them in Australia.

SR: Have you got a message we can send out to your Aussie fans ahead of the tour?

UB: Well, we have a lot of love and appreciation for our Australian fans. Australia’s one of the few places where, when we play, there’s always somebody offering to let us stay an extra month or something after the tour’s finished (laughs). We appreciate people’s hospitality and love. We love our Australian fans. We love playing there. We love performing there.



OZOMATLI Australian Tour Dates – October 2016

Thursday October 27th – The Metro Theatre, Sydney (18+)

Friday October 28th – The Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle (18+)

Saturday October 29th – The Lost Lands Festival, Melbourne (All Ages)

Sunday October 30th – The Triffid, Brisbane (18+)