When Ozomatli formed in 1995, the band’s melding of Latin, hip hop and rock music blew some people’s minds.
The same thing can be said about the band’s political activism. Ozomatli will be appearing at the Date Shed on Saturday, Nov. 12.
Ozomatli has seen a lot of prominent members come and go over the years. Original members Chali 2na and Cut Chemist left and joined hip-hop group Jurassic 5, for starters. Still, Ozomatli has continued on and diversified its sound to include various forms of world music. As a result, Ozomatli remains one of the best bands in America to go see live.
During a recent interview, saxophonist Ulises Bella discussed the band’s transformation.
“I think it’s obvious that … our personal lives and our musical influences started to change through our travels, and just keep expanding,” Bella said. “Of course, the Latin and the hip hop is our foundation. It’s a sound that will never go away from us. But we’ve experimented with so many different sounds.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ozomatli toured with punk bands such as Offspring, political rockers like Rage Against the Machine, and Latin-rock giants such as Santana.
“The band at its most was sometimes up to 14 or 15 people. We had a pretty steady 10 or 12 for a time,” Bella said. “It’s really fun to have that many people and to have that power onstage, especially for me, being a saxophonist. Having a four-piece horn section means so many more covers and things you can do. What I remember most about those days is it was a tsunami of music. When we played, we would blow other bands out of the water. It’d be crazy. All of us came from public-music-school programs, so there was this unifying love of music that was going on.”
Ozomatli has always fought for social-justice causes, which—no surprise—has led to a fair amount of controversy. When Ozomatli played a protest concert outside of the Democratic National Convention in 2000 with Rage Against the Machine, police and protesters began fighting just minutes into the band’s performance. The band was placed on a Fraternal Order of Police boycott list for its support of a new trial for convicted Philadelphia cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
“There have been things that have come up due to our ethnicity and our political leanings,” Bella said. “… It’s all right, though. There’s no reason for me to be bitter about it, either. The one thing that we have to say—with a big ‘Fuck you!’ to that—is we’re still supporting all our families with our music.”
Bella added that the band has dealt with some uncomfortable moments due to poor reactions to the band’s multicultural approach and primarily Latin ethnicity.
“I think all of us at one point or another were blinded from the usual political climate. Los Angeles is so multicultural, and we grew up with all kinds of people,” Bella said. “Of course, Los Angeles has its own funky and fucked-up racist history. But I think for the most part, I didn’t get a taste (of racism) until I left here. During the Offspring tour … I remember being called a wetback, (with) people telling me to go back to fucking Mexico and shit like that. When we played Philadelphia, and we dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal, we almost got fucking killed in that venue. We had to leave the venue early, because it was that fucking ugly.”
Bella said he finds the current political climate both sad and entertaining.
“Once Obama became president, there was a spike in a lot of white-supremacist groups and what they call alt-right groups,” Bella said. “Now in particular, some of the rhetoric that Donald Trump has thrown around is really coming up to the top. In many ways, it’s fucking disheartening in the current climate.
“Part of me loves it because of its entertainment value. How many fucking people are watching the elections? It’s terrifying that one of these people is going to get the power of the empire, Caligula-style. It’s nuts, man! But I watch news all day, and I’m always reading different media outlets and how events are being interpreted.”
Ozomatli has played at Coachella and The Date Shed in the past, and Bella said the band always enjoys coming to the Coachella Valley.
“Every time we go out there, we realize we have this little pocket of fans,” Bella said. “(The Date Shed) is a cool little venue, too and we love to play there. People come up to us after the shows there, and you can tell the appreciation is at a high level. Plus we have friends out there, so it’s great.”
Ozomatli will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, at The Date Shed, 50725 Monroe St., in Indio. Tickets are $25 to $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-6699, or visit www.dateshedmusic.com.