Ozomatli are an American six-piece band playing primarily Latin, hip hop, and rock music, formed in 1995 in Los Angeles. They are known both for their vocal activist viewpoints and their wide array of musical styles - including salsa, jazz, funk, reggae, rap, and others. The group formed in 1995 and has since released seven studio albums. The group is also known for advocating for farm-workers' rights and immigration reform. The band has performed in various countries all over the world, including China, Tunisia, Jordan, and Burma. Although the band has had many member changes over the years and has sometimes had as many as ten members, the current six members have been in the band since its debut album.
Ozomatli take their name from the Nahuatl word from the astrological symbol of the monkey, taken from the Aztec calendar. Ozomatli is also a god of dance, fire, the new harvest, and music. In 1995, all the members met while attempting to form a workers union within Los Angeles. Though they were not able to win recognition, they were given an abandoned building for one month. The building turned into a cultural arts center, and within it Ozomatli was born.
In a 2007 NPR interview, band members Jiro Yamaguchi and Ulises Bella describe Ozomatli:
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, merengue, or Hip Hop, funk or whatever, it's that crazy blend that's going on between that cacophony of sound is Ozomatli, y'know?
The band's first album, Ozomatli, was released on June 16, 1998 on Almo Sounds. At the time, in addition to the band's six constant members, namely vocalist/trumpet player Asdru Sierra, vocalist/guitarist Raul Pacheco, sax and clarinet player Ulises Bella, bassist Wil-Dog Abers and percussionists Justin 'El Niño' Porée and Jiro Yamaguchi, Ozomatli also featured MC Chali 2na, turntablist Cut Chemist, drummer William Marrufo, and saxophone player Jose Espinoza. The album featured the band's trademark mix of several types of Latin music: tropical genres like merengue and cumbia, Mexican styles like norteño, along with Jamaican music like ska and reggae, mixed with a heavy dose of American hip-hop and funk, often with a few genres mixed together in the same song. The band sang its socially-conscious (but sometimes humorous) lyrics mostly in Spanish, while Chali 2na's rapped in English.
The album reached mainstream success following an appearance on the late night talk show Vibe!. It reached No. 7 on the Billboard Latin Albums chart (71 weeks) and No. 4 on the Billboard Latin Pop Albums chart (50 weeks). Two singles released from the album were "Cut Chemist Suite" and "Super Bowl Sundae". In 1999, Ozomatli joined Mana and Carlos Santana on tour following Santana's release of Supernatural, and in 2002, the band appeared on "One of These Days", the penultimate track on the latter's album Shaman.
1999-2005: Embrace the Chaos and Street Signs
Ozomatli's second album, Embrace the Chaos, was released on a date historic for the U.S., September 11, 2001. Although many American bands cancelled their concerts, Ozomatli gained some recognition for continuing to play their concerts, all the while continuing their commitment to social justice and progressive politics, in addition to the rising anti-war movement. The album featured a similar mix of Latin and hip-hop music as the debut had, with the lyrics taking an even more political stance. In 2002, Embrace the Chaos won a Grammy for the Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album.
By the album's release, the band had experienced several member changes: drummer William Marrufo had been replaced by Andy Mendoza, and MC Chali 2na, turntablist Cut Chemist, and saxophone player Jose Espinoza had all left. With no official MC for the rap vocals, the band used a variety of guest MCs on the album, including Kanetic Source. Percussionist Justin Porée also did some of the rap vocals for the first time. Rene 'DJ Spinobi' Dominguez also appeared on turntables as a guest. While touring for the album, Kanetic Source and DJ Spinobi both joined the lineup.
In 2003, Ozomatli released a six-song EP through Concord Records, featuring a collaboration with The Kumbia Kings on "Mi Gente." In addition to Kanetic Source and DJ Spinobi, the album also featured new members Sheffer Bruton on trombone and Mario Calire on drums. The EP featured mostly the band's Latin-influenced side, with most lyrics in Spanish, although the song 'Let Me Dream' was the first song sung (as opposed to rapped) entirely in English that would appear on their recorded releases.
Before recording their next album, Kanetic Source was replaced by M.C. Jabu Smith-Freeman. The resulting 10-man lineup: the core of Sierra, Pacheco, Bella, Abers, Porée and Yamaguichi joined by Bruton, Calire, MC Jabu and Dj Spinobi would last for the next few years.
In 2004, Street Signs was released under Concord Records. In 2001, the album won the Grammy for "Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album2005, The album also won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 2005. ". In addition to MC Jabu's rap vocals, Porée played a bigger role than before as second MC, and original MC Chali 2na guested on one song as well. The album expanded the band's sound even farther, with a Middle-Eastern influence featured on some tracks. While it was still predominantly in Spanish, the band was also singing more in English as well.
In 2005, Ozomatli released their live album Live at the Fillmore, recorded at The Fillmore in San Francisco.
2006-09: Don't Mess With the Dragon
Guitarist Raúl Pacheco on the keynote panel of 2008 Pop Conference
In 2006, Ozomatli were invited by the U.S. State Department to serve as official Cultural Ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored international tours. The band has since traveled to Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East, Tunisia, India, Jordan, Nepal, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, and China.
In late 2006, shortly before the release of Don't Mess With the Dragon, DJ Spinobi left the band to pursue personal projects (but stuck around until the album's release, as he appears in the photos and is credited as a member). This was the end of the longest lasting Ozomatli lineup, and the first of many lineup changes that would occur over the next year and a half.
April 3, 2007, saw the release of their fourth studio album Don't Mess With The Dragon, which was co-produced by K. C. Porter and released on Concord Records. The genre-crossing album was written at a local Los Angeles Latino art gallery, Tropico de Nopal. The album includes songs such as "After Party", which pays homage to old-school Chicano R&B, "When I Close My Eyes," which nods back to Fishbone and Oingo Boingo, "La Segunda Mano," which features the vocals of Quetzal's Martha Gonzales blending son jarocho with hip-hop, "City of Angels," which celebrates the city of Los Angeles, and "Temperatura," which was inspired by the May 2006 pro-immigration marches. The band also experimented with a more accessible Latin-pop sound on songs like 'Can't Stop' and 'Here We Go,' and for the first time featured more English lyrics than Spanish lyrics.
On September 20, 2007, Ozomatli announced that MC Jabu was leaving the group on amicable terms. He would not be officially replaced, although Tre Hardson would take his place on tour in 2007 and 2008.
In early 2008, the group did a song for the Los Angeles Dodgers called "Can't Stop The Blue," their first recording with Tre Hardson. In the video, LA drummer Chris Cano is seen in place of Calire. Shortly thereafter, Sheffer Bruton and Tre Hardson were no longer seen playing with the group, and Mario Calire appeared back on the drumseat. In the summer of 2008, Ozomatli announced Chali 2na would be joining them for their Fall 2008 tour, although he did not permanently rejoin the band. Later that year, group members Wil-dog and Justin contributed their voices to the Konami music game Dance Dance Revolution X as in-game announcers.
2010-present: Stripped-down lineup
In 2010, Ozomatli released their fifth full-length album, "Fire Away", which was recorded by a stripped-down lineup, featuring the six constant members plus Carire on drums. Justin Porée, in addition to his percussion duties, also became the band's only MC on the album and also sang some lead vocals as well. Bassist Abers also got his first lead vocal spot on the song 'Caballito.' While the band's sound remained an eclectic mix, there was a noticeable drop in the influence of Latin musics, and not many lyrics in Spanish. Several of the songs featured a more accessible, R&B-based sound. The album also had fewer overtly political songs, although the track 'Gay Vatos in Love' made a clear statement of support for LGBT rights.
In 2010, Ozomatli helped celebrate the Boston Pops 125th Anniversary, accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since that first orchestral collaboration, they have gone on to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, the Colorado Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, and the New York Pops.
Ozomatli made an appearance at TEDxSF - the first musical talk ever given at any TED conference - mixing discussion and sound to explore the challenges and promises of musical identities in a global age.
Ozomatli has also been involved in composing and scoring and contributing music to Happy Feet 2 and Elmo's Musical Monsterpiece for Warner Brothers Interactive, SIMS for EA Games, music for PBS Kids, the films A Better Life and Harlistas, and for the TV Show Standup Revolution on Comedy Central.
In this period of time, the band focused on Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz, a special family-friendly set geared towards performing for children and adults alike. The album was released on Hornblow Recordings in September 2012.
The next record was "Place in the Sun" released in 2014, and featuring Dave Stewart's production and co-writing, released on Vanguard. The album featured somewhat of a return to the Latin-flavored sounds of the band's earlier work, with more lyrics in Spanish than the previous two albums, although English remained the primary language. It was recorded by the same lineup as the previous album, with Carire on drums. Calire subsequently left the band, and percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi took over the drum seat, leaving the band with six members.
Ozomatli celebrated their 20th anniversary as a performing band in 2015, with all remaining members having been in the band since its debut album,
The band's next project, released in May 2017, was Nonstop Mexico to Jamaica, an album of songs that have been a big part of the Mexican and Mexican-American community's heritage, culling from Selena, Cafe Tacuba, Mana, and many others. As reflected in the title, the songs are approached reggae style and the project was being produced by Jamaican reggae legends, Sly and Robbie. Although the album contains be some English-language lyrics, the album was the band's first Spanish-dominated release since Street Signs.
Social and political activism
Ozomatli create music to: give voice to and reveal the culture and lives of Latinos; fight for workers' rights; and promote a global unity within both the city and the world. They promote this through their music, during their TEDxSF talk, and as Cultural Ambassadors of the US.
In 1999 they appeared in the Drew Barrymore movie Never Been Kissed. They are the band playing in the reggae club when she ingests "Ganja cake", a cake with marijuana. In the scene, they play "Cumbia De Los Muertos", followed by "Cut Chemist Suite" where Barrymore's character dances wildly in front of the entire club.
The group appeared in HBOsSex and the City episode "They Shoot Single People, Don't They?" airing June 27, 1999.
In 2004 the group was confronted while performing outside of a club where they would later have a concert. Two members of the band, as well as the manager, were arrested. The charges were eventually dropped. After this, the band was scheduled to perform at the Latin Grammy Awards, where they were introduced by George Lopez: "And now, a band that is very excited to learn that their performance tonight counts as community service, Ozomatli!"
In January 2005, Ozomatli was the opening band of Jamcruise 3. The band made several other scheduled — and impromptu — performances during the four-day cruise.
In March 2005, Ozomatli played at WOMAdelaide, a world music festival in Adelaide, South Australia. After refusing to leave the stage 15 minutes late during one of their two night sets, they leaped into the crowd for a 45-minute encore.
The September 25, 2006 episode of the Showtime comedy/drama Weeds featured the show's opening theme music — "Little Boxes", written by Malvina Reynolds — performed by Ozomatli. The second season of Weeds featured a different performer and musical genre each week for its theme song.
In February 2007, Ozomatli toured throughout India and Nepal, sponsored by the State Department.
From July 22 to July 30, 2007, Ozomatli toured though Tunisia (one performance), Jordan (four performances) and Egypt (two performances), sponsored by the State Department. The concerts were staged in locations such as amphitheaters (Jordan), citadels (Cairo, Egypt), and forts (Alexandria, Egypt).
From May 21 to June 4, 2010, Ozomatli performed in Mongolia and China as part of their Cultural Ambassadors program.
In September 2010, Ozomatli partnered with NCLR (National Council of La Raza) to release "Respeto", a widget download campaign, to encourage voter participation.
In September 2010, Ozomatli headlined the Hollywood Bowl for KCRW's World Music Festival 2010 featuring performances from Calexico, Mexican Institute Of Sound, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles and dance performances by Grandeza Mexicana.
In September 2010, Ozomatli's video to "All Around The World" was released.
On September 15, 2010, Ozomatli performed a free show at the Kennedy Center in celebration of Mexico's Bicentennial Independence.
On September 2010, Apple uses Ozomatli's Fire Away album cover as their campaign image.
In October 2010, Ozomatli performed at the USC Presidential Rally with Barack Obama.
In October 2010, Ozomatli was part of the Red Bull Soundclash with Talib Kweli.
In October 2010, Ozomatli released a cover of Caifanes' "Nubes"
In October 2010, Ozomatli was awarded the KCET Local Heroes Award for their humanitarian contributions in Los Angeles.
In November 2, 2010, Ozomatli released iTunes Sessions, rethinking and reimagining classic songs.
In November 2010, Ozomatli participated in Ted Talk in San Francisco.
Ozomatli appeared in the anniversary edition of Which Way, LA? in the "Cultural Touchstones of the LA Riots" segment with host Warren Olney on KCRW.
On April 29, 2012, Ozomatli was honored at the 5th Annual California Lawyers for the Arts' Artistic License Awards in Santa Monica to recognize the band's artistic work in the communities it serves.
In May 2012, Ozomatli kicked off the opening celebration with a performance at NAFSA's 2012 Annual Conference & Expo. in downtown Houston.
In June 2012, Ozomatli headlined the 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
Sesame Street: Elmo's Musical Monsterpiece video game by Warner Bros. was released in June 2012, which included a musical score performed by Ozomatli.
Ozomatli performed with The New York Pops led by Music Director Steven Reineke at SummerStage NYC 2012.
In July 2012, Ozomatli recorded an episode for the Choo Choo Bob show in Minneapolis.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2012, Ozomatli teamed up with HeadCount to provide voting registration at Ozomatli shows.
In July 2012, PBS KIDS ROCKS! album was released. It includes tracks by Ozomatli, The Weepies and They Might Be Giants.
In September 2012, Ozomatli released their album Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz.
October 2012 marked the premiere of Gabriel Iglesias' Stand-Up Revolution Season 2 on Comedy Central with Ozomatli as the house band. The show also premiered the music video Stand-Up Revolution with Gabriel Iglesias.
In November, Ozomatli performed at the 2012 Voices for Justice Dinner in L.A. to celebrate the work of Congolese activist Abbé Benoît Kinalegu with Ben Affleck, the founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, as a special guest.
In the November 16, 2012 episode of the Rachel Maddow Show, Ozomatli received a special mention for being the first band to visit Burma (now Myanmar) in 2009.
In November 2012, Ozomatli performed at The 5th Annual Holiday Tree Lighting at L.A. LIVE celebration along with Barry Manilow, Cody Simpson, Sarah Brightman, and Eric Benet.
The debut of the "Hey, it's Fluffy" cartoons with the music of Ozomatli premiered in November 2012.
In December 2012, the first Ozokidz video "Balloon Fest" premiered.
Ozomatli was interviewed on January 2, 2013 music segment of NPR.
In February 2013, Ozomatli reimagined the ESPN NBA theme song where fans were asked to vote for their favorite version from different artists.
They performed a version of the theme song to Weeds, "Little Boxes"
Some of the members of Ozomatli including Wil-Dog Abers, Justin Poree, Ulises Bella, Raul Pacheco performed on the song "Morena" by David Rolas. This song was also produced by Wil-Dog Abers and also features Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas.
^Laura Emerick. "5 questions with — Ozomatli," Chicago Sun-Times, May 6, 2004, section 2, p. 52: "Q. Speaking of the band's last full-length record — "Embrace the Chaos" came out on the worst of all possible days: Sept. 11, 2001...."
^(No author.) "Ozomatli: The party politicians," Times-Standard (Eureka, CA), December 1, 2005: "Ozomatli released its previous full-length album on September 11, 2001. While most bands in the country responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center by canceling their concerts, Ozomatli — a multi-racial crew that has never been shy about their commitment to social justice, progressive politics and anti-war convictions — decided to keep its dates and keep playing."