Ozomatli, gods of dance (music): On the band's name, a theme song for this museum, and other great ideas
Ozomatli, a two-time Grammy Award–winning band known for the musical mixing of Latin, hip hop, funk, reggae, jazz, rap, and other genres, visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian as part of the museum’s 2013 Living Earth Festival. The Los Angeles–based group played the headline performance at the festival’s Indian Summer Showcase concert Saturday night, July 20. If you missed the concert, or if you were there and want to relive it, video is available on the museum's YouTube channel.
NMAI caught up with Ulises (Uli) Bella, saxophone, clarinet, requinto jarocho, keyboard, and melodica player, and one of the founding members of Ozomatli.
Ozomatli in the Potomac Atrium of the National Museum of the American Indian. From left to right: Ulises Bella, Asdru Sierra, Raúl "El Bully" Pacheco, and Wil-Dog Abers; not shown: Justin "El Niño Porée, Jiro Yamaguchi, Walter Valdez. Washington, D.C., July 20, 2013.
Ozomatli is a Nahuatl word for monkey. Who actually thought of it, or was it collaborative effort?
When we first started we were called Todos somos Marcos [we are all Marcos], in honor of the Zapatista Movement in Mexico. But then our drummer [Anton Morales] said, “Yo, we should call ourselves Ozomatli.” We were, “What’s that all that about?” He’s like, “It’s a monkey on the Aztec calendar, the god of dance.” We were, “Wow, that is really, really hip.” He’s like, “The new harvest, the orchestrator of the jungle. . . .” Little did we know that it was his astrological sign the whole time. He basically named the band after himself. That is Anton from L.A. A big shout-out to Anton! We stuck with it. I don’t know too many bands that have a prehispanic name. It’s pretty crazy.
Do you have any pre-show rituals to pump you up?
Not really. People are pretty mellow in this band. We’ve been a band now for 18 years, so we don’t do too crazy, except we drink a lot of coffee usually and just start pumping ourselves up. Most of our shows are pretty high energy. So you catch a sweat, no manner what.
How did you start your own coffee?
We had this collaboration with a friend of ours who runs a coffee shop in L.A. called Zona Rosa. He does his own beans. One day he was like, “Yo, I want to do Ozomatli coffee, do an espresso thing.” I was like, “Oh yeah, yeah, let’s.” We are coffee-heads, so it worked out really well. Even though it’s kind of a small thing we do on the side, it’s really fun.
Wow, it’s pretty heavy because you’re going to think, historically, what Natives or Americans Indians have gone through in their history. It would have to be a song that really resonates super, super, super deep, I think. To even try to grasp the magnitude of all the complex, complex issues that deal with that community.
So, if I was going to say one, just because it’s uplifting, beautiful, and hopeful, because that’s what I think the community needs, “Ya viene el sol,” which means, “Here comes the sun.” It’s all about seeing the sun come up. Obviously, the sun means so much to so many people around the world, such a heavy thing. Bringer of life. At the same time, the idea that tomorrow is going to be a better day through unity and helping each other out.
What projects are you currently working on?
We actually are recording an album. We just finished a kids’ album this last year. Now we are doing a full-length album this year.
Is there a particular reason why you did a kids’ album?
Part of it is because we realize that a lot of our fans are having kids. I think it was just a fun idea to try out. It ended being real liberating, because not all the songs have to be about heavy things. It could be about skateboarding, germs, and washing your hands.
Thank you so much for the interview.
—Maria E. Renteria, NMAI
Photos by Maria E. Renteria, NMAI
Maria Esmeralda Renteria is an intern with the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office of Public Affairs. She is pursuing an MA in Museum Studies from the San Francisco State University and received her BA in both Latin American Studies and Spanish at UCLA.