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Ozomatli Celebrates 15 Years With a Downtown “Quinceañera"

By Mark Fisher
Published: Friday, December 17, 2010, at 10:46AM
Ozomatli Christian Lantry

It’s been a fantastic voyage for Ozomatli. The local multi-ethnic group spent 2010 celebrating their 15-year anniversary. The Latin-funk band has come a long way since forming together in Downtown Los Angeles in 1995. Since then, the group has toured with Carlos Santana, won three Grammy Awards and performed in places like India, Jordan, Madagascar, Tunisia and Nepal.

This year in particular has been a memorable one. In April 2010, the band released their fifth studio album Fire Away and Mayor Villaraigosa declared April 23rd as "Ozomatli Day" in Los Angeles. They also worked with the Boston Pops Orchestra, performed in China and Mongolia as U.S. Cultural Ambassadors, headlined the Hollywood Bowl, played for the President and joined the USC Marching Band during halftime against Notre Dame. Ozomatli also received KCET’s prestigious “Local Heroes Award” and was recently named one of KCRW’s “5 Best L.A. Bands of 2010.”

Ozomatli will finish celebrating their 15th anniversary by headlining a “Quinceañera Party” on Saturday, December 18th at Club Nokia L.A. Live. The band will be performing songs from their latest album, along with some of their best selections from the outfit’s fifteen years of music and activism. Special guests for the evening include the USC Trojan Marching band, spoken word artist Joe Hernandez-Kolski and the Crenshaw High School Elite Gospel Choir. The show will also include an “All Star Jam Session,” which brings back every member of Ozomatli since the band’s formation, including MC Chali 2na. In typical Quinceañera tradition, the members of Ozomatli will be wearing celebratory costumes and are asking attendees to do the same.

blogdowntown caught up with Ozomatli’s founding member Ulises Bella to talk about the band’s history and how it ties in with downtown Los Angeles:

MARK FISHER: Can you take us back to 1995 and talk about the band’s formation at the “Peace and Justice Center” in Downtown L.A.?

ULISES BELLA: The building itself was off 4th & Bixel. At the time, the building and the people working there were part of the California Conservation Corps. The workers tried to form a labor union to demand things such as medical benefits. They formed a sit-in protest which lasted about a month. The activists were eventually fired, but a legal settlement allowed them to keep the rights to the remainder of the lease, which had about a year and a half left on it. The building was renamed the “Peace and Justice Center” and transformed into a youth community center. It was a vibrant scene. They conducted dance and band rehearsals. There was even a café. To cover costs, they would throw parties every weekend. Musicians would call each other and get together and jam to support the center. Little by little, these were the people that would eventually form the Ozomatli lineup.

MF: You guys have even recorded in Downtown. Is that correct?

UB: We were just recording in a studio off 4th and Spring. We also used to rehearse at Downtown Rehearsal off 7th and Sante Fe. We played there for many years.

MF: Do you have any favorite places to visit in Downtown?

UB: My parents were into the Downtown Los Angeles scene while I was growing up. Grand Central Market is big for me because that’s where my parents met. If it weren’t for that spot, I probably wouldn’t be around! It was always a family thing when we’d go to Philippe's. I also love Little Tokyo, MOCA and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

MF: You guys got the community involved when Mayor Villaraigosa declared April 23rd as “Ozomatli Day.” What exactly did you do?

UB: The whole Ozomatli Day was to commemorate our album release and our “role” in the city. We wanted to make that day more than just receiving a piece of paper from the city. We contacted ten different schools from around Los Angeles. Each school donated an ensemble to reinterpret an Ozomatli song. We had different types of bands that included ska/punk, jazz and even choir. After each band played, we all got together and jammed. It was great.

MF: You’ve traveled to a number of exotic places. What it’s like to play in Nepal?

UB: People kept telling us we were the first American band to play in Nepal. It was so hard to believe, especially since so many musicians and artists visit there for vacation or spiritual awakenings. No one there knew who Ozomatli was. There was only word-of-mouth that a band from Los Angeles was there to play a free show. They estimated that 12,000 people showed up. It was a great litmus test for us. It told us that we can play music without hype or a reputation and still have people react positively to the music on its own.

MF: Your Hollywood Bowl show featured Cheech Marin, a large number of mariachi and folkloric dancers, the Art in the Park Girls Choir and Mexican wrestling and burlesque troupe Lucha VaVOOM. How do you plan to top that?

UB: With the Club Nokia show, we are going to be inviting a lot of our past members. A lot of the older MCs and DJs will be there. We’re going to try and incorporate older songs that we haven’t played in many years this time around.

MF: It’s obviously been a great year for the band. What’s ahead for Ozomatli?

UB: We’re starting to record a new album, but it’s geared towards children. It’s a huge departure from what we usually do. We noticed throughout the years that Ozomatli has been able to obtain an eclectic, multi-generational audience. We started seeing a lot of younger kids coming to our shows, so we decided to proceed with making a children’s album.

_Ozomatli will close out the year by bringing their blend of latin, funk, salsa, jazz, hip-hop, rock and reggae fusion to Club Nokia L.A. Live on December 18th, 2010. Local artists Chali 2na and La Santa Cecilia will open the show. For more information, visit Club Nokia's website.

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