Interview: Ulises Bella (Ozomatli)

For more than 15 years, the Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli have been mixing musical styles from around the globe (LA is the globe writ small), moving people's feet while sometimes addressing some pretty serious topics.  Now, with their latest album OzoKidz, out this week on iTunes and out everywhere else late September, they're bringing their mashup of styles to some younger fans.  I talked last week with saxophonist and keyboardist Ulises ("Uli") Bella (sitting, center, with the uke) about OzoKidz's origins, the difference in structuring their live gigs, and the old Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard.  (And, for a limited time -- i.e., Monday -- pick up a free download of the song "Trees" from the new album at the widget at the bottom of the page.)

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Ulises Bella: I think... my dad was a classical violinist -- he didn't make it into the Paris Conservatory, but he loved classical music.  So Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, those artists.  But also my mom's poppy Mexican music and Spanish music, which my dad likes.  They encouraged setting up my own stereo system.

I remember my dad driving me to Tower Records to buy the new Blondie album.

The famous one with the actual tower?

Yeah, the one on Sunset.  It was quite a trek, about 40-50 minutes drive.  In fact, they had their annex with the classical music section right across the street, so I'd go into the main one and my dad would go to the annex and I'd meet him there afterwards.

You had done some kid-friendly things before this, songs for PBS and the Happy Feet Two videogame, but how did you fall into this album in particular?

There are some songs of ours that resonated with young kids.  "My kids love 'Chango,' gets so energetic in the car," fans would tell us.  We'd do outreach, and some songs just resonated with the kids.

Then Mario Calire, our drummer, just threw it out there -- "have you ever thought about a kids music album?"  Among Mexican Americans, there's this well-loved musician, Cri-Cri, who's this super-iconic Mexican children's artist.  We wanted to make that sort of album, specifically for kids, but for parents, too.

Did you have specific goals in mind when writing the songs for the album?

We did a lot of brainstorming -- should it be themed?  Like "animals" -- everybody writes a song about a different animal.  But in the end it ended up being an eclectic collection, lots of energy, always dacing.  Some of the songs are educational - "Trees," "Germs" -- and some celebratory.  We ended up being ourselves.

Did recording it have a different feel from recording an "adult" album?

Totally.  We try to focus on our audience, and tried to remember the energy of childhood.  Adults have to be intoxicated or really let their walls down.  We'd have kids in there with us with the percussion -- they brought a light energy to the room.  There were different subjects, too, more lighthearted as opposed to Ozomatli, which deals with more global issues, heavier subjects.  It really was like kids play.

What are the differences between playing live for adults and for kids?

Again, it's about presentation and the energy level.  A regular Ozomatli set is 90 minutes long and features a lot of solos.  The OzoKidz shows are a lot more concise, have a lot more energy.  We involve the kids in every song, as opposed to the adult shows.

Do you like playing 45 minutes as opposed to 90 minutes?

A little bit?  Sometimes I'm just getting warmed up and then I have to come offstage!? [Laughs.]

Are you willing to mix in kids tunes in your adult shows?

That's actually a hotly debated issue in the band.  We'll play it by ear.  We want to keep the energies separate.  But if one of those songs really penetrates on radio or with an audience, who knows?

What preconceptions about kids music music were changed? Any proven true?

One thing that surprised me was the group of artists that have done this.  Why don't more bands do it?  Might not fit their image, maybe.  We're always down for the kids, it's part of what we do.  We all had mentors growing up who said you can do it too and so we're bringing it to the next generation.  I always think it's cool.

Did anybody think it wasn't cool when word got around you were doing a kids album?

Not one negative response -- they all said, "That's awesome."

What's next for the band?

We're hooking up with producer Matt Wallace for the next straight-up Ozomatli album.  We're on the road every weekend, doing both adult and kid shows.  Touring Australia, too.  We're really excited to see how people digest the album.

Photo credits: Christian Lantry