Ozomatli has its roots in a protest movement in Los Angeles. Can you take us back to those early days?
Asdrubal 'Asdru' Sierra (trumpet, vocals & piano): "Fifteen years ago, our bass player Wil-Dog (Abers, red.) and our original drummer (William Marrufo, red.) joined a union dispute. They lost the fight, but the city decided to turn over the building they were holding the protest at to the community so they could turn it into a community centre (In March 1995, Wil-Dog Abers, then future bassist of Ozomatli, and Alfredo Ortiz, drummer for Yeska, along with several workers took over the Emergency Resources Building in downtown Los Angeles in an attempt to organize a union among the youths who worked for the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, a federally funded jobs program. Negotiations did not bring about a union but did manage to secure access to the locked-out downtown building for a period of twelve months. Local youths working for the corps were trained and employed at minimum wages with no benefits and offered few long-term job prospects. Conflict began when Carmelo Alvarez, a long-time activist from the Pico Union area and the corps' only Latino site director, began protesting the discrepancy between management and the youth workers. Soon after, a meeting of the Conservation Corps management was called to question the tactics of Alvarez, who wanted to find more creative and productive ways to train youth. Despite the protests of the youth workers, Alvarez was fired in a subsequent meeting that included the board of directors of the LACC. Corps workers at the Emergency Resources Building, where Alvarez was program director, also protested the firing and refused to leave the site. In response, agency managers shut down the building and threatened to call in the police. Carmelo, Lilia, Wil-Dog, and Alfredo Ortiz were joined by more than thirty co-workers in staging a takeover of the building. Together, they mounted a two-month sit-in. The activists transformed the building into a non-profit community arts centre. While music concerts took place on weekends, the week was dedicated to workshops. The programs and workshop activities were organized by the youth themselves. This local struggle for a community centre that promoted political consciousness and training for the new economy also produced Latin bands. The soul band Blues Experiment was born at the centre and fund-raising parties brought together the members of Ozomatli for the first time. Several fledgling bands took advantage of this experiment in urban cultural politics in downtown Los Angeles. Predominantly Chicana/o groups Rice and Beans, Ollin, and Quetzal, as well as multi-racial groups like the Black Eyed Peas, became the official "house bands" of the centre. Many of these bands performed at the monthly "Unity Fests", popular events that brought together artists, activists, and members of the diverse communities of Los Angeles through a celebration of local urban creativity, including deejaying, graffiti demonstrations, skateboarding, and spoken word. The Peace and Justice Centre was shut down by the City of Los Angeles in 1996, a year after it was taken over by the youth of the Conservation Corps. While it no longer exists, its impact persists, red.). It was there that Ozomatli first got together, on the 1st of April 1995 to be exact, when we played a fundraiser for the centre. Once the word got out we were doing these community centre gigs for free, we started to get calls from all over the place and that's how things got rolling."
That social and political consciousness that was present in those first days, is that still as strong fifteen years onwards?
Asdru: "Yeah, it kind of has to be. As a band we do our best to represent our community, we have a responsibility as citizens of this world and it's what we've been about from day one."
At one stage you guys were appointed Cultural Ambassadors to the US. How on earth did you land a gig like that?
Asdru: "(laughs) We've often asked ourselves that question as well! The tradition was started after World War II with musicians like Louis Armstrong and Dizzie Gillespie and the idea was to create a sort of cultural interchange programme where bands from the US would go out and play in various countries and bands from these countries would come and perform in the US. When they first approached us with the idea, we were just astounded and asked them: "Are you crazy? We don't even like you people!", because this was under the Bush administration you know. On the down low they guaranteed us complete freedom of expression though and that is what really persuaded us; we took the opportunity and made it our own. One thing we've learned from these official assignments, if I can call them that, is that the people and the government are two different things."
One of the places you played at as Cultural Ambassadors was Nepal. Ozomatli was actually the first western band ever to play a concert there.
Asdru: "Yeah, we played in Kathmandu. Back then there was still a lot of tension with the Maoist rebels and all that. Right before we got there they held a big rally, but the crowd that turned up for our concert was even bigger, so we took that as a very big compliment. When we started the concert the people had to stay 70 feet (about 20 meters, red.) from the stage, which is just ridiculous. We negotiated a bit and then they sent in some cops armed with AK-47's and reduced the distance to 30 feet (about 9 meters, red.). At first the crowd was sitting there stone-faced, but a little bit into the concert everyone started to dance and shake like crazy. That's what music does you know; nobody really cares what language you‘re singing in, it's all about the vibe. Wherever we went we've also always tried to learn something about the local music traditions, because music is the key to a culture. If you take the time to learn another culture's music, that's a meditation in itself. The extra compliment we pay is that with Ozomatli we integrate those influences in our own music."
Can I call Ozomatli's music "world music" in the most literal sense of the word?
Asdru: "Sure! We play music from every pueblo, every barrio and every village in the world. If you want to call that "world music", then cool; myself I prefer to call it "popular music" because every one of these rhythms we play is popular somewhere. (laughs)"
Musically speaking Ozomatli seems in a weird way related to the musica mestiza scene from Barcelona.
Asdru: "I never really hang out in Barcelona, but I love what these bands are doing. The music out there is incredible and I think this kind of music is like a kind of movement. If that is what's happening naturally, then that's a good thing for society, because if the music can fuse together, so can the people!"
What was the idea behind recording the 'Don't Mess With The Dragon' album in an art gallery?
Asdru: "Well, we didn't really record the album there, but it was where we wrote most of the songs for the album. During that period we were actually exploiting the gallery, so people would come in and check out what we were doing and that interchange of ideas and opinions made up the basis of that album. It was a lot of fun."
Was it back to basics for 'Fire Away' then?
Asdru: "No, it was just about the most different recording project we've done so far. We really messed around with the sound this time. Not that we've ever really had one set wave of recording an album, but I think we definitely came up with some new stuff for this album. We're not trying to score hits anymore like we did in the early days. Jack Johnson (Singer-songwriter, surfer and filmmaker known for his work in the soft rock and acoustic genres. In 2001, he achieved commercial success after the release of his debut album, 'Brushfire Fairytales', red.), who's a close friend of ours, ended up doing a track with us and things like that just keep it fresh, you know."
When you started out fifteen years ago, things in the music business were still very rosy. Now that album sales have dropped and budgets aren't what they once used to be, did you have to adapt to that as a band?
Asdru: "We were never a band that depended on hits or chart success, so album sales never really affected us and we've always seen ourselves as more of a live band anyway. On average I would say we're on tour 250 days out of the year. A lot of bands that didn't have a good live reputation have disappeared from the scene again. Now everybody is trying to get on that boat, so much so even that the live circuit is almost saturated. I guess only the quality bands will survive in the end."
The Ozomatli name is derived from the Nahuatl word for "monkey". Why did you choose that name or sign exactly?
Asdru: "Our original drummer (William Marrufo, red.) came up with that idea. Ozomatli is kind of like the Pan (In Greek religion and mythology, Pan is the god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music, as well as the companion of the nymphs, red.) of the Aztec world; he's a monkey and the god of passion and the new harvest. Much later I found out it's also my birth sign, so it's a name that works for me! (laughs)"