Ozomatli is no stranger to Tucson: in the almost 20 years since the Los Angeles-based group formed, Ozomatli has performed in the Old Pueblo more times than its members can count. It’s fitting, then, that both veteran and newfound fans can catch the band on the first stop of their upcoming tour at the Fox Tucson Theatre Friday, March 14.
The tour kicks off three days after the release of Ozomatli’s new album, “Place in the Sun,” but despite its status as the band’s eighth album since they first teamed up in 1995, Ozomatli shows no sign of slowing down. Their unconventional origin story – they began collaborating to help fund a community center in inner-city L.A., established by youth recently laid off after trying to form a union – might have something to do with that. In the years since the band’s founding members began performing in what came to be called the Peace and Justice Center, those very two ideals have driven Ozomatli to prioritize activism as strongly as their music. Ulises “Uli” Bella, saxophonist, keyboardist and backup vocalist for Ozomatli, says its founding members’ shared interest in advocacy for issues ranging from immigration to voters’ rights to education created a framework that still holds them together nearly two decades later.
“Once we got into a band and we realized that a lot of us were like-minded in these issues, it makes the effort sincere and it doesn’t make it seem like it’s just a trend for us,” Bella says. “We’re still involved in numerous things constantly, and it’s part of our DNA basically.”
It seems easiest to describe Ozomatli’s music as a general state of mind rather than assign it to a genre, as its own members have described the band’s style with varying consistency over the years. The media chooses to call it like they hear it, describing Ozomatli as a reggae/hip-hop/rap/jazz/funk fusion with a “Latin twist,” rearranging those interchangeable adjectives until new listeners have at least a semblance of an idea of what they’re getting into. But longtime fans of Ozomatli, including its prominent fanbase in Tucson, know the key to enjoying Ozomatli’s music is much simpler than that: you have to be willing to dance.
Ozomatli has performed at the Historic Rialto Theatre periodically for more than a decade, either selling out the venue or filling it near-capacity almost every time, according to Curtis McCrary, the executive director of the theatre. The Rialto was already booked when Ozomatli scheduled their March 14 show, and it was moved to the sitting-room-only Fox. McCrary says he believes fans “will be standing and dancing through the whole show” regardless.
Bella also doesn’t see the seating arrangements playing a role in Ozomatli’s ability to loosen up the crowd, especially considering the “deep connection” he says the band shares with Tucson.
““Tucson for us is special because it was one of the first places when we first started touring way back when, and it was one of the first places that really embraced us too,” Bella says, adding that campaigns from the music industry to boycott Arizona following the controversy of Senate Bill 1070 was a point of conflict for the band. “It really hurt us as far as not being able to play Tucson for the people. Basically we have a really, really deep connection with that town and being that is also a university town, the energy of the students is always good, and also the older generation there too.”
Ozomatli’s accomplishments hold weight far beyond the West Coast. While touring as Cultural Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, Ozomatli stopped and played a show in Myanmar, decades after an American musical group had last played there and three years before Pres. Barack Obama visited the country in 2012. They’ve recorded tracks to raise awareness for voter participation and other causes, toured with legendary guitarist Carlos Santana in 1999, won a Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album Grammy for their 2001 album “Embrace the Chaos,” and performed at countless music festivals and events around the world. In short, it’s been a productive two decades.
Despite their international reputation, much of Ozomatli’s loyalty and attention remains with the Latino community, the demographic that Bella says makes up their most faithful fans. Because the majority of Ozomatli’s members have Hispanic roots, Bella says the band has the ability to act as a voice for Latino fans across the nation, not just in L.A.
“Especially on the West Coast, the majority of the people who are Ozomatli fans are from Spanish-speaking households,” Bella, the son of immigrant parents, says. “I feel like we take from our own experiences and use that…in solidarity with that community.”
“Place in the Sun,” to be released via Vanguard Records, is a “positive and uplifting” compilation that includes a collaboration with former Eurythmics frontman Dave Stewart and the musical execution of fan suggestions, accumulated mostly from Facebook, of “certain sounds and styles” they wanted to hear on the new album, Bella says. But mostly, he added, the release of the new album is meant to symbolize the Ozomatli’s recognition of their musical legacy as they near their 20th anniversary as a band, especially considering how drastically the industry has changed since Ozomatli’s early days of playing at the community center in the name of peace and justice.
“It’s really rough out there, and it’s really hard to make a living playing music and being an artist,” Bella says. “All I can say is it’s a blessing that we’ve been able to maintain our collective for this long and still do what we do.”
If You Go:
What: Ozomatli kicks off their tour for new album “Place in the Sun”
Where: The Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress Street
When: Friday, March 14, 8:00 p.m. (doors at 7 p.m.)