It’s the forbidden land. While less than 100 miles from the U.S. shores, Cuba might as well not exist for most Americans. It’s been sold in the media as the evil little empire. You can’t go there without some serious jockeying. And even after 30 years, you still can’t buy anything produced on Castro’s island compound—unless, of course, you find someone who deals in smuggled cigars.
But that all just got Ulises Bella’s curiosity brewing. Cuba was a big cultural mystery. Bits and pieces—the music, the people, the doctrine—had all seeped over to U.S. shores, even influencing the tenor sax player’s sound in one way or another. But fragments don’t give you a clear picture. He wanted to witness the whole thing for himself. So when it was decided that Bella’s band, Los Angeles fusion-fanatics Ozomatli, would set up its own tour in Cuba, he just about busted a nut—consequences be damned.
“We just had to experience it for ourselves,” Bella says. “You grow up hearing that it’s so bad. We just wanted to see what it really was like. There’s so much good there, and so much bad. The whole thing was just amazing. We somehow played seven shows while we were there. We didn’t have anything booked. We just asked around. By the time we left, a lot of the local musicians knew who we were.”
That’s not really unusual, though. Musicians around Ozomatli’s SoCal home base have been drawn to the group for years. The nine-piece band’s unique mesh of Afro-Latin jazz, funk and hip-hop is the kind of stuff that gets Berkeley grads and music junkies quivering. The reason: It’s the sound of L.A. whittled down to one collective, Ozo condensing the varied beats of the street into one heady, ever-morphing amalgam. “The vibe of the city has been a big influence on us,” Bella says. The group’s ’98 self-titled debut plays like a drive down the I-10, songs switching styles every time you drive past a new neighborhood. One second the trunk is bouncing, the next it’s a burro block party.
But things are a little different on Ozomatli’s sophomore disc, Embrace the Chaos (Interscope). The band still can change chameleon-quick—they just choose not to do it mid-song. Bella says that as the group was working on material, there didn’t seem to be as much stylistic wiggling room. “For us, it’s the final outcome that matters,” he says, “and the songs did seem to want to switch styles as much this time.”
In a matter of three songs, Ozo can go from a traditional samba (“Guerrillero”) to Native Tongue-style hip-hop (“1234,” featuring De La Soul) to odd avant-jazz (“Pensativo”). The amazing thing: The band does it all better than most stuck in a single-sound rut.
“It’s because of all the people in the band,” Bella says. “In a lot of ways this band is like going to school. There’s just so many people who have studied so many different styles, it opens the door to so many things. And being in this band, I’ve learned a lot about music that I never would have anywhere else.”
The thing that influenced Embrace the Chaos more than anything, though, was the 2001 National Democratic Convention. When Ozo agreed to play a political rally outside the convention floor, the members knew that there was likely to be a clash. Mid-set, the cops came charging in. The band tried to set up again in the street in hopes to continue playing. It didn’t work. You can hear the resulting mayhem at the beginning of the title track when a protestor with a megaphone shouts over the crowd, “Please, please, please allow us to leave peacefully. Please don’t shoot.” Soon after, the band was in the studio trying to translate what they witnessed. It all got boiled down to the record’s defining line: “Only through chaos will we ever see change.”
“We’ve always been socially and politically active, but at that moment ...” Bella pauses for a moment, “we were really serious into the recording sessions at that point, and it really influenced everything.”
Yet even with the constant clash of politics and musical passion within Ozomatli’s own borders, it still doesn’t mean that Bella isn’t anxious to get back to tackling Cuban jazz. It’s in his blood now. And he thinks he found the perfect teacher.
“When we were down there, I ran into this guy,” Bella says. “All he had was his horn, that was it. He’d never heard any recorded music. No tapes, no records. But when he played, he sounded like Charlie Parker or something. I asked him where he heard that stuff, and he said he just played and listened to everyone around him. That was amazing.”