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Ozomatli's blend of politics and percussion a perfect fit for Winnipeg Folk Festival

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Ozomatli's music is a wild mix of Latin funk, hip-hop, jazz, meringue, rock, salsa and pop that can sound extremely complicated, but at its heart, the formula is simple: it's music designed to make you move.

"Anything super rhythmic and drum-based touches something primal in everybody. Everybody just wants to rock," says Ulises Bella, saxophone player and songwriter of the Los Angeles-based collective.

Taking that philosophy to its logical conclusion, the band is entering into the children's music market with an album set for release in September. The band is known for its socio-political material, but the album will be less about politics and more about a groove that both kids and parents can enjoy together, Bella says.

"It's good fun. A lot of our music has always kind of appealed to small kids anyway," he says. "We've always been into motivating and inspiring youth, and we've noticed a lot of our fans have kids, too, so some can't come to a show because of their kids. Now we can do a show at two or three in the afternoon and a regular one at night."

Ozomatli is playing the Winnipeg Folk Festival mainstage tonight, but won't be around to perform at the Chickadee Big Top children's tent this weekend.

The band has played plenty of daytime shows while working with Los Angeles schoolchildren as part of various musical education programs they have been involved with over the years. The Grammy-winning group is so popular in its home city, April 23 has been declared Ozomatli Day, when the band gets together with students from different schools to cover its material in styles ranging from ska-punk to choral arrangements, says Bella, whose father was born in Spain and moved to Vancouver as a child and became a Canadian citizen.

The band has always been community-minded. The original members of the ensemble got together in 1995 while playing parties held in the Peace and Justice Center, a building in downtown Los Angeles occupied by laid-off workers who were fired after asking for better benefits.

The fired employees staged a sit-in and eventually took over the building. They turned it into a youth community centre with programs to help area residents; the funding was raised by hosting different musical events.

"The guys that came the most were the first version of Ozomatli. Some guys came from different schools of music. One guy was into ska, one guy was into funk and reggae or salsa, and the biggest thing that unified it all was it made people dance. That was what we gravitated to, that it was danceable," Bella says.

"I think there are songs that are danceable and political; it can hit you in the same way as Bob Marley or a Fela Kuti song. It's a danceable song and the guy is taking about something important and it's not registering at the time, but later when you look back at the words you realize it's heavier.

"Music with a message can definitely be fun. It's how you present it and service the people."

Winnipeg music fans will get to hear for themselves when the band makes its local debut tonight. Ozomatli plays the mainstage at 9:30 p.m. between two other artists not shy about sharing their political views: British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and Somali-born Toronto hip-hop/pop star K'Naan.

Ozomatli has released five albums, won two Grammy Awards and spread its message of peace, unity and fairness around the globe. In 2008 the United States State Department named the group official cultural ambassadors and helped sponsor trips to Nepal, India, Madagascar, Mongolia, Jordan, South Africa and Egypt, among other countries.

The band spent its time during the day setting up music clinics at orphanages, HIV clinics and schools, then held free performances in the evening.

"It's enlightening on so many levels. For me, personally, it definitely reinforced my idea that as a species we have so much more in common than the things that drive us apart," says Bella. "The things that drive us apart are built on an illusion. I can't believe the (stuff) that keeps us apart: government, religion, your favourite football team.

"People are so much alike, it's eye-opening. Everyone wants the same thing: to live a comfortable life, have clean water, electricity, health care and education."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2012 E7

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