Q&A: Ozomatli Touches the Next Generation of Forward Thinkers

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Ozomatli never ceases to amaze me. The band arose from the ashes of a post-riots Los Angeles — when everyone was finding it hard to just get along — with a rather ambitious mission: to make majorly mashed-up music (we’re talking hip-hop/funk/salsa/dancehall/cumbia/[insert cool genre here]) that speaks to an open-minded multicultural audience. Fast forward 17 years and the band is a Grammy-winning global sensation. Named U.S. State Cultural Ambassadors in 2007, Ozomatli have played everywhere from Tunisia to Madagascar, performed their own TED talk, and are now spreading their message to the next generation. I spoke to Ozo percussionist-slash-rapper Justin “El Nino” Porée, 36, about the upcoming OzoKidz a super fun and informative album that promotes exercise and imagination.

Is it true you were discovered playing the djembe at Disneyland?

When the band first started I was working the Lion King parade at Disneyland; the one that goes down Main Street. It was an incredible experience for an 18-year-old-kid. When you’re at Disneyland, you have to be on all the time. They’re watching you. It’s more showmanship than playing. It taught me how to perform.

I don’t think I know of a band that’s more diverse. What’s your ethnicity?

Creole and Choctaw Indian.

Represent. So where are you right now?

I’m in my manager’s office and there’s a lot of quirky crazy kids stuff in here like Japanese…I don’t even know what type of dolls to call them. They look pretty insane.

Interesting. What inspired you guys to make a kids album?

It was inevitable. Kids have always been an important part of what we do. If there are kids at our shows, we’ll bring four or five onstage to jam out with us on our last song. We’re getting older, our fans are having kids, so it behooves us to make an album that speaks to the next generation of Ozo fans.


[Looking up ‘behooves’ online] Do you have kids?

No, but Asdru, the trumpet player, Raul, the guitar player, Wil-Dog, the bass player, and Jiro, the percussionist, do.

Have you seen any changes in them besides loosing sleep?

Raul and Asdru had kids early on in the band’s career. We’re a touring band, so it’s a lot of juggling being home with family and being on the road. It’s a constant struggle. Jiro’s daughter is only four, so we try to find a good balance.

How was making a kids album different than your other projects? I mean, did you have to dress up in funny costumes to get in a silly mood or anything?

Right before we did this album, we did a project with PBS. They had us write songs about pronouns, opposable thumbs, practice. They’ve been doing the kids market forever, so they’re very meticulous. We wrote lyrics and they would come back with a bunch of edits, mainly simplifying but not dumbing down words for kids. It was intense. We had to get into a different head space. It really prepared us for OzoKidz.

The album talks about things like scary monsters hiding in the water on the bilingual hip-hop/merengue-ish track “Piraña.” Was it hard to be serious while making the album?

There was a lot of laughing, but that’s the case with our other albums too. We always make a peanut gallery of alternative lyrics for songs that are being worked on at that moment.

What’s one of your craziest Ozomatli shows you’ve ever done?

We were one of the first American bands to play in Kathmandu, Nepal. A week prior to our show there was a riot between the Maoists and the communists so there were hundreds of riot police. They said there was going to be 10,000 people and if they didn’t like us, they would throw rocks at us, so they distanced us 100 yards between the stage and the barricade. That’s a football field between us and the people. We got them to shorten it to 50 yards and as soon as we started playing the audience went insane. They started dancing and having fun. By the third song, the cops had their nightsticks down and some of them were even dancing.

Dope. What’s next for the band?

We usually tour on the weekends. We have shows coming up at the H20 Festival in L.A. and Britt Festivals in Oregon.

OzoKidz drops September 25.
All photos taken by Christian Lantry

To download music by Ozomatli click below: