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Ozomatli coming to Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre with reggae in the musical mix


Ozomatli isn’t just another band from Los Angeles.

Though they started out there in 1995, seeking to embody the City of Angels’ eclectic culture, they’ve become popular around the globe and have played to enthusiastic audiences in far-flung locales such as Nepal and Mongolia. The band plays Saturday, July 15, at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma.

Their blend of music styles, from modern Latino to hip-hop, leavened by jazz and amped up with some funk, has earned Ozomatli an eclectic and devoted fan base.

They’ve opened shows for Santana and been compared to Los Lobos, but their latest album, “Nonstop: Mexico to Jamaica,” is rooted in reggae.

“The new album is a total departure — we’ve never really been a cover band,” said Uli Bella, Ozomatli’s saxophone and clarinet player, in a phone interview.

The genesis of the reggae record is an Ozomatli original called “Cumbia de los Muertos,” from the band’s first album.

When they play that song live, Bella said, “The crowd digs the mashup of reggae with this really traditional song.”

Ozomatli approached legendary reggae producers Sly and Robbie, and the Jamaican duo agreed to make the record.

“In the end, it really worked out,” Bella said.

“Nonstop” started with the idea of giving Latino classics, such as “Besamé Mucho,” a reggae and hip-hop treatment.

But soon, the concept expanded beyond traditional mariachi and Norteño chestnuts to include more recent music, including covers of Selena’s “Como la Flor” and “Oye Mi Amor” by Maná.

It was Carlos Santana who gave Ozomatli perhaps its biggest break — he asked the band to open for him (and Maná) on the globe-spanning “Supernatural” tour in the late 1990s. So naturally, there’s a Santana cover on the record: “Evil Ways.”

There are some surprises: “Nonstop” closes with a lilting version of “Come and Get Your Love,” the 1973 song by the American Indian band Redbone featured in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie.

The name Ozomatli comes from the symbol for monkey in Aztec astrology, Bella said. “He’s kind of like the orchestrator of the jungle, the god of dance.”

Ozomatli, which has won both American and Mexican Grammy awards, is outspoken, taking firm stances on social justice issues, including workers’ rights.

In 2006, the State Department selected the band to be Cultural Ambassadors, giving Ozomatli a chance to be a voice of American Latino culture around the world.

One of the band’s first trips as State Department cultural ambassadors was to India and Nepal.

“When we played in Nepal, … they only knew that there was going to be a free show from this band from California,” Bella said. “We were just thinking, ‘No one knows who we are, we’ll see what happens,’ and over 10,000 people showed up.”

The Cultural Ambassador gigs were “an amazing litmus test for our music and our art in the sense that without any hype, without them knowing who the hell we are, they enjoyed the music, they dug our performance,” he said.

In 2012, after their drummer observed that lots of the band’s fans have kids, Ozomatli made an original album for children: “Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz.”

“We noticed that there are certain songs that make the kids get up and dance,” Bella said.

“So when we started the ‘Ozokidz’ thing, we wanted to make an album that the kids would like but that the adults would love, too. Sometimes with kids music, the adults hear it and say, ‘If you play that song one more time, I’m going to stab myself.’ ”

Ozomatli occasionally plays kids show the afternoon before an evening performance for adults.

“When we play the Fillmore in San Francisco, we’ll do the kids show at 1 or 2 in the afternoon,” Bella said.

Typically, the kids show is about 45 minutes, featuring songs such as “Moose on the Loose,” because kids’ attention spans don’t go beyond that, he said.

Ozomatli also plays numerous free shows, including one coming up July 23 at Todd Grove Park in Ukiah.

“It allows everyone to attend, and also allows us to present our music to people who might not ever have gone to an Ozomatli show,” Bella said. “There are always some people who have never heard of us before.”

Ozomatli has now been playing for more than 20 years, but the band’s creative well is far from dry.

With the “Nonstop” album, the band has paid tribute to many of their favorite songs and artists, but Ozomatli is already at work on a new collection of original music.

“Hopefully it will be coming out soon,” Bella said. “We’re thinking of releasing a new single every month — that’s kind of how music is distributed these days.”

Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.