MORE than any other place in America, Los Angeles is willful in its disregard for the uninformed tourist. Every day, the city snubs and evades the first-time visitors who attempt to find their way without a local guide at the wheel. After too many wrong turns, the newcomer departs town in a huff, a rube weary of the civic shell game.
"It's so true, people come here and they just hate it and then you ask them, 'Well, where did you go? What do you do?' They tell you and you just laugh because they went to L.A. but they never actually got there. This place, you need to know where you're going or don't even come."
The man talking was Ulises "Uli" Bella, the horn player for Ozomatli, the funky polyglot orchestra that makes music that, like Los Angeles, is a striking collage of rhythmic cultures and street politics. The crowded band (10 members) also has a healthy pride about challenging the conventional outsider sense of direction about L.A.
"L.A. is in everything we do, that's the sound of us, but with this 'City of Angels' we wanted to do an actual anthem for L.A., an ode to the place, you know, like that Randy Newman song but with a beat and with the sound of the street."
Walk Crescent Heights worldwide
Back to strangle us
Land of the saint and the land of the wicked
Hollywood to Bell, the Manichaean kick it
What a duality, arid reality
The song blares with Latin funk brass and then bounces with fast-drawl rap. On the mike are the band's two MCs, Justin Poree and Jabu Smith-Freeman, and they swap tales of the city that are edgy and endeared. "Justin went to Hamilton High ... and Jabu is from South-Central, all the way, so they have very different perceptions of the city. And that works because everything here is a mix."
The mix isn't always easy. The song was recorded last spring and the band members came to studios fresh from the marches in downtown Los Angeles in support of immigrant rights and in protest of federal border initiatives. "The energy of those marches," Bella said, "that was definitely in the music we were making."
So were beloved landmarks. "To me, it's Philippe's and Tommy's, Dodger Stadium, the La Brea Tar Pits, the museums, the Griffith Observatory, downtown, the beaches.... If you know the place, you love it. My parents met here, my dad was from Spain and my mom from Mexico, and they had a love affair with Los Angeles. That's how I grew up seeing it."
He knows romantic love isn't on the mind of many newcomers to L.A.; they arrive with more callous appetites and a leering eye. "They don't think of it as a real place. They come here like it's a strip club. And I have to say, a lot of people watch them arrive and treat them like strip-club customers. They're just walking dollar bills. Man, no wonder the place messes people up."
-- Geoff Boucher