Ozomatli’s new ‘Ozokidz’ album isn’t just child’s play

If you’ve ever attended an Ozomatli concert, you know it’s sort of like being swept up in a Disneyland parade for adults. The unclassifiable L.A. band -- OK, call its members Latino-hip-hop-reggae-rockers, if you must -- is known for a kinetically feel-good performance style that has set audiences swaying and jumping from L.A. to Myanmar, where Ozo once toured on behalf of the U.S. State Department.

Now, the band has directed its youthful high spirits into a new record aimed at an even bouncier demographic. “Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz,” which will be released Sept. 25, is the group’s debut kids disc. After roughly 18 years of singing about gang violence, immigration and other R-rated issues, Ozo with “Ozokidz” turns its rhyming skills to topics such as the importance of taking care of trees and avoiding germs, skateboards, spelling and a moose run amok. These crazily catchy tunes may require the guardians of public morality to come up with a new parental warning label: Prolonged Exposure May Cause You to Start Singing “Moose on the Loose” in Your Office Cubicle.

Come to think of it, most office cubicles these days could use a little levity.


Over the weekend, we spoke by phone with Ozo bassist Wil-Dog Abers about the new project and the art of channeling your inner child when you’re a middle-age musician with children of your own. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation.

So why a kids album?

We were playing in Chicago, a Tuesday night, I believe, a few years ago, and we weren’t selling any tickets. And we were really surprised because we had sold out the Chicago House of Blues less than six months earlier. And I went on Facebook and I was going to “paper” the night and just give away tickets. I went on my Facebook page and said, “Hey, anybody wanna come to Chicago, we’re not selling any tickets, I’ll get you guys in for free, you’ll be on my guest list.” And everybody -- I swear I had like 75 posts -- was like, “Sorry, I can’t get a babysitter, it’s a school night, blah, blah, blah.” [laughs] And we realized that our fans have kids now as well. So our drummer, Mario, was like, “We should do a kids album!” That was the idea. Then we just started doing more research about the kids’ community in music and saw They Might Be Giants, who we had no idea was even doing this music. And we realized that we could do this too.

At the same time all this was happening, PBS hit us up, just by chance, to write five songs for their PBS kids commercials. And just after that we got commissioned to write music for “Happy Feet Two: The Videogame.” So here we are.

What music was beloved to you when you were a kid? Did you have memories from your childhood of what makes kids music good or bad? Were you like a Rafi kid?

To be honest with you, I don’t have any memories of listening to children’s music, other than watching “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” And those are pretty awesome! When I was 6 years old, I was super into the Clash, and my parents would take me to Clash concerts and Bruce Springsteen, Gil Scott-Heron. I have all these memories of seeing all these bands as a child. I know that other guys in the band did listen to kids music, and their concern was, “It can’t be cheesy.” I think the main thing is to have fun with it and for there to be subjects. So we kind of took what we learned from doing the “Happy Feet Two” videogame, which is it all had to be dance music, basically, and the subject matters of the PBS kids. When they commissioned us, they said, “You’ve got to write a one-minute song about oposable thumbs.” “Write a one-minute song about nouns.” So we kind of took those two ideas: dance music that has subjects kids can relate to, something maybe they’re learning in school or something you can possibly teach or somehow to get ‘em off the couch and dance.

You guys always seem to be having fun when you perform, and as you say, kids music needs to be fun. Is making music fun harder than it looks?

That’s like the first step for us: We’ve got to be able to have fun and have the audience up. But I think the difference is, playing in front of youngsters, it’s a learning curve, man. We don’t have it down yet. You know, we’ve been doing this 18 years, we can pretty much get onstage and figure out what an audience wants and go. With the kid thing there’s all these little subtleties that we’re realizing as a band, like, “Don’t smile too much!” “Don’t have a scary smile!” It depends also on the audience’s age range. But if you’re playing for 2-year-olds, if you go nuts, you could scare ‘em! And then there’s the 5-year-olds that are like, “I’m cool enough for this,” and they want more of that. So there’s this fine line of figuring out who your audience is that day.

Have you found any rules or tricks to writing songs that get a message across but don’t talk down to kids, who are pretty sharp these days?

Yeah, just keep it to facts, as many facts as you can, and try to relate. It’s the difference between trying to relate, versus saying, “I know.” There’s a humility there. It’s kind of like allowing them to have a voice. I think that’s with adults as well. We forget that when we become adults. But we still need that in our lives as well, to have a voice, to have power, to be part of something, to be a part of the show. With the kids show, for us it’s less about, “Look at us as musicians,” and more about “Look at you! You’re awesome!”

Do you have children?

I have a 10-year-old girl. Almost everybody in the band has kids, except for two people.

Is she a good audience for you, testing out ideas?

If she starts singing it back, then I know it’s cool.


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