Ozomatli Turns To A New Cool: Kids' Music

Jan 3, 2013
Originally published on January 3, 2013 10:05 am

The Grammy-winning band Ozomatli is known for its effortless mashup of musical styles, including funk, hip-hop, rock and salsa. The band got together about 17 years ago in Los Angeles and has performed around the world, including as U.S. Cultural Ambassadors.

Ozomatli's lyrics have taken on serious issues like immigration and gang violence, but now it's heading into new territory: kids' music. The band's latest album, Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz, includes fun and educational songs about trees, animals — even balloons and birthday parties.

Band member Jiro Yamaguchi tells NPR host Michel Martin that Ozomatli always had a saying: "Ozomatli is for the kids." It has played for kids in after-school programs and at shows for all ages. It has even written music for PBS and the video game Happy Feet 2. "All these projects helped our 'kid chops,' I guess you would call it — you know, starting to get our frame set for making our own kids' album," Yamaguchi says.

Most of the band members are fathers themselves. "We're in a different place than we were back then, you know, going to clubs and partying and living the road life," says Yamaguchi. "Now we are raising children. And I don't want to make it sound like we're not cool ... but I think responsibility is the new cool."

Yamaguchi points out that when they're writing kids' music, they keep in mind the adults who are also listening. Often, they're listening to the same songs their little ones play on repeat. "If you're driving in your car and your child is demanding certain music, you know, you want the adult or the parent — whoever is in the car with them — to like it, too. Or else they're going to take it out eventually," he says.

When the band performs for kids, it's a high-energy and interactive experience. Yamaguchi says the band members act like kids onstage — just having fun. They're also encouraging their fans to dance. "We are telling them, 'Raise your hands! Scuffle to the side! Move to the left!' " says Yamaguchi. "The kids get into it. We play for about 30 minutes, because beyond that, the attention starts to wander."

The song "Moose on the Loose" is a fan favorite, says Yamaguchi. It tells the story of kids camping in the woods who suddenly see a moose running amok and must fend for their safety. Yamaguchi says Justin Poree, the one who sings and raps in the song, came up with the idea. "He actually just came in with it one day. He was like, 'Check out this song!' And we were like, 'Oh, my God! That's a really great song!' "

Another popular song is "Balloon Fest," which was inspired by the band's experience at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. Yamaguchi says they were preparing for a show backstage, where there were tons of balloons. Their publicist and his young daughter were there, too. They all spontaneously began throwing the balloons around. Each time the balloons got thrown up — and each time they landed — someone yelled "Balloon fest!" Yamaguchi says his publicist's daughter was really hyped. So, years later, the balloon fest came to mind when they were brainstorming about song ideas.

In terms of balancing work and family, Yamaguchi says the band has been doing less touring and more writing. The members are also able to stay home more. Yamaguchi says his wife is very supportive and helps raise their 4-year-old daughter. "It's really a balance and a lot of communication," he says.

He hasn't traded his car in for a minivan yet, but he enjoys being both a rocker and a family man.

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee sitting in for Michel Martin, who is under the weather. The Grammy-winning band Ozomatli is known for its brilliant amalgams of musical styles and taking on issues of the day, like immigration and gang violence. Originally from Los Angeles, the band has toured around the world, including a stint as U.S. cultural ambassadors, but now the band is heading into new territory. They're writing and singing about things like birthdays, germs and photosynthesis.


OZOMATLI: (Singing) I wonder how a tree can grow. There's many things that make it possible. First things first. Start with a seed, the very beginning of every tree. They come in many shapes, not square and round. Some fall from the tree, some we plant in the ground. Next on the list...

HEADLEE: That's right. Your favorite L.A. funkmasters are making music for the elementary school set. What you just heard is their song "Trees" from the new album titled "Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz." Band member Jiro Yamaguchi recently spoke with Michel Martin.


Welcome. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

JIRO YAMAGUCHI: Thanks, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you remember, we talked to you a couple of years ago about your group being U.S. cultural ambassadors, so which is scarier? Wading into some of these, you know, places where western musicians haven't performed before or performing for kids?

YAMAGUCHI: You know, maybe the kids. Actually, Ozomatli - we've always had a saying that, since pretty early on, that Ozomatli is for the kids. We've actually always played for kids, you know, doing after school programs or going to - you know, doing the different outreach work that we do, as well as during our live show when it's an all ages show, we will bring kids up on stage on the last song to play with us and so this seems like a very natural progression for us.

MARTIN: But you have to admit, though, you're known for being cool. I mean, come on. And so - and you know you're cool and I have to ask if any of the guys were afraid that they were losing their cool points by putting out an album for kids.

YAMAGUCHI: You know, that's an interesting question. Yes. There is a kind of - when we were first venturing into this family - quote, unquote, "family music" or making music for kids, there was discussion about that, like how do you balance that? And we've kind of come to a place where we want to keep them separate, so we created an entity called OzoKidz, but at the same time, there's still crossover and our music for, quote, "adults," still has appeal with the younger set.

You know, when we first started doing this, we didn't have any children's music and so we were actually playing live shows for kids and we would adapt Ozomatli songs for kids. I think there's a natural crossover already.

MARTIN: How did, like, the idea that you were going to do an album for kids start? Do I have it right that you were actually approached? I mean, for example, that PBS approached you to do some music for kids shows and to do some music for video games, for kids' video games. Is that right?

YAMAGUCHI: Yes. There were a couple of things going on. We were commissioned by PBS to write some 30 minute bumper music for in between their programming. You know, they gave us topics, such as opposable thumbs and practice and measurement and so we took these subject matters and we wrote 30 second songs about them and then they put collages of Curious George and whatever the programming is to it.

We also did a video game for "Happy Feet Two" and we did all the music. They gave us a list of, you know, 50 songs and they were like, can you do songs like this? And it was a very eclectic and diverse listing, everything from "Funkytown" to Harry Belafonte to, you know, all kinds of music and it came out really well and I think that helped. All these projects helped our kid chops, I guess you could call it, you know, starting to get our - you know, our frameset for making our own kids' album.

MARTIN: Now, you guys have been together for what? Like, 17 years now?

YAMAGUCHI: Seventeen years. Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, when you first got together, did any of you have kids?

YAMAGUCHI: Not when we first got together. Raul, the guitarist, Asdru, the lead vocalist and trumpet player - they had kids pretty early on. Their kids are ranged now from, like, nine to 14.

MARTIN: But most of their kids are post-Ozomatli kids. Right? I mean...

YAMAGUCHI: Yes, yes. Everybody is post - yes. Exactly. Yes.

MARTIN: So that becomes - sometimes, it becomes like a thing, you know, when some people are having kids and other people aren't having kids, they're not ready for it. Right?


MARTIN: And so I wonder if there's ever, your life changes, the things that you're interested in and the things you're exposed to sort of changes. And I wonder if there is ever any, you know, tension in the group between the people who are like, listen, man, we've got to get this rehearsal going because I've got to go pick up the kid.


MARTIN: For people who are just rolling in from the club, you know?


YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. That's true.

MARTIN: Who haven't been home yet, you know?

YAMAGUCHI: What's great about us is at this point I actually don't know. You know, back in the day I think it was a struggle for the ones who had kids. At this point there's a little bit more understanding. We've also grown up as men.


YAMAGUCHI: And you know, we're in a different place than we were back then, you know, going to clubs and partying and living life, the road life. You know, now we're, we are raising children and I mean I don't want to make it sound like we're not cool. That goes back to your other question of like balancing that, you know, but I think - think, you know, responsibility is the new cool.


MARTIN: All right. Well, go with - all right. I think that's a T-shirt right there.

YAMAGUCHI: I'm going to go with that.

MARTIN: Let's go with that. That's right.


MARTIN: What a relief. Well, let's play another song from the album.

YAMAGUCHI: All right.

MARTIN: This one's "Moose on the Loose."


OZOMATLI: (Rapping) Boy. Boy. That Moose was fast but we were faster. We'll be safe behind these trees. That could've been a great big disaster. Then all of a sudden, barreling through the trees a big old something. Oh boy, is that a caboose? Oh my God, there's a moose on the loose. There's a moose on the loose. There's a moose on the loose.

MARTIN: I like this because most of the songs are about like giving specific information...


MARTIN: teaching things.


MARTIN: And this one's just fun because it's not like all your adult albums are about like vote.


MARTIN: Stop shooting each other. I mean they're not all about like heavy issues. And I kind of like that you mixed it up. I was just wondering who, when did you come up with this idea?

YAMAGUCHI: This is one of my favorite songs too, because it is kind of a story and it's a narrative and it's fun. Justin, who's singing on this and rapping, he came up with the idea. And he actually just came in with it one day. He was like check out this song. And we're all like, oh my God, that's a really great song. So we worked on it. We all, you know, played the music for it, and then also I believe it's a fan favorite now.


OZOMATLI: (Rapping) Everybody be very quiet. There's a moose on the loose. Woo. That was close. Two more seconds and we'd be toast. Oh, no. That moose was 10 feet high with antlers the size of the River Nile. But something's wrong. What? I thought that moose was long gone. But I hear eight woofs coming like a caboose. Oh my God, it's a moose on the loose. There's a moose on the loose. There's a moose on the loose.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jiro Yamaguchi. He is a member of the band Ozomatli. We're talking about the band's new album. It's titled "Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz." It's their first studio album entirely meant for kids or with so-called kids' music.

Well, how do you feel about that term kids' music anyway? How do you feel about that?

YAMAGUCHI: I, you know, I don't mind. It's fine, kids' music, family music. I think when we write this music, we do keep in mind also the adults who have to listen to it as well with their children, so...

MARTIN: Have to is right.



MARTIN: 'Cause kids can be very demanding about what's on the, you know, playing in the car, can't they? I mean they have like opinions.

YAMAGUCHI: Oh, absolutely. And my experience with my four-year-old daughter is that she'll want to repeat things over and over and over again. And so, being aware of that, we were making music, we're like, yes. If you're driving in your car and your child is demanding certain music, you know, you want the adult or the parent, whoever is in the car with them, to like it too or else they're going to take it out eventually...

MARTIN: Or at least not want to one screaming from the car.

YAMAGUCHI: ...and then they're not going to play it anymore. Yes.


MARTIN: Right. Like run screaming from the car with the doors flying open.

YAMAGUCHI: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: Well, what's it like performing for kids? I know you were just talking about writing for kids and keeping that in mind. What about performing for kids? Have you noticed a difference?

YAMAGUCHI: Oh, yeah. I mean it's the best. I mean it lends itself to us perfectly, because we, when we get on stage we're kind of kids ourselves and we just have fun and it's a pretty energetic, high energetic, very danceable show. What we do with the kids is we just kind of make it more concise and focused and very interactive. And so we are telling them raise your hands, you know, scuffle to the side, move to the left. And we'll cordon off a little section, we call it the VIP section, right in the front of the stage, where we only allow kids. And it's great. It's a lot of fun. The kids get into it. We play for about 30 minutes because beyond that the attentions start to wander.


YAMAGUCHI: And it's been a lot of fun.

MARTIN: Well, here's an example of that. Let's play "Exercise."


OZOMATLI: (Singing) Exercise. We exercise every single day. We exercise in many different ways. We run. We walk. We play. We do cartwheels and we rollerskate and jog, hike, jump, bike, baseball, football, swim and kite. These are some of the ways that we exercise. There are many, many more you may not realize, like jumping jacks, and rowing, kickball and bowling, handball, T-ball, and even (unintelligible) to school on the pool with your friends in the morning. We exercise every single day. We exercise in many different ways. We run.

MARTIN: You know what? This might need to come with an advisory for the parents. If you try that you might need to get yourself checked out before you start.


YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. Yeah that's...

MARTIN: That's a good one.

YAMAGUCHI: Yeah, that's for sure high-energy.


MARTIN: And the birthday song too, where you talk about raise them up. Raise them up. That's a lot of fun too, the birthday song.

YAMAGUCHI: Oh, yeah. And, you know, we chose - the topics we chose we felt like - we're like, what do we write about? And what kid doesn't like birthdays and, you know, what kid doesn't like to jump around and do jumping jacks? And so that's kind of how we chose the subjects to write about.

MARTIN: Well, you also have the mix of musical styles, of genres that I think people will associate with your music. And like, well, here's one, like "Balloon Fest."


OZOMATLI: (Rapping) It's a sunny day. Why are you bored? Follow me for a quick trip to the store. Get some change from dad, two dollars at most. The price of balloons. Invite some friends, now you're the host. Blow them up and toss 'em around. Get some colored markers. Draw a face or a frown. Blow them up. Watch them flying through the air. Where did they land? Who cares?

MARTIN: That's a favorite of yours, right?

YAMAGUCHI: Oh yes. Yeah. I like "Balloon Fest." And there's a funny story of how we came about with that. We were at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City getting ready to play an Ozomotli show. And our publicist, Rob Moore, was backstage with us with his daughter, who at the time I believe was about four years old. And for some reason there were all these balloons back there. And, you know, spontaneously - and I don't know how it started, but just spontaneously we started playing with these balloons with her. She was so excited, just throwing it everywhere. And every time the balloons would get thrown up, somebody would yell out: balloon fest. And then it would land down and: balloon fest. And she was, she was really hyped.


YAMAGUCHI: And so, years later, we were like what are we going to write about? And it was like, oh, balloon fest.


OZOMATLI: (Singing) Balloon fest. (Foreign language spoken) Balloon fest (Foreign language spoken). (Rapping) Take a blown up balloon, twist it into shape. Make it look like a dog. How great. If you want to get crazy, fill it with some water, spray it around, makes the heart let's harder. Now blow it up, watch it grow and make it rock. Don't do it too often, someone might call the cops. Next time you bored, don't sit around. Remember balloons will make you smile, never frown.



MARTIN: That's a party right there, so...


MARTIN: Well, you know, before I let you go, thank you for stopping by, again. You know, hardly anybody ever asks men how they handle work and family, right?


MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you, since most of you are dads now, right?


MARTIN: And you've been doing this a long time and you still want to, you're still doing what you started out doing, but now you've added this. How are you managing all that?

YAMAGUCHI: You know, I think we've been doing less touring. We've been writing more and doing composition for, doing things like the video games and the PBS things. And we've had the ability to stay home more, which is a lot more sane and healthy - especially in the context of having family. I have a very supportive wife who, you know, helps raise our daughter. And when I'm home I do a lot of that as well. And so it's really a balance and a lot of communication.


MARTIN: Are any of your other rocker friends dogging you out about like trading in your cool car for the minivan or any of that?


MARTIN: Do you have to put anybody on check on that?

YAMAGUCHI: No minivan yet and, you know, I don't know if I would get a minivan. But no, not really.

MARTIN: You can tell me. It's OK. If I run into you in L.A., I'm going to see you with the minivan; you're going to be ducking down behind the wheel. No, that's not me.

YAMAGUCHI: I was in a minivan the other day and I was like, wow, this is kind of cool. And then I was like wait, wait, wait, wait, what am I saying?


YAMAGUCHI: But, you know, I, you know, thankfully I have really supportive friends and family who are like, yes, that's - you, you know, we have a blessed life and we, you know, I'm playing music for a living and have a beautiful family at the same time. And so that's, you know, I'm thankful for that.

MARTIN: Jiro Yamaguchi is part of the band Ozomatli. Their new album is called "Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz." It's their first studio album intended directly for kids - family music if you want to call it that. And he was kind enough to join us from our studios in Culver City. And he swears he did not drive a minivan there. Thank you so much for joining us.

YAMAGUCHI: Thanks, Michel.


OZOMATLI: Raise 'em up. It is your birthday. Raise 'em up. It is your birthday. Raise 'em up. Celebrate, today is your birthday. Raise 'em up. It's your birthday. It's your birthday. Raise him up. Celebrate like it is your birthday.

HEADLEE: You've been listening to the song "Like It's Your Birthday" by Ozomatli. The band's latest album is "Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz." To see one of their latest music videos and to learn more about their work, just go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

And that's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.