Eating well in Cuba is not always easy. Restaurants can be expensive and touristy, street food gnarly and disappointing. But then there are the paladars, restaurants run out of Cubans’ own houses and apartments, offering excellent and often creative home cooking. It was into one of these paladars, in Havana, that the members of the Los Angeles band Ozomatli stepped one night in 1997.
“That meal was incredible,” recalls percussionist Justin Poree. Nothing fancy, he says, just great rice and beans and perfect avocados, like the home cooking he’d had at Cuban parties in L.A.—“tasty, really fatty, but so good, man.” It was when this group of normal-looking twentysomethings—dressed in jeans, colorful sneakers, and general post-skater garb—revealed to their hosts that they were musicians, however, that things got fun. “I just remember, like, somebody’s grandmother or aunt coming out, and she had claves”—the percussion instrument made of two short, resonant wooden sticks. “And she just started playing and singing, and we were hitting on the tables and stuff, so it just became like a big jam session. But in Cuba that shit happens all the time—everywhere.”
Perhaps so, but it probably happens more often when you’re a member of Ozomatli, the Grammy-winning Los Angeles band whose music encompasses hip-hop and merengue, jazz and dancehall, indie rock and Indian raga—sometimes within a single song. Since Ozomatli came together in 1995, its members have toured roughly 40 countries, from Argentina to Madagascar to Mongolia to Japan to Jordan, connecting with foreign cultures not just through music but through food, an interest virtually all the band members share.
Or maybe it’s more obsession than interest. As Wil-Dog Abers, the bassist, puts it, “Our whole life revolves around music and food.” For all of them, the dual obsessions began early in life, although for each in different ways. Lead singer Asdru Sierra, guitarist Raul Pacheco, and saxophonist Ulises Bella grew up in Latino households in L.A., where their mothers (and grandmothers and aunts) cooked mostly traditional Mexican food—moles, taquitos, rice and beans—which is not to say that’s all they ate. Bella’s father was Spanish, and in summertime the family would visit Barcelona and the province of Navarra. There, Bella would hunt for snails to make sopa de caracol, and feast on cured meats: chorizo, butifarra (a garlicky pork sausage), jamón Ibérico.
Abers had a typically atypical L.A.-melting-pot food education. His family was poor, surviving on food stamps and cheese and butter from government programs, but his Jewish grandparents regularly took him out for classic deli meals—pickled herring, bagels, lox. And Abers lived in the inner city alongside Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, and Guatemalan communities, attending a magnet school whose students represented every culture in greater L.A. “My mom always says I was the kid that would just go to my friends’ house and would go straight to the fridge to see what they had,” he says.
Throughout their childhoods, all were getting into music, too. Poree’s dad was a Motown studio musician, Sierra’s would listen to antique mambo records, and percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi, who grew up in Tokyo and upstate New York, was going to Wayne Shorter concerts with his parents. So, by the time Ozomatli coalesced, its members had absorbed a host of musical and culinary influences, although when it came to food, they were each at different levels of adventurousness. While snail-eating Bella was ready to order truffle gnocchi at Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills (on their booking agent’s dime), Sierra was more cautious. “I mean, I thought my grandmother’s cooking was the best in the world,” Sierra said. “I never really thought on the idea of eating another food. The only way I did was because I was traveling or hanging out with different people. Then that opened my whole consciousness to a whole plethora of food.”