Los Angeles is a city of music. Vast, multicultural, impossible to pin down to one style, country, or era.
The same thing can be said about our gifted member Asdrubal Sierra, or as friends call him, Asdru.
Musician. Singer. Songwriter. Performer. He is the co-founder of the 3-time Grammy Award-winning, beloved multi-genre band Ozomatli, which for the past 21 years has symbolized the emerging multicultural nature of Los Angeles. Asdru has spent the last 21 years as the group’s lead vocalist, trumpet, and keyboardist, not to mention composer of many of their most beloved pieces. Ozomatli is known as much for its activist viewpoints on farm-worker’s rights and immigration reform as for their wide array of musical styles, including salsa, jazz, funk, Arabic, dance hall, samba, reggae, and rap, amongst others.
Over the last few decades, Asdru has received a wealth of accolades, and Ozomatli has become loved by a long list of notable fans, including President and First Lady Obama, for whom they performed at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 32nd Annual Award Gala.
Along with this impressive list of awards, with Ozomatli, Asdru acted as Musical Director, composer, and arranger for Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias’s Stand Up Revolution television series, and he was also instrumental in Ozomatli becoming the first band to speak at a TED conference.
Born in LA, Asdru had remarkable musical ability from the time he was old enough to pick up an instrument. His grandfather was a musician and singer signed to RCA Victor in Mexico from 1940 through the 1960’s, and his father was a renowned bolero vocalist. Asdru grew up immersed in practically every genre of music imaginable.
“One day when I was a little kid, my grandmother and I were listening to music, when out of the blue she says to me, ‘You know, that’s your grandfather singing on that record!’ It blew my mind that the voice of somebody in my family was coming out of the record player. I remember staring at the album as it was going around, mesmerized and amazed. It was that little dog with the gramophone for RCA Victor Mexico, one of those big thick 78-rpm records.” But his grandmother’s revelation had only just begun. “Then she told me, your grandfather made many, many records, and she walks me over and shows me a big stack of albums. There were pictures of him at this club in Mexico City called El Patio – it was one of the first have a revolving stage, kind of like the Hollywood Bowl. My grandfather was the bandleader. Back in those days it was big, booming times for Mexico, and the club always had a lot of unbelievable guests. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo; all these amazing artists.”
As it turns out, Diego was a bit of an annoyance. Asdru’s grandmother was the coat-check lady, and Diego had a bit of a thing for her. His grandmother complained that “He’d constantly come to the window and flirt with me, and try to make something happen.” Eventually, though, Asdru’s grandfather was the one who smooth-talked her into getting married.
Later, after the marriage, his grandfather’s band would be hired by Frida and Diego to play at their bohemian nights – which were really just jam sessions – so, as Asdru puts it, “They could be all artistic together.” Even then, Diego was a well-meaning irritation. “He’d want your grandfather to stay all night and play.” According to his grandmother, “It just never stopped with Diego.”From his earliest memory, there was nothing but music for Asdru. In fact, he struggles to explain just how much music meant to him, even then. “I remember watching my dad perform,” Asdru says. “I watched as he was able to express so much with just a single note. That’s when the bug bit me. It was real magic. I got hooked before I was old enough to go to school.”
As Asdru got older, he played with a lot of different Latin, Ska, and rock bands in LA. Finally, when he was 16, he became the leader of his own Latin jazz band, and for the first time he was able to experience a little of what fueled his beloved grandfather’s passion. Asdru remembers the time with humor and great fondness. “What a thrill it was to play in front of people. I also remember always having to help a guy in our band carry this giant electric Yamaha piano. It was a real monster, and always a challenge. Things were never easy, but honestly, we hardly even noticed.”
That’s what happens when you’re doing something you love.
But for Asdru, music was more than an act of creative expression, it was an escape. “I grew up in Glassell Park,” Asdru explains, “which at the time was a pretty rough neighborhood. I remember my dad, every time we’d hear gun shots, we’d jump out of bed and hit the floor for safety from stray bullets. My dad would try to look out the window to see if we were anywhere close to the shots. I’d put on my Walkman and listen to music, and for a minute, it would take me somewhere else.” Asdru closes his eyes and remembers. “I’d listen to Miles Davis, U2, Santana. Those were my saviors. That’s the magic of music. It heals. If only those artists knew what they did for me.” Asdru smiles, and after a long, thoughtful pause, says, “I hope someday I can be that for somebody.”
An early producer described the band by saying they sounded as if they went to one another’s house, went through each other’s record collections, and then all got together and jammed in that style. They were eclectic right from the start.
Here it is, some twenty-one years later, and Ozomatli has a new record coming out in the spring of 2017. Asdru tells us, “It’s a tribute record to the amazing Mexican songbook, you know, great songwriters and performers like Juan Gabriel, who just passed away. We have one of his songs. We have a song by Maná. We have a song by Selena Quintanilla. It’s a tribute to lots of people, and it’s totally authentic. It came out beautiful. It’s classic, but not too shiny or over-produced.” And the title? “It’s called Non-stop,” Asdru says, “like an airplane ticket that goes from LAX to Mexico to Kingston.”
Today, Asdru is immersed in projects that extend far beyond the band – scoring for movies and television; a collaboration with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame; a critically-acclaimed album, Abstrakto, with producer/director Balthazar Getty; and, of course, supporting the burgeoning careers of his two kids, who, not surprisingly, share Asdru’s innate gift for music and performance.
“My kids are beautiful,” Asdru says with obvious gratitude. “My son, Alejandro Sierra, is actually a musician, he’s in a band, and he’s doing really well. The band’s called Love Ghost, and I helped produce a few of their songs. He’s 16, and man, is he talented. They kind of sound like a cross between, I don’t know, Joy Division, Nirvana and RadioHead. They’re something else. I’m so proud of him.”
In this family, talent runs deep in the DNA.
“My 15-year-old daughter Gabriela is an actress and singer and dancer,” says Asdru. “She plays bass and trumpet. She’s incredibly gifted and intelligent just like my son. I’m so fortunate. I did a show with them a while back. Every once in a while, we do like a family band thing, and I’m telling you, they do fantastic things.”
Talking about family with Asdru got us to looking down the road, wondering where he sees himself and the band in 5 or 10 years.
“I’d like to be able to win one more Grammy. I’ve won three out of five. Another thing I’m grateful for and honored by. More importantly though, I see myself evolving into more of a film and TV composer. I think it’s probably the thing I do best. It all goes back to watching my dad use his music to take people on an emotional journey.”
The conversation comes full circle back to family, as Asdru explains, “I’ve been on the road for over twenty years. I love it and I’m grateful but I want to be home more, you know? Don’t get me wrong, I love doing music. Every time I’m on stage, it’s beautiful. But there’s something about always being on the road. It takes 22 hours to get to do a two-hour show, and then the next day, it’s another city. When I was younger that was great, but now that I’m getting a little older, being on the road 270 days a year just doesn’t have the same appeal.” And then Asdru gets to the heart of his reasoning. “I just want to be home if my kids ever need me, if my wife ever needs me. I want to be one of those kinds of grandfathers. Nothing is more important.”
Asdru’s been a member of First Entertainment for about two and a half years, and tells us, “At most banks, the minute they hear ‘musician’ they either think you’re rich or completely broke. But not First Entertainment. They understand.” Asdru adds, “It’s weird that I’m so happy with a bank.” The feeling’s mutual, Asdru.
With that, we wrap the interview and send Asdru on his way to the band’s next gig—a tour of Australia.
Watch for Ozomatli’s new album, Non-stop, due out in spring.