While my usual tastes in music go in the direction of heavy metal, every now and again I like to chill out to some smooth Latin Fusion put together by Grammy-winning band Ozomatli. A while back when reading up on musicians who train jiu-jitsu, I found out that one of the bands highly talented multi-instrumentalists, Ulises Bella, not only does jiu-jitsu, but is a black belt in the gentle art.
Bella plays saxophone, requinto jarocho (a special kind of guitar), keyboard, and melodica and provides backing vocals for the diverse band.
I was curious about Bella’s experience as a jiujiteiro musician and reached out to him, and he was gracious enough to let me interview him about his jiu-jitsu journey.
For starters, I was interested to learn how someone like Ulises Bella discovered and got hooked on jiu-jitsu…
“It was 2001 and I was pretty deep into touring/recording full time with the band. There was a moment where I felt like I needed to learn something new apart from music. During a conversation with Rakaa from Dilated Peoples he suggested jiu-jitsu since he had just started with the Gracies in Torrance. Honestly I was really intimidated and I was about to flake, but then I thought,’Saying no to a jiu jitsu lesson from a Gracie is like saying no to a guitar lesson from Hendrix… I’ve got to ******* do it!’ I went with Rakaa to the academy on Carson and got my first lesson. I was immediately blown away.the idea of technique over brute strength. It felt like magic really. Through my 18 years training at the Gracie Academy/university I’ve had the honor to learn from Helio, Rorion, Rickson, Ryron, Rener, Ralek, Jonathan Burke, Jordan Collins and my current Professor who I meet weekly Alex Stuart. I was promoted to black belt two years ago.”
Someone like Ulises Bella is in a unique place in life. He’s a world-class musician whose livelihood depends on his ability to use his hands. He’s also spent a lot of time on the road. I was interested to learn a bit about the way he incorporates jiu-jitsu into his life with all the limitations and advantages that that brings.
“Since I work weekends and tour aboard the idea of entering comps hasn’t been my thing… I’m sure I’m missing out but a brother’s got to get that paper on Fridays and Saturdays! So many many reasons that I train… But the three top ones are the meditational aspect of rolling, seeing other people feel the jiu jitsu buzz when introduced to it and the connection you make with people who also love the gentle art. The most valuable thing to me by far is the personal confidence and empowerment jiu jitsu gives an individual.its transformative really… Makes you deal with real life **** in a different scope.
When refining my Jits I take privates with Alex besides that I go to open rolls and group classes. 6 years ago a group of artist buddies who train decided to start a jiu jitsu social club called Ghetto Dojo where guys from different schools (checkmat,Combat Base,Gracie Barra,machados) meet up twice a week from rolls, laughs and tacos!I I try bringing my gi on certain tours… Especially if I have a day off in a town that has a gym. Though it’s rare to run into musicians that roll at the Gracie’s there is Billy from Biohazrd/Powerflo. Rakaa and Evidence from Dilated. Also Brendan Buckley drummer for Shakira has dropped in at Ghetto Dojo. The last gym I dropped in on was a Ralph Gracie gym in Sacramento run by Professor Manny. Good times for sure!”
I was also curious about Ulises’ concern about his hands. Any musician who trains has to train smart to address the fact that jiu-jitsu puts a lot of wear and tear on the hands and wrists.
“I’m very concerned!! No hands no gigs! I’m that guy who before we roll I say,”please no wrist locks I need my hands!!” I use tape and Lutagear finger braces.I mostly train in the gi so I’m always thinking about my grips and hand fatigue. I train a lot more no gi especially now in the summer but honestly I love the gi and the options the gi gives you.regardless I’m always conscious about not injuring my hands or wrists.”
As a 43-year-old musician, Ulises’ goals and rolling style are inherently different from many people who do jiu-jitsu. I was interested in learning what his short and long-term goals are in the art and what kinds of rolling styles he tries to play with.
“Starting at Gracie Academy the focus was heavy on the self defense aspect.Jiu jitsu and music has similarities in that in the beginning you need to study and learn the fundamentals/basics THEN after many years you can develop your own style and vocabulary. My style is very methodical and slow… Old school melt on you like cheese smash style. My biggest asset in my game is my patience. I love me some chokes…you name it from old school cross collar to Ezekiel. As Helio use to say, ’no tough guys when it comes to chokes.’ My long term goal is to keep having fun rolling with the homies into my 80’s and 90’s!! That Helio old man jiu jitsu! Geezer style! The second goal is to organize more women’s self defense seminars. A couple years back Ghetto Dojo hooked up with this donation based BJJ program in east LA called Warriors Jiu jitsu.in collaboration we organized four seminars in east la/Boyle heights area to teach self defense to women of the community for free. They’ve been wildly successful and we even got Rener and Eve Gracie to teach one that had hundreds in attendance.”
In spite of his exposure to many other schools and teaching methods, Ulises Bella is proud to be a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt. I was interested to learn what he feels sets the Gracie academy apart from other schools and what his thoughts are on other styles that are out there.
“I have been exposed to some different approaches… Whether it’s sitting in on different classes on the road or sharing techniques with friends who go to different schools.there is more similarities in my experience than differences.one thing I will say about the Gracie academy that resonates with me since I’ve started there… The level of professionalism, cleanliness, and most impressively a very defined methodology/sequence to teaching jiu jitsu. For a beginner it’s so important to have your foundation in the fundamentals be sound.”
I was also interested in which other artists Ulises has gotten to roll with and whether or not he’d ever consider entering in a celebrity death match of sorts (read: grappling superfight, but between two famous people.)
“l really don’t know too many other musicians that also train. A couple of times I went to a couple “artists” rolls organized by Chris Haueter and done at Orlando Sanchez’s spot in Pasadena. That was super fun… I got to meet and roll with amazing artists like Sergio Hernandez, Johnny Command Z, Defer and I got to get totally smashed on by Orlando! It was amazing! Now a superfight sounds like fun especially if it was for charity. If I ever competed it would have to be in something like that. I’m big on having fun/joking/talking **** with the homies when I train jiu jitsu. I’m totally a early disciple of the “keep it playful” movement Ryron started cause at this point I have nothing to prove with my jiu jitsu… I will never be some monster competitor or need to go balls out on every roll to prove how hard I am… This **** ain’t the kumite to me.”
Though Ulises is a world-renowned musician he feels that his struggles and journey on the mat are similar to anyone else’s who trains
“I think the same challenges apply to everyone whether famous musician or not… Do you really what to do this and get better at it? Do you have consistency and discipline to keep it going. Are you having fun and loving jiu jitsu?”
Ulises sends shout-outs to his professor Alex and the whole Gracie family and Datsusara hemp gear.