On the Road to Burma 

Globetrotting with Ozomatli, unlikely U.S. diplomats

Wednesday, Jun 24 2009

Watch "Video Exclusive: Ozomatli in Burma, Where Cameras Are A Loaded Weapon."

Four days into a five-day tour of Rangoon, Burma, we thought we’d had our fill of weirdness. But after Ozomatli are led through Kawechan School for the Blind’s darkened hallways and up a flight of stairs, the sound of a flailing guitar solo and the thump of a bass drum punch through the corridor. Around a corner, standing on a stage, four conservatively dressed men wearing sunglasses and matching pink-and-blue polo-type shirts are banging out a rock song. They look like a ’60s surf band, the Ventures or something — square and stiff.

Ozomatli, a band born in Los Angeles in 1996, are scheduled to perform a few songs for students, orphans and disabled kids as part of an outreach program arranged by the U.S. Department of State. They didn’t count on any competition, and they watch from the side as a band called Blind Reality, facing 100 people of varying degrees of disability, creates a chaotic, freakazoid sound that only four sightless rock dudes living in the pocket of one of the world’s most beaten-down countries could possibly make.

click to flip through (11) JENNIE WARREN - Ozomatli: (clockwise from top left) Jiro Yamaguchi, Wil-Dog Abers, Justin Porée, Raúl Pacheco, Mario Calire, Asdru Sierra, Ulises Bella
  • Jennie Warren
  • Ozomatli: (clockwise from top left) Jiro Yamaguchi, Wil-Dog Abers, Justin Porée, Raúl Pacheco, Mario Calire, Asdru Sierra, Ulises Bella

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New-genre alert: Burmese blind-metal.

Ulises Bella’s jaw drops. Wil-Dog Abers gasps, and Raúl Pacheco, a thoughtful former Tom Hayden political intern with “Chicano” tattooed on the back of his hand, witnesses, eyes agape, as the guitarist does a double-fingered fret run that would make Eddie Van Halen shift uncomfortably in his seat. The members of Ozomatli have a catalog of mind-blowing images stored from the two years they’ve been working as musical diplomats for the U.S. Department of State, but this one surely ranks: an expert Blind Reality guitarist whose main influences, he will tell the band, are fretboard gymnasts Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai.

As if Blind Reality couldn’t take it any further, after a mean cover of a Bon Jovi song, a lady guest vocalist, also wearing sunglasses, is led slowly to the microphone stand. She touches it with her hand and, the room silent, moves into Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” She sings the words in Burmese: “Someone told me long ago/There’s a calm before the storm/I know, it’s been coming for some time/When it’s over, so they say/It’ll rain a sunny day/I know, shining down like water.”

“Getting up there and seeing these four blind dudes just killing it? I never witnessed anything like that in my life,” says Ozo percussionist and MC Justin “El Niño” Porée a few days later.

Ozo sets up, still buzzing from that lightning-bolt moment. Even in a little corner of the world with way bigger concerns than one-upmanship, pride enters the equation when an opening band smokes it. Soon the seven in Ozomatli — guitar, bass, percussion, drums, keyboard, saxophone, trumpet — are playing hard, their rhythms running through the room. A row of children with Down syndrome bounce and fidget; blind kids in middle rows direct their ears at the music and absorb it. Nurses in the back smile.

It’s after the first couple of songs that a man sandwiched in the second or third row starts making a commotion. It’s not clear whether he’s having problems or is somehow disturbed. He’s contorted with what looks to be cerebral palsy, and is struggling to stand. Ozomatli watch from the stage, swinging to their poppy hit “After Party.” Grasping his neighbors’ shoulders, the guy pushes his way toward the aisle, arms taut, legs and torso cockeyed, and moves to the empty space in front of the stage. Bella bursts forth with a tenor-sax solo.

Then, as if plugged into a socket, the man starts whaling his arms with the rhythm, a look of joyful determination on his face, bouncing at his knees, punching as he fights to remain balanced while tabla player Jiro Yamaguchi, Porée and longtime Ozomatli drummer Mario Calire offer a cumbia rhythm. You know the iconic image of the man facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square? Imagine the opposite: An observer standing before an invisible force, willfully getting plowed over.

After the gig, the handshakes and the photos, Ozomatli load back in the van and wave goodbye, a little bit different in the head from before.

When you drive along the boulevards of Rangoon in a white late-model Chevy van, you might as well be rolling in a polka dot Rolls Royce. Monks in saffron robes rubberneck and nudge their companions. At stoplights, as we idle next to old pickup trucks retrofitted to be people-movers, riders in the back and on the bumpers crane their necks to look with kind but curious eyes. In a country in which even a junky compact car costs $25,000 and anything new will run you at least $100,000 after licensing fees and kickbacks, a fresh U.S. government–issue Chevy is something to behold.

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