By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Jack Healey was president of Amnesty International for 12 years, founded the Washington, D.C.–based Human Rights Action Center, which works with the U.S. Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group. In April 2008, Healey met with the National Security Agency at the White House. What he saw surprised him: “The Bush people — and I hate the sons of bitches — but on this topic, they were as good as you could be.”
Wil-Dog Abers first hooked up with his eventual Burma entourage at Ozomatli’s debut outreach program there, at the tiny Gitameit Music Center in the Moe Kaung Yankin township, a labyrinthine, Slumdog-type neighborhood in Rangoon. The building is surrounded by a tangle of dirt pathways and makeshift avenues lined on both sides by one- and two-story homes that look like rural fruit stands.
The posse thing was bound to happen. Ozomatli’s bassist and co-founder, Wil-Dog, as he’s known to everyone (his mom goes by Mom-Dog), is a big personality and loves playing to kids. Wil-Dog perhaps knows more about Mexican music than any other Jew on the West Coast, but his first love was punk rock. He got a taste of a future when, as an 11-year-old with a Mohawk, he was taken by his Communist-activist parents to see the Clash at the Hollywood Palladium. “That was it,” he says. “I knew that night I would be doing this.” He treasures the notion that he could be a Joe Strummer to some Burmese kid.
Wil-Dog spots his Rangoon posse, a half-dozen 5-year-old students, in a second-floor recital room that feels like a jungle tree house. Five girls and a boy, they’re poised before music stands, with baby violins on their shoulders. The lessons here cost $15 a month, which seems a pittance until you learn that the average annual income throughout the country is less than $300, and probably far less in this neighborhood. They stare at the sheet music, and with great concentration they scratch out an oblong melody. When it’s done, the band applauds, and Wil-Dog is officially smitten.
Afterward, Ozomatli and the students walk down to an adjoining performance space about the size of an Appalachian church. It isn’t Glastonbury, Coachella or Kathmandu, but when the band, standing on a small stage, begin their “Ya Viene El Sol,” a melodic, Latin-tinged pop song with rolling rhythms and the joyous and eruptive voice of lead Ozo vocalist Asdru Sierra, the eyes in the audience emit a warm glow, and the little boys and girls immediately become enrapt, as though they’re watching a favorite movie. Soon, Wil-Dog is in front of them, playing bass and doing funny dances along with the song, bouncing and clapping like a clown and making the six giggle.
After the show, the kids and their teacher, an elegant Burmese woman carrying a sun umbrella, take the band on a tour of the neighborhood, and the reality of the children’s situation reveals itself. Seldom do the residents of this village see Westerners, let alone Latinos, and as we walk dirt paths lined with open sewers, skinny dogs tromp alongside and people peek out of their doorways and look at the Americans blankly.
We learn later that what we did during the hourlong stroll — videotape and photograph the state of the Burma ghettos — was dangerous. Unaware, we pointed and shot, waved as we walked the paths, an eerie silence giving the feel of some sort of postmeltdown dystopia. Ozo’s sound guy, Mack, remembers the silence, but even more, he was struck by the mysterious theraminlike music emanating from somewhere within many of the homes and food stands, like the soundtrack of some horror movie.
Music is perfectly legal in Burma, as long as any song you write or perform is first approved by the Scrutiny Board — the state censors. But video cameras are a dangerous technology here, one used as a weapon by the junta’s minions to document dissident activities; shoved in the faces of protesters in a malicious attempt at quelling dissent; smuggled out of the country by democratic activists to document protests — and aimed at American bands walking through alleyway markets by men straddling mopeds.
“That was the most surreal moment, walking through that neighborhood,” recalls sax player Bella, talking about our guides’ concern that operatives were watching us. “It almost seemed unbelievable, to a degree. Like, ‘Bullshit, there’s people keeping track of us through this neighborhood? Yeah, right.’ But then, that’s not our reality.”
The regime has a right to be paranoid, as do its people, because their reality is different. Our two translators, a man and a woman, were careful about what they said. In the restaurant on our first night, our male guide was very nervous. Ozomatli manager Amy Blackman recalls saying something and the guide replying quietly, “People are watching and listening.” In the hotel, he’d hardly say anything. At an outdoor market restaurant, and especially in our vans, however, both were much more talkative.