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
During one window of opportunity, the male guide told the band that when Cyclone Nargis hit last year, none of the Burmese people knew of its impending arrival, even though satellite images predicted its path. Nargis was all the more destructive because of the suddenness of its arrival. Along Burma’s 1,200-mile coastline, few saw it coming. It hit, then passed, and time stopped.
Over the following days and weeks, the State Peace and Development Council, the name of the 11-general junta that governs the country, refused all offers of foreign aid. In the Count Basie Room at the American Center in Rangoon, there are of the disaster children’s drawings that will hurt your heart: of big stick figures stranded in palm trees and littler figures drowning in scribbled water below. In a country where one in three children is chronically malnourished, the cyclone was a hit matched only by the blowback realization that its rulers care more about perceived threats from abroad than helping their people.
Eight months before the natural disaster, the SPDC was on the butt end of a political disaster. In September 2007, the Buddhist clergy marched through Rangoon in an unprecedented show of civil disobedience to protest the government’s gasoline price hikes. Over the next two weeks the monks created a sea of saffron robes along the roads surrounding the Schwedagon Pagoda. The monks were soon joined by citizens, who marched to Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence.
Then came the obligatory shielded-soldier crackdown, troops locked in rows marching at unarmed monks. In the ensuing violence, captured by renegade video journalists and uploaded to networks across the globe, security forces breached a line they had never before crossed: They beat monks. In the weeks to follow, SPDC officers arrested a few thousand more, many of whom remain locked up.
Human Rights Action Center’s Healey says that the cyclone and the military actions reveal the potential for change. “Any respect that was left for the military, among the young soldiers in particular, and among the young in general, is gone. That they didn’t take care of the people drowning? Huge loss of respect. When they hurt the monks, chased them to the border, tortured them, that’s a big break. So there’s a tipping point possible that isn’t seen outside. The people are ready to go.”
Guitarist Raúl Pacheco knows a little bit about organizing The People. Before joining Ozomatli, he spent nearly five years in Sacramento, working for politicians. In the early 1990s he landed a job in Willie Brown’s state Assembly office, and interned with former state senator and democratic activist Tom Hayden. The word Chicano, written in neat cursive on Pacheco’s left hand, makes him look like a gangbanger. But he’s the polar opposite, warm and soft-spoken. He toured Burma while reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ autobiography and letters Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in the mid-1990s.
While Suu Kyi was crafting those letters from a home prison, Pacheco was getting resettled in L.A., intent on writing about Chicano politics. He started volunteering at the L.A.-based People’s Union for Democratic Rights, organizing an afterschool program for kids, and decided to play music again. So he called up Ozomatli’s then-drummer and asked about a gig. “He said, ‘Come to the Peace and Justice Center. We’re gonna start making music.’”
Asdru Sierra, who was a kid in South-Central when they sent the National Guard in, was there. Sierra started singing when he was young, then moved on to trumpet and keyboards — music was always around. His grandfather had been signed to RCA-Victor in Mexico, his father and uncles were professional musicians. Sierra followed the music to CalArts. Ozomatli’s mission fit right in with his aesthetic: “It was raw and undefined, but it had so much passion, and it was fun. We could bring any instrument, any idea and any style of music and no one would judge you.”
Ulises Bella grew up a trench-coated punk rocker in the blue-collar East L.A. township of Bell and fell in with the ska crowd in his teens. He played saxophone with Yeska, whose stated goal was “to be the Latin Skatalites.” Yeska was getting great gigs in the mid-’90s, and Ozo was Bella’s second band. The two outfits would gig together at the Viper Room, and as Ozo’s star rose, Bella quit Yeska to commit full-time.
Wil-Dog had followed Joe Strummer’s lead, moving from punk to hip-hop, and became the persistent center of the band, one whose dubby and funky bass-playing is the perfect reflection of his demeanor, open and honest, filled with enthusiasm for the adventure of it all. He invited percussionist Porée to jam with Ozo, but he was skeptical. “The thing that caught me, though, was when he said, ‘I got turntables and tablas,’” Porée says. On practice day, he walked in to see Yamaguchi and DJ Cut Chemist, one of the city’s preeminent turntablists, practicing. “I was, like, this is insanity, but this is dope. How can I not be a part of this?”