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
They decided to give it a try. Pretty quickly, the band realized that the black-and-white of political right and wrong goes gray once you meet your perceived antagonists face to face.
Blackman remembers the first time she met Karen Hughes, in 2008, at the Latin Museum in Washington, D.C. By then, the band had toured India, Nepal and the Middle East, and the longtime George Bush confidante had been getting positive feedback regarding Ozomatli’s trips. But she had never seen the band, and she wanted to meet them.
Hughes and her staff showed up at 7:30 p.m. — “on the dot, of course,” Blackman says with a laugh. Hughes, whose steely demeanor and forceful opinions Blackman and the band had watched on TV as she defended Bush’s positions, admittedly had preconceptions. “She was actually very pleasant to talk to,” Blackman recalls. “She isn’t smarmy, which is so weird. She is kind. She asked me a ton of questions about the band and where they came from, who they were and what makes them tick and what parts of the trip struck them the most.”
“She was really into Ozomatli,” confirms Receveur at the State Department. “It was really pretty cool.” He adds that as a rule, the State Department doesn’t insist on any restrictions regarding what Ozomatli can say onstage, “and this was the Bush administration. Ozomatli did interviews where they were talking about how they were antiwar, that they didn’t like the Bush administration, but that they were there to represent America.”
Despite the many public-policy disasters of the Bush administration, even some of its most vocal critics acknowledge that, in specific countries, the administration provided a much-needed injection of both attention and funding for public-diplomacy programs.
“Laura Bush — as good as you could be. She knew the issue, she could talk about it,” says Human Rights Action Center’s Healey on the government’s Burma policy.
Hughes’ replacement as under secretary of Public Diplomacy is Judith McHale. Before being nominated by the Obama administration to fill the position, she was president and CEO of Discovery Channel. At her Senate confirmation hearing last month, McHale discussed her goals in the job, at least one of which alarmed advocates for Ozomatli-style outreach programs. “New technology, used effectively and creatively, can be a game-changer,” she told the committee, citing communications advances that offer opportunities to engage people more efficiently.
Whether this sort of diplomacy would work in Burma is debatable. Most citizens don’t have access to computers. For those who do, however, only one social network, Facebook, is allowed, and it’s closely monitored. Despite Big Brother, the network is incredibly popular in Burma, and Ozomatli have a lot of new friends in the country. The downside is, every single status update, photo or video posting runs through servers controlled by the Scrutiny Board.
Hence, ground-level outreach like Ozomatli’s is a vital tool.
The American Club is an oddly juxtaposed chunk of tennis courts, swimming pools, softball fields and a clubhouse built on property owned by the U.S. government, and tonight Ozomatli will perform. By Burmese law, any public gathering of more than five people is illegal, so any large event requires permission from the authorities. Because tonight’s concert is being held on the grounds, though, it wasn’t necessary for the State Department to ask permission. Still, the office informed the Burmese foreign ministry of its plans via a diplomatic note, so it wouldn’t be surprised.
The day before, Richard Mei and Burmese Regional Security Officer Bill Mellott had convened the band for a briefing. He told them that they have to be particularly careful about how they act and what they say. If they mention Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, he explained, not only will they jeopardize themselves and risk being deported but they could also endanger anyone who attends the concert. He advised them not to mention “The Lady” at all.
Mei had explained as much on the morning the band arrived in the country. He gathered the 11-member entourage in a hotel meeting room, and spoke very specifically about the proper way to move around Rangoon: quietly and anonymously, except when you’re onstage. After they had left the country, he encouraged them to say whatever they wanted, and to tell what they saw. But here, delivery of an incendiary message wouldn’t help. “They hear the music, but I’m not sure if they’re going to get too much of the message. But that’s what we’re interested in, and we want you to do your normal thing.” His voice lifted a little bit as he stretched to explain his next point: “It’s just that because of this country, and the way that you have to operate in this country, you have to be sensitive of certain things. And that means not being overt about the political situation.”