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On the Road to Burma 

Globetrotting with Ozomatli, unlikely U.S. diplomats

Wednesday, Jun 24 2009
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The van moves in dense traffic through roundabouts and curving lefts and rights, past Inya Lake, where, three days earlier, an American named John Yettaw had been arrested on its southern shore after swimming to Suu Kyi’s compound. A few kilometers later, the Schwedagon Pagoda, constructed a few millennia ago to house eight strands of the Buddha’s hair, appears like a hallucination. Shimmering in the morning sun with a new coat of gold leaf, the bell-shaped pagoda looks like it was on loan from another — better — planet.

The first stop of an early-May, three-country U.S.–sponsored tour that ultimately takes Ozomatli to Vietnam and Thailand, Burma will jar even the most jaded travelers. One of our guides warns us that the country is at least 20 years behind the rest of civilization; soon thereafter we drive past a billboard excitedly advertising the arrival of a new Yellow Pages. The name of the country’s most beloved leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is forbidden from being spoken aloud; rather, she is known simply as “The Lady.” The exchange rate of American currency is based as much on the cleanliness of the bill as on what numbers are on it. Hand the hotel receptionist a crinkled or torn $100, and you may as well have just handed her a leaf.

In addition to the moment-to-moment oddities, it has been a strange few days for the band — and the country. On the same day that Yettaw is pulled from the lake and Ozomatli arrive in Burma, two American journalists traveling in Mandalay, to the north, are detained by Burmese immigration authorities. The week of Ozomatli’s tour of Burma is also the first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis. The storm, thought to be the most deadly natural disaster in the country’s recorded history, killed an estimated 100,000 people.

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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And if that weren’t enough weight, the house-arrest sentence of Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, who has been confined to her compound on Inya Lake for 13 of the past 19 years, is up for renewal in a few weeks. The Lady won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She’s a living symbol of the prodemocracy movement in Burma but is imprisoned under the orders of the military junta that controls the country. She is allowed no visitors, save for her doctor, and her home is guarded 24 hours a day. This is one reason that many nations refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the junta, or the new name it has chosen for the country — Myanmar.

Richard Mei, chief public-affairs officer in Burma for the U.S. Department of State, doesn’t know whether any of these factors — the swimmer, the journalists’ detention, the anniversary — are connected, or whether Ozomatli’s visit has anything to do with any of it. But news and rumors of the curious happenings have wormed their way into the heads of the American visitors, their State Department guides and the two Burmese translators assigned to serve as Ozomatli’s attachés.

Mei, a tall Asian-American born in Queens, has a simple catchall explanation for anything that occurs in his oft-baffling station: “This is Burma. Strange things can happen.”

Ozomatli have already traveled the world a few times over, and Burma is just the latest hot spot. Since 2007, the Grammy winners, born of protest rallies in East L.A. in 1996 as a 10-piece salsa/cumbia/hip-hop/rock amalgam, have been playing cultural-outreach gigs at the behest — and with the support — of the U.S. government. On past travels, they’ve been escorted in a bulletproof SUV through a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan and asked by a little boy, who confused the band with U.S. soldiers: “How come you let your friends kill my little brother?” They’ve played songs to kids rescued from an Indian orphanage that was a front for a child-prostitution ring. Guitarist Pacheco was nearly electrocuted onstage in Madagascar.

These tours occurred during the Bush administration, at a time when the last thing a left-leaning Chicano/Jewish/Black/Whatever band from the hood wanted was to be known as enablers for an embattled Republican government.

But if there’s one thing the band has learned on these State Department–organized tours, it’s that the closer you are to situations, the more murky the so-called “politics” become. When Ozomatli were first approached to participate in these outreaches, some of the most forceful U.S.-government advocates for Asian cultural and democratic efforts were former first lady Laura Bush and then–Under Secretary for Public Affairs Karen Hughes.

The fact that longtime Bush cheerleader Hughes once danced to your band in D.C. isn’t something you want the Ozoheadz in Boulder to catch wind of. When the band hit the ground on their first missions, though, they were greeted by America’s midlevel public-affairs officers, outreach organizers and charity workers, and realized that left, right and center mingle more than they imagined.

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