On the Road to Burma
Jennie WarrenOzomatli: (clockwise from top left) Jiro Yamaguchi, Wil-Dog Abers, Justin Porée, Raúl Pacheco, Mario Calire, Asdru Sierra, Ulises Bella
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
From early protest gigs, Ozo sold out residencies at the Viper Room and Opium Den with lines stretching down the Sunset Strip. The band signed to a label called Almo Sounds, the post-A&M project of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and released their anthemic, self-titled debut, which established them as one of the go-to bands of the so-called “Latin rock” scene. They’ve won two Grammys and a Latin Grammy. The awards have fed more opportunity, especially in a changing media landscape trying to adapt to the much-belated realization that the Spanish-speaking markets were not only demographically ignored but also that television shows need funky Latino music to support certain scenes.
Blackman says when the band is feeling jaded, they call their demographic niche “Spanish-language music for gringos,” a truth that they’ve all had to grudgingly accept. The band itself has appeared in an episode of Sex and the City and performed on last season’s Dancing With the Stars. “NBC loves their stuff,” Blackman says. They’ve done CSI, Ugly Betty, Shark, Las Vegas. HBO used “Saturday Night” for their fall promos; the Los Angeles Lakers use their song “City of Angels” a lot. Last week they performed “Afterparty” on The Today Show, and Al Roker did his funkiest dance.
“They’ve become their own paradigm,” Blackman says. “Supervisors will say, ‘I need some upbeat, Latinesque, party-sounding Ozo-like music in this scene.’ It’s like they are their own genre, in a way.”
It was this so-called paradigm that attracted the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs, via a broadcast on one of America’s most popular gringo news outlets, National Public Radio. A department official had heard an interview with the band, and was looking for an act to perform in different parts of the world where the bureau believed it might send a message.
Blackman did a little research on the history of the government’s cultural-diplomacy efforts, and what she learned helped her to make a case to the band. Beginning in the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower started what was to become a landmark series of globetrotting musical programs sponsored by the Department of State. Among those who traveled on the 20-year program were Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.
“The State Department still kind of looks back and admires what they did in the ’50s and ’60s with Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck and all these people,” says Tim Receveur of the Bureau of International Information Programs at the State Department. “It was really effective with sending jazz musicians over, but we’re trying to evolve, see what people are listening to now, younger kids, hip-hop/rap and rock.”
Blackman took the idea to the band in early 2007, and was ready to argue her point: “Our mantra in general has been to say yes to most opportunities. Just say yes. And this was just one of those things. It was like, ‘Okay, this sounds cool and kooky and weird — and let’s try it!’”
It was a polarizing pitch.
“I was, like, ‘Fuck this shit,’” Porée says. “I was totally against it.” When the band started, he says, he wasn’t that politically active. But he learned and absorbed, and became part of an L.A. musical movement that was based on protest and consciousness. So his reflex response at the time was, “Basically, they’re just using us, and we’re like puppets. The U.S. government’s image around the world is shit, and they’re just using us to soften the blow.”
Pacheco, though wary, paid close attention to his moral compass, one that gets tested a lot in a business where the best-paying gigs often come from the cigarette companies. “We had contradictions within ourselves even without going to the State Department. We’ve played music for booze companies. People say we sold out — but we sold out when we signed a record deal. Do you know what it means to start caring about money coming in every month?”
Plus, he adds, “We were the only band they could ask. We’re mixing up way more stuff. We’re rocking, using beats that are Middle Eastern, playing reggae music over cumbia beats and all this type of fusion.”
Ultimately, it came down to a vote. Over the years, the band has supported as many as 15 full-time touring musicians. A core of six remain from the initial lineup, along with drummer Calire, and though it hasn’t been all roses, and the band has nearly disintegrated a few times for reasons either financial, chemical or personal, they banged out a deal among the half-dozen members that splits all publishing rights evenly, which creates a democracy among them. It’s a bitch being in the studio with six equal voices — apparently they nearly break up every time they step near a mixing board. (In fact, the band is in the beginning stages of recording a new full-length for the New York–based Mercer Street label, an offshoot of the high-flying Downtown Records imprint.) The democracy makes for a lively discussion when something like songwriting structure, sequencing or “representing the Bush administration” gets thrown in the mix.
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.”
Twenty-four hours before the concert was scheduled, representatives of the local township gave a note to the guards at the American Club that said the State Department had not informed the township of the event. The department responded on Friday morning by sending a copy of the earlier diplomatic note, which seemed to satisfy them.
By this point, news has started to spread about Yettaw, the American who was captured in the lake on the morning the band arrived in Burma. On the evening of May 4, he sank into Inya Lake with homemade fins, toting with him a strange collection of items that he wanted to get to Suu Kyi. Uninvited and seemingly unconcerned that his visit would violate the terms of The Lady’s house arrest and jeopardize her possible release, Yettaw swam to the shore of her home and, carrying what state news reports say included a video camera, two black Muslim robes, veils, sunglasses and several books, including the Book of Mormon, he entered her compound and met with her. She urged him to leave immediately, but he said he was too tired. He left two days later, and was arrested on May 6 on the opposite shore.
Suu Kyi, her two caretakers and her doctor were all arrested and charged soon thereafter. Suu Kyi remains at Insein Prison, where she was taken after the incident, and with the recent removal of the security surrounding her house, which included drop-down gates, barbed-wire fences and full-time guards, it appears that the government has no intention of releasing her back into house arrest. (Yettaw has since been dubbed “The American Fool” by the Bangkok Post.)
By 5:30 p.m., a few hundred people have gathered, many of them Western expats desperate for something, anything to do. The locals start trickling in, and the second of two opening acts performs — a local rapper named J-Me, who, while forbidden to rap about politics, focuses on the universally understood language of, in his words, “bitches, money and weed.”
Wil-Dog’s six-student entourage from the music school arrives. Wide-eyed and wearing their best clothes, they look a little frightened, especially the little boy, who hasn’t smiled once. This is the first time they’ve ever been out of their neighborhood.
They take a spot standing in the front row, their heads peeking just above the stage. J-Me the rapper prowls around, at one point nearly stepping on the children’s fingers. The crowds keep coming, and the concrete space, about the size of two tennis courts, is soon filled.
Ozomatli step onstage right at 6 p.m., and pretty quickly it’s clear that the Scrutiny Board hasn’t screened the lyrics to “Saturday Night,” as Porée rhymes the lyrics: “People to places the message basic/from raised fist to sit-ins resist to change shit/Peep this scenario/to the future, bro/2020 and some number of years ago/people rose up, governments froze up/worldwide block party, everybody shows up.”
If only it were that simple. Sing a song with words of hope, the crowd hears them and decides that tomorrow night the revolution will begin.
Nobody’s naive enough to believe in that, not least Ozomatli. But that doesn’t stop the band. During the encore, Wil-Dog runs over to his little posse and motions them up. They look confused. He smiles, takes one of them by the hands, lifts her up onto the stage and outfits her with maracas. Soon all six are up, and they’re jumping and playing in rhythm. The boy, nervous down below, has a confused smile on his face. He looks around, takes a shaker, and starts jumping enthusiastically while staring at the crowd before him.
As the final song winds down, Ozomatli do their signature move. Each of the band members grabs a portable instrument, and as the crowd continues to dance, the band descends from the stage into the citizenry and starts a dance train. The trumpet and the saxophone blare through the night as the rest of the band bangs on tablas, maracas and tambourines and the crowd bounces and claps along, laughing and dancing behind the best Latin/cumbia/salsa/hip-hop drum corps ever to grace a Burmese stage.
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