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Ozomatli in Myanmar: Punk's Not Dead

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Mon, May 11, 2009 at 1:30 PM

click to enlarge Punk's Not Dead scribbled on a wall in Yangon, Myanmar - RANDALL ROBERTS
  • Randall Roberts
  • Punk's Not Dead scribbled on a wall in Yangon, Myanmar

No, Ozomatli's not a punk band, at least not in the traditional sense -- though Uli Bella does have a Crass button pinned to his requinto jarocho strap -- but that doesn't mean they don't have the attitude.

Long story short: I'm in Asia right now touring with Ozomatli. We departed from LA last Monday, and 24 hours, two layovers (Tokyo and Bangkok) and about six airplane movies later, we landed in Yangon, Myanmar, home to one of the world's most ruthless and backwards-ass military dictatorships.

For the past few years, the band has been touring the world as cultural ambassadors at the behest of U.S. State Department, and arranged for Ozo to perform a series of concerts and outreach programs in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. We left the country yesterday, and the band continued on to Vietnam for four days; I'm back in Bangkok because the Vietnamese government doesn't allow foreign journalists in the country I didn't jump through the proper hoops in time.** After Vietnam, the band will return to Thailand for outreach programs and a concert, where I'll hook up with them for the duration of the tour.

There will be much more to come at a later date, but for now let it be known that Punk's Not Dead in Myanmar. Case in point: the dude in downtown Yangon (formerly Rangoon) sitting outside of a knick-knack shop sporting a Black Flag bars shirt. Or the graffiti written on at least two prominent walls in central Yangon that say in no uncertain terms: "Punk's Not Dead."

click to enlarge Fuck Off Wankers: A Burmese punk tells it like it is - RANDALL ROBERTS
  • Randall Roberts
  • Fuck Off Wankers: A Burmese punk tells it like it is

While I tend to subscribe to the David Berman school of thought when it comes to the demise of punk -- "Punk rock died the first time someone said/Punk's not dead, punk's not dead" -- it's a whole other scenario when you're living under a military government that requires that lyrics be submitted for every song that any citizen wants to record, and that provides a list of acceptable songs that everyone from hotel bar bands to Burmese honky tonk bands must not stray from under penalty of imprisonment (curiously, the hotel band where we were staying did a great version of "The Ballad of John and Yoko"). Under this scenario, punk isn't gonna be dead as long as there are renegades willing to put their ass on the line in order to scribble said declaration on public walls; or as long as dudes wear UK Subs shirts and scream to the world, "Fuck off, wankers." It's one thing to do it in LA; another thing to do it in Myanmar.

And rock and roll will never die as long as a band like Blind Reality, which opened for Ozo at an outreach program at the Kawechan School for the Blind, exists. The band was amazing -- and not just by Burmese standards. The guitarist totally shredded, the band was tight, and the sound in the small auditorium was impeccable considering the PA they were using. As the Ozo entourage walked in, the band was pounding out thick metal that would have schooled the majority of wannabes trying to make it at the Knitting Factory; Ozo's collective jaw dropped as they saw what they were up against. This was the real deal.

After a few songs, Ozo got up onstage and tore through three or four of its classics, which set the auditorium, filled with the blind, the disabled and the orphaned, afire. Most had never heard anything like the band's cumbia/hip hop/rock amalgam, and reacted accordingly. It's hard for me to even write about the feeling in that room without tearing up with joy, especially when a severely disabled man got up in front of the stage and, possessed by the spirit of Ozo's sound, danced a contorted dance that was funkier and more alive than the entirety of Spaceland's crowd on any given night. When Ozo invited a group of children with Down's Syndrome up onto the stage to shake maracas and bang on percussion, the joy in the world was upped a notch. It was one of the most moving and transcendent moments of musical spirit I've ever seen.

Punk's not dead. Punk's not dead.

More blogs to come, as well as a feature on the entirety of the journey.

____

** CORRECTION: As Mr. Commenter so politely points out below, it seems I totally misunderstood the visa process for foreign journalists in Vietnam. Foreign journalists are allowed in Vietnam; they just have to apply for a journalism visa through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and jump through the hoops that the MFA may set out. I corrected the post to reflect the reality. I (very much) regret our half-assed explanation.

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