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- Posted on Jun 16th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
It's hard to say how a just-completed trip to Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand under the same auspices will impact the Los Angeles-based group's music. But impressions were definitely made.
"We actually were super-interested in Middle Eastern and North African music before we went there," says Ulises (Uli) Bella, Ozo's sax and clarinet man. "I was listening to a lot of classical Arabic singers like Oum Kalthoum, Algerian rai, Egyptian music. And when we were there, a big thing for us was the villainization of the Arabic world after 9/11. My father's from Spain and my mother from Mexico, and Arabic culture and music is a huge influence in Spain. The country and people wouldn't be what we are if the Moors weren't there. To feel that up close was a treat.
"As far as this particular trip, I think that for me one of the things that struck me about Myanmar in particular was the strength of the people," he continues. "Especially being in the conditions they're living in as far as the government is concerned. We were there when that guy tried to swim to Aung San Suu Kyi's house. You mention her here and it's like, 'Who?' But there it's a big deal. She's their Nelson Mandela, the voice of dissent. In a weird way, though, the folk music and other music I heard in Myanmar was more of the feel of the people -- the level of what people have to go through day to day, Prices, inflation, what people can or can't do. And the hospitality and love people felt for us just being there was really eye-opening."
Some of the most profound episodes of the trip, though, might be ones that will be even harder to incorporate into their art. Ozomatli are pretty used to playing for, and with, people who don't understand them. Heck, even at home there are always people in the audiences who don't understand everything in their multicultural, multilingual mix of rock, Latin, hip-hop, funk and more.
"We go there and the whole momentum of it is people knowing there's a band and a free show, and next thing we know there might be thousands of people there," Bella says. "So as a band we put ourselves out there, knowing that no one has any kind of clue abut who we are and what we sound like, and for them just to react to the music is always a treat."
But on this one, the band members found themselves playing for people who couldn't hear them at all.
"In Thailand, we went to Pattaya, a city which has a reputation for being a sex tourism spot," says Bella. "We ended up in this orphanage and there was a group of deaf kids that did a show for us, played traditional music. Then we played for them -- and they listen to music through vibration -- and this one kid in particular could not get enough of it, sticking his whole head into my sax bell and me blowing the s--- out of it. Any normal person, it would kill you. But he was sticking his head and hand in there to feel it."
And then there was this:
"We went to a school for the blind, walk in and hear this band playing and smoking, man!" he says. "Playing really well. We go, 'What's with this?' It's a band called Blind Reality. Everyone in it is blind: the keyboard, drummer, guitarist. They don't have Guitar Center [music stores] there and whatever they had they made do, and sounded great. We played for them, they played for us, also had singers doing pop songs in Vietnamese or Burmese. And on one song, we ended up jamming together. I had no idea what they were going to do, and next thing I know they go into a Stevie Wonder song! Right after that, this other singer came up and they went into this straight rock. I thought, 'This sounds familiar, can't put my finger on it,' and the guy goes, 'It's this old Bon Jovi song.' "
Bella says he was surprised and somewhat bemused by how much Western influence is to be found there.
"In Myanmar, we jammed with a local rapper who came onstage and did his thing with us. He's a big deal out there. Interesting interpretations and perceptions of what hip-hop is. They're getting it from magazines and movies but also trying to incorporate their own things."
OK, it wasn't all Stevie Wonder and Bon Jovi and quasi-gangsta, by any means.
"We did get to play with local musicians," he says. "In Vietnam we played with this woman, Ho Nga. She played this thing almost like a xylophone, a Vietnamese instrument, almost looked like a Japanese koto. We ended up jamming with her on a couple shows. As far as Myanmar music, I heard some folk music, and all these places have so many sub-ethnicities that all produce their own stuff, so it's hard to gauge what we heard and the differences. Yeah, I heard their folk music, but from what and who?
"And here's the thing: Each of these places -- Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand -- all have their own themes, their own folk music. So it was interesting for me to be able to hear that even though there are differences, there are also commonalities.
"What I love on all these trips is they're hearing music they've either never heard before or in this combination, so I find it great for them to dance the way they dance to our music. These two guys at the orphanage stood up and started dancing traditional Thai dances to it! Where else could that happen?"
Well, it's what he would do if the situation were reversed.
"That's the beauty of music," Bella says. "Whatever you've got, for me personally, I try to relate it to my own experience whenever I can. Whether it's super-rudimentary stuff, even things like consciousness of key -- some of these cats are not playing in well-tempered tuning, in the Western sense. So even with things as fundamental as what key is the song in, sometimes that's not how it is. It's something else. You try your hardest. But when it comes to situations like a totally different tradition sitting across from you, somehow there's that ability to meet halfway. You can set that groove up or I can play over that. Really cool when that happens."
Obviously, on the past trips to Islamic countries and to India and Nepal (Ozo became the first Western band to play Katmandu), there had been various restrictions in regards to lyrics and presentations. So they went into this quite conscious of the military rule in Myanmar.
"We're not used to being followed around and watched in the States," he says. "Maybe I am -- maybe the CIA has my telephone tapped. But there I think the level of Big Brother-ness is a harsher reality. There are informants, people trying to keep track of certain things and ideas. There was one woman asking us all these crazy questions and someone said, 'She's probably an informant who's going to report on you guys.' We were trying to keep it kosher. Whatever people told us about the do's and don'ts of what to do there, we really paid attention. Don't want to offend anybody. Even something as simple as the fact that the U.S. government doesn't officially recognize Myanmar, calls it Burma still. We didn't realize the dynamics of that. Someone had to school us on that.
"But as far as these cultural ambassador trips, there's no censorship," he adds. "And when we first started doing this it was different -- the Bush administration was in full swing, the war was as bad as ever. The whole world hated our guts and we were going to the Middle East. I wasn't going as an apologist but trying to establish a connection. And with this trip, I knew that the government never represents the people. I don't go to Myanmar thinking everyone is going to be down with the military junta. Some are, but not everyone. Just as here, not everyone is in agreement with our foreign policy."