Ozomatli as cultural ambassadors


When Americans abroad experience culture shock, it usually doesn’t involve several thousand volts of electricity whipping across their bodies. But when a wayward power surge sent Raúl Pacheco, guitarist for the hometown-favorite L.A. group Ozomatli, flying across a stage in Madagascar some months ago, his bandmates initially thought that he was just letting the musical spirit move him.

“Raúl starts jumping up like this,” Ozomatli’s saxophonist-clarinetist, Ulises Bella, recalled in an interview this week, “and I’m like, ‘Dude, this is like punkin’ out!’ Like, he’s taking this to another level! And then I hear, ‘I’m getting electrocuted!’ ”

Fortunately, Pacheco survived the horrific jolt, caused by a chain of technical mishaps, to play another day. Ozomatli too went on to more concert dates around the globe, fulfilling its growing and in some ways surprising new mission as cultural emissaries for the U.S. State Department.

Tonight, the Grammy-winning ensemble will be back in Los Angeles, the first of two back-to-back shows at Club Nokia. But for the last three years, the reggae-hip-hop-samba-funk-punk-ska outfit collectively has been logging practically as many overseas frequent flier miles as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Since 2007, Ozomatli, known for its left-leaning political activism as well as its omnivorous aesthetic tastes and full-throttle live performances, has been jetting to such countries as Myanmar, Vietnam, Jordan and Nepal to play free public concerts, host workshops, jam with local musicians and convey goodwill in places where Westerners are rarely seen and not always welcome. Although the band had built a substantial foreign fan base through touring through the years, its all-expenses-paid, U.S.-taxpayer-backed gigs have affected Ozomatli on many levels.

“It has, I think, reinforced at least in me the quality and, I guess, the merit of our music,” Bella said. “Nobody knows us from Joe in Nepal, Katmandu. Nobody. It’s like we played there and it’s estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people were there, without any knowledge of our music or our vibe. It’s like we were able to stand there naked almost, without any hype, without anything, and be able to play music and have these people move to the music.”

Ozomatli’s U.S. government sponsors enlisted the group to perform as part of a long-standing cultural diplomacy program that was developed during the Cold War to win hearts and minds abroad for the American way of life. During that period, a number of mainly African American jazzmen, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones, were recruited by Uncle Sam to be the artistic face of America, touring many communist and developing countries.

Although such programs had receded over the decades, they were jump-started in the post-Sept. 11 years by Karen Hughes, who was then U.S. undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, partly in an effort to counter growing anti-U.S. sentiment. The band came to the Bush administration’s attention after a U.S. cultural attaché posted in Nepal heard a story about them on National Public Radio.

“It took two years for her to convince Washington that it wouldn’t be too much of a risk to program these guys, sort of knowing what their politics were,” the band’s manager, Amy Blackman, said.

The concern was mutual. Among themselves, the band’s members worried about being inadvertently turned into ideological frontmen for the Iraq war or other U.S. foreign policy ventures they didn’t support. “There was a huge internal debate at first,” Bella said.

Ozomatli has long been active on behalf of striking workers, pro-peace demonstrations and other left-ish causes, and its music frequently delivers exhortations to political action. Yet the band also has been embraced by the pop culture mainstream, appearing on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and other programs and hearing its music taken up by L.A.’s pro sports teams.

“I’m not a flag waver,” said bassist and vocalist Wil-Dog Abers. “You’ll never see me salute the flag, or any flag. It’s just dividing, the way I see it. So what we get to do is we’re actually connecting with humans. It’s not an ideology. It’s not a stance. . . . We’re about everyone coming together and figuring this out.”

“It’s not about being an apologist,” Bella said of Ozomatli’s collaboration with the State Department. “It’s something different.”

At times, coming into contact with new cultures has challenged band members’ own political views. Abers and Bella recall performing in South Africa for a crowd of predominantly white, Afrikaner rock fans wearing totems and waving banners emblazoned with what looked like symbols of the old, apartheid-era regime. It was, Abers said, like being surrounded by a sea of Confederate flags or “being in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ ”

Sure that the crowd would hate them, Bella walked on stage bracing for the worst. But then, he said, “we start playing and it’s the complete opposite. They loved us!”

Abers, following his practice of picking up phrases in foreign countries, such as “Let’s dance!” in Arabic or Zulu, even learned a couple of Afrikaans rocker expressions. They are unprintable.

Touring the world has taught the musicians not to judge a potential fan by his T-shirt or a bureaucrat by his party line.

“Us being just who we are and the kind of people we are and where we grew up, it’s, like, obviously authority figures are not, you know . . . ,” Bella said, letting the thought trail off. “So we always size people up, like off the bat, like, ‘Is this dude a [jerk] or is this guy cool?’ ”

The band also has had to deal, and occasionally compromise, with the cultural strictures imposed by foreign regimes and practices. In Nepal, for instance, the group was told it would need to play 100 feet from the crowd, behind a barricade and a line of police in riot gear, due to the local custom of throwing rocks at unpopular performers. The band protested that the distance was too far; eventually, they settled on a 50-foot cordon.

“For us as performers, we’re thinking, OK, we know how to relate to people, we don’t need this anywhere in the world,” Abers said, “but we don’t know Nepal either, you know. But we have a confidence just in humanity.”

The band has been continually filtering new sounds and instrumental textures from its travels: quarter-tone melodies from Indian classical music, South African dancers doing a dance-stomp in gumboots, Argentine tango, a Vietnamese harp-like implement. Whenever they jam with other musicians overseas, Ozomatli searches for common ground and sometimes meets in the middle, in Bella’s words, as they did on one occasion with a blind rock band in Myanmar.

“And you know what’s the craziest [stuff], man?” Bella said. “That after we played and they played, we all played together, we ended up playing ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You.’ We ended up playing a Stevie Wonder song with some blind band in Burma.”