Ozomatli: 'Cultural Ambassadors To The World' Multiethnic, hip-hop and rock group Ozomatli is known for speaking their minds on and off the stage. In a recent chat with Tell Me More, the group talks about about their latest CD, Don't Mess with the Dragon, their political views and why they view themselves as cultural ambassadors to the world.
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Ozomatli: 'Cultural Ambassadors To The World'

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Ozomatli: 'Cultural Ambassadors To The World'

Ozomatli: 'Cultural Ambassadors To The World'

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(Soundbite of music)


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up: our final installment in the series This I Believe. But first, the new sound of cultural diplomacy.

For more than 50 years, the State Department has sought out American musicians to travel the world as U.S. cultural ambassadors. From the jazz of Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie…

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: …to the classical works of pianist Van Cliburn and composer George Gershwin.

(Soundbite of music, "Rhapsody in Blue")

MARTIN: Joining the ranks of these artists is the multicultural salsa-meringue-hip-hop-funk band, Ozomatli.

(Soundbite of song, "Believe")

OZOMATLI (Rock Band): (Singing) (unintelligible)

(Rapping) Press record, 'cause here less is more than before everything in the store costs a quarter. Fast to forward, get it cam recorded. Now there's a bury that's born on every corner.

MARTIN: In 2007, the Grammy Award-winning band from Los Angeles became the State Department's choice to serve as musical ambassadors. Ozomatli has just accepted a second mission. They will be traveling across East Asia.

Joining us here in our Washington, D.C. studios to talk about it are Wil-Dog Abers, Raul Pacheco and Jiro Yamaguchi. Gentlemen, thank you all for coming.

Mr. WIL-DOG ABERS (Musician, Ozomatli): Thank you.

Mr. RAUL PACHECO (Musician, Ozomatli): Thanks.

Mr. JIRO YAMAGUCHI (Musician, Ozomatli): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: I feel very special surrounded by so many of you fine gentlemen, that you all took the time to come down here.

Unidentified Man #3: We feel special, as well.

MARTIN: The song we just heard is "Believe." Raul, do you want to tell us what the song's about?

Mr. PACHECO: Yeah, that song was something that came out on a few records ago. It was on a record called "Street Signs," and it was really kind of our response to the kind of division that was happening after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Because we felt that kind of the whole vilification of a certain culture, a certain type of people, was uncalled for in response. And we've always seen music as a way for us to both just bring people together and for us to actually be open for one another and to make statements.

MARTIN: Jiro, when you were approached by the State Department, did you have any disagreement about whether to take on this assignment?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Oh, definitely. I mean, it's kind of funny for us because, you know, just calling ourselves cultural ambassadors is kind of a funny thing. You know, we didn't come into this…

MARTIN: I don't have to call you excellency?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: It's kind of our joke now. You know, we came into the parking lot here, and we were like tell them we're cultural ambassadors. And you know, we, you know, have been very vocal about our politics, and you know, we were very against the war, you know, and we are very anti-Bush. So - and this was during the Bush era.

And when they came to us, it was kind of like, huh? You know? It was definitely a question.

MARTIN: Wil-Dog, you want to add anything on that? I was particularly curious if, given that you've got your first assignment as cultural ambassadors during the Bush administration, like a lot of artists, you have not been shy about expressing points of disagreement. Any thoughts?

Mr. ABERS: I guess what I want to add what Jiro was saying is the inner workings of the band, and it wasn't an easy decision to come to. No, we had a lot of internal conversation, turmoil if you will, arguments, and I think, you know, the discussion continues now.

You know, in a way, it's like us being Americans and going around the world, we - I mean, we are showing who we are. We're not apologetic in any way. We don't hide our politics anywhere that we go. So in a way, it's good for people to see around the world that there's an administration in place, and then there's the individuals in place. And we're a part - I'm proud of what we spread around the world.

MARTIN: I want to play an excerpt from a song from an earlier album that you recently remixed. I know you'll know what it is. It's called "Love and Hope," and it's remixed with lines from campaign speeches by now-President Barack Obama. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Love and Hope")

OZOMATLI (Singing) Just raise your head up and stand up, no fear in your eyes. Tell me love and hope never die.

President BARACK OBAMA: We always knew that hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines. Hope is that thing inside us. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

MARTIN: Jiro, you know this particular speech was also put to music by will.i.am. It's a song called "Yes We Can," and I was wondering what is it about that speech that inspires artists, particularly musical artists, to play around with? And I am also wondering is it different going on a second tour with a president who I presume that you like a little bit more.

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. I mean, you know, his words are very inspirational. He's a great speaker. And, you know, I mean, even while we were in other countries during the last administration, when the elections were coming up, like we were in Indonesia and people were - there was such an excitement around the world for Obama. There were just like - there were T-shirts. There was like all kinds of things. There was a lot of talk about it. And so, yeah, it's gonna be interesting to go back now in a different context.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with members of Ozomatli: Raul Pacheco, Jiro Yamaguchi, Wil-Dog Abers, and we're talking about their past State Department tour and their upcoming State Department tour. Wil-Dog the - it's a new administration, but a lot of the issues that were present when you first traveled abroad are still going on, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still going on.

Mr. ABERS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And now we've got this global economic crisis, which a lot of people around the world lay at the U.S. door. They say, you know, it sort of here because of U.S. policy.

Mr. ABERS: It did.

MARTIN: I'm wondering do you - are you at all concerned about how you are going to be received? Do you have any special message to carry at this time?

Mr. ABERS: You know there's a - well, there's a big optimism in the country now, you know, and it remains to be seen how it's gonna play out. It kind of gave us - maybe me -the shivers. The…

MARTIN: In a good way, or…

Mr. ABERS: Oh no, well no evil shivers, I guess, when I would hear, like, you're working for the Bush administration. You know, I - kind of, you know, shook us up a little bit as a band. So I think it might be a little easier now. I know for us, when we go to these countries and we're - you know, we go to orphanages all around the world and bring our message, you know, Ozomatli's message to them and what we get back in return and what you hear in our music is, you know, it speaks volumes, like what we are able to put out after we go to these countries, it's, you know, incredible.

MARTIN: It's interesting for me, I think, as a journalist because when you go overseas, you are seen, in many ways, always as a representative of your country, even if you don't necessarily - you say, well, I'm coming as a journalist to observe. I feel like I'm a neutral in a way, and I think, perhaps artists feel the same way. And yet, it's inevitable.

Mr. ABERS: I think its part of the privilege of being, you know, a Yankee if you will, you know. We have the world passport, in a way, where we can go anywhere we want, but with this world passport it kind of gives a - it's a responsibility.

MARTIN: What do you think you've learned from this experience, Your Excellency?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: He'll get used to that. Don't keep saying that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABERS: Yeah please, please. My head's growing as we speak. Can you see it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABERS: You know, my stepfather one time told me, you know, when I was growing up and just deciding to become a musician, that this guitar is going to take you around the world. And it did. And it's amazing what it's done, you know. Me, being a high school dropout, not a lot of options other than being a white man, which is big in the States.

MARTIN: Some people call that the universal passport.

Mr. ABERS: Hey, there it is. It is. That is the universal passport. You know, it's taken me to places, like, beyond my imagination, and it's - I developed into a person I never thought that I could even be or I even was. And part of that has been the help of being able to go to, you know, Nepal and India and, you know, seeing the world in a different way.

MARTIN: Raul, you know, you all started out - and I want to ask each of you this, too, what you have learned from these experiences, too. But you started out as a local LA band. You performed at political rallies and supported local causes. How about I play a little homage to LA? You know what it's going to be, right?

Mr. PACHECO: Yeah, I think so. "City of Angels."

MARTIN: Here it is. This is it. This is it.

(Soundbite of song, "City of Angels")

OZOMATLI: (singing) City of angels, city of angels. I let the beat talk, then I just fill in the words. It's Jabulani that you're dealing with. My hood is tough like it's Clubber Lang. So in the bucket I bump behind mac in the gutter lane. I write raps when I feel the pain or even sorrow, but you heard it before. The sun will come out tomorrow, or so they say.

But see, we're living in L.A. and what you thought was the sun, was just a flash from the k. You stashing your weed in the passenger seat of the Regal with the gold feet. Watch your back, lil' homie got a loaded mac on Figueroa. Just got a new girl. His rep he's finna show her. But slow down, baby gangsta. You ain't prepared for the truth. You got him and it's gonna happen to you. Ain't gotta live how your homie do. Just work the angles. The city I'm from is Los Angels. Come on. City of angels.

MARTIN: Like it. I like it. That's right.

Mr. ABERS: I love it, that song. Love it.

MARTIN: From "Don't Mess With The Dragon." Raul, what about that? You've got this international profile now. Is it still important to keep that LA connection, or is it just one of those things where your experiences just take you where they take you?

Mr. PACHECO: I think, you know, we're open to influences, but we're from LA. You know, we grew up in the neighborhoods, different neighborhoods. And as a collective, I think we're able to represent that city even more. We're proud of where we're from. You know, and I think part of why we're proud is just the struggles as much as the joy that we have there. You know, it's like there's a lot of places we can go and just have that comfort of being home, you know.

MARTIN: What do you think you've learned from being a cultural ambassador? How do you think it's changed you?

Mr. PACHECO: I mean, I think the most important thing is some - I feel it's an instinct that we've always had, is that people are good everywhere you go, and that most of us have things that are way more in common than different. And I think it just confirmed that feeling that I've always had. It's kept me open. There's plenty of people who do wrong, sure. That's part of being human. But I think, in general, most people are really, really try to do well.

MARTIN: Your Excellency?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: This is not Wil-Dog. This is Jiro, the other cultural ambassador. Yeah, I mean, I totally agree with Raul. In a way, it's kind of a dream come true. I mean, not necessarily the cultural ambassadorship, but being able to play in a band and travel the world, you know, and play music and meet other musicians from other places and not knowing how to speak to them, but being able to communicate. You know, that's a really big pleasure for me.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask all of us don't have that experience. We either don't have the skill or the opportunity or the means to have these kinds of experiences. What message can you bring back from these travels that you can share with us?

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah, I mean, I have to reiterate what Raul is saying, is that we're all the same, you know? And we're all trying to do the same thing, which is just to, you know, live a good life.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you all.

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Thank you.

Mr. PACHECO: Thank you for having us.

Mr. ABERS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Jiro Yamaguchi, Raul Pacheco, Wil-Dog Abers, members of Ozomatli. They are preparing for their second U.S. State Department tour as America's cultural ambassadors. They were kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you all so much.

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Thank you.

Mr. PACHECO: Thank you for having us.

Mr. ABERS: Thank you.

MARTIN: What should we go out on?

Mr. ABERS: "After Party. Let's go out on "After Party."

MARTIN: "After Party." Let's do it. "After Party." Ozomatli. Thank you all.

(Soundbite of song, "After Party")

OZOMATLI: (singing) I wonder if we'll ever find a party that lasts all night. There's a vibe in the city I've never felt before in my life. Let's all rush and flow, make a big time after-show party.

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