Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli has been making music for 15 years, entertaining audiences with a unique fusion of different types of world music, including hip hop and salsa, reggae, dancehall, merengue, and jazz. Their music follows the mantra of taking you around the world by taking you around L.A.. In 2007, the US State Department invited Ozomatli to be cultural ambassadors to go on a series of government-sponsored tours around the world.
PD Magazine Senior Editor Anna Dawson had the opportunity to talk to Ozomatli vocalist and guitarist Raul Pachecho about the band’s experience being citizen diplomats and US cultural ambassadors.
AD: Thank you for taking the time to talk to talk with USC’s “Public Diplomacy” Magazine today. I first want to talk to you about your experience of being U.S. Cultural Ambassadors. How did that experience happen?
RP: We were asked by someone in PR in DC and they just asked if we wanted to do it. It took us a while to warm to the idea, and we weren’t sure what they were asking for; but we felt it was appropriate and we were mainly able to play for a lot of young people in different parts of the world. For us, entertaining together and encouraging young people to pursue music and to find ways to express themselves artistically is important to us. So we took the time to do it. It’s very beautiful, and we got to get to places that we probably wouldn’t have gotten to on our own.
AD: Is doing independent touring different than doing government-sponsored touring?
RP: It is a little different. The biggest difference is that you are going places where you don’t necessarily have an audience and interacting with people on a first time basis. It can be a challenge, but I think for us as a group of musicians we don’t feel that. We’re a live band, and we feel pretty confident that we can get people engaged and appreciate the moment and the music least. We can break down the barriers to go have deeper conversations with these strangers and try to take the moment to think about getting to know people in other parts of the world.
AD: You guys started touring under the Bush administration. Was that a challenge?
RP: What I think it was is that we were surprised that they asked us because of our political left leanings, and once we figured out that it wasn’t really political and it was more cultural. I think in our situation there are those overtones maybe, but we’re not really interacting with or affecting policy. We are mainly playing at orphanages and playing at events. We played events at the World Expo, we played at different events that were sponsored by not only the U.S. embassies but a bunch of embassies in a cultural context. So there has been a lot of that.
AD: In the countries where you played where you did not have a fan base, how were you received by locals?
RP: I think that we were received very well. I think one of the reasons why we feel confident in front of people because we think that as a live band we are engaging, you know, and our music is our base and that transcends language and transcends any kind of perceived ideas and the people become connected to us. We see people dancing and that they’re open to sharing their emotion in that kind of way makes us received pretty well.
AD: In the years that you’ve done it, have you seen a change in the way that you are received by people?
RP: People don’t necessarily know us. I don’t think it’s any different, and I think each country is a different situation. When you go to a place like China there is a lot of impressions that they have of America and we find that we are different than what most of those perceptions are. We are not all white for one thing, and the music we play is not all in English. I think that we kind of paint a picture that is a little more realistic and that there a lot of different workings in this country and we are just an example of all that in a city. When we talk about it or are able to engage people about it , similar dynamics in major cities all over the world are seen: where people from different cultures come for work, come to try to make a living, and all those different cultures living amongst one another start to create a certain kind of characteristic on their own. So once they see us as an example of that they can understand that this kind of thing is happening all over the world; it becomes a multi-layered experience. Even within countries, because different regions in countries just like here have different histories and different cultural centers. So if you take someone from Texas, if you take someone from Minnesota, someone from New York, it’s the same story. Even ourselves we have a tendency to see people as a statistic and not very real . We think that we remind people that what we are doing is not necessarily special or different than what everyone else is kind doing. We are layering cultures and adding them together, mainly as a means of survival.
AD: Were there any challenges as a result of your diplomacy efforts?
RP: I think that some of the big challenges were ourselves and getting over the perceptions of what it would mean to work for the State Department, and we were criticized by some circles for that. Once we figured out what it was we felt that it wouldn’t be promoting some kind of U.S. domination. We weren’t in those situations, and I don’t think that anyone doing that kind of work was dictating policy so it never got to any kind of level or anything that was really that important. Basically it was showcasing an aspect of American culture to some people.
AD: Did you have any guidelines of what you could or couldn’t do?
RP: Nope, it was pretty much, ‘We know who you are and we are giving you faith.’ Most of the time the audiences really made it for us. We were received better and had a lot of musical exchanges and people we interacted with. We really wanted to encourage different kinds of artistic expression and the pursuit of that. Here and everywhere else being an artist is not seen as something viable or important and not seen as something receptive but we believe differently and we really encourage others to pursue that.
AD: I’m sure that there were a lot of language barriers. How did you get over those?
RP: We had interpreters both ways. And I think that if you want to communicate with someone it’s not as hard these days, when we’re played music and starts to revolve around that and ended up being a lot of fun. So that is a unique experience and interacting with people you never would. That is something that is on a basic level really exciting.
AD: Were there any moments or experiences that really stuck out?
RP: Sure, I remember playing for a blind school in Myanmar. And not a lot of people get to Burma. It is tiny and just now starting to open up but when we went it was very rare. And what we found is that for any kind of Western band and we found that all the expatriates living there and anyone familiar with any kind of Western music who needed to feel connected and not be homesick.
AD: You guys say that your music takes you around the world just by taking you around L.A. How does that translate when doing any worldwide tour, with the U.S. or independently?
RP: I think it is the same thing. We are a strong Latin band, and that’s the only reason we still have a career; we get hired because of what we design and are able to have a career because of our live playing. I think that when people see us they feel that power and get wrapped up in the chain of what we can do when we are playing live.