Cito talks Peace Starts, We Believe in You, WONDERboom and more.

Immediately when I sat down to chat with Martin Cito Otto (Cito) of WONDERboom, I concluded that part of the greatness of this man is his humility. He is inspiring without being aware of it. He’s well known without having courted fame and it came about because he did and does what he is meant to do. He is quietly going about his way making one hell of a difference in the lives of those around him and the greater public. 

You’re the founder of the Peace Starts  movement.  What’s that all about? That looks so awesome. You’ve got so many people performing at this event. 

Peace Starts is an organisation I started about eight years ago that solely promotes the International Day of Peace (21 September) which was initiated by the filmmaker Jeremy Gilley who has an organisation called Peace One Day. The motivation for him was he was doing a documentary about world peace and if it was ever attainable and while he was doing this documentary he realised there was a greater cause that he had a calling for. A friend of mine showed me this video by Peace One Day and when I saw it I was completely bowled over and I decided to dedicate my life to promoting the international day of peace in South Africa and using music events to draw  attention. 

Do people want world peace to be possible?

I think everybody essentially wants peace.  Peace means different things to everyone.  The first year we put together this event which is a very sweet, cross cultured dress up party where we had a lot of bands playing and we encouraged everybody to do cross culture dress. The following year, exactly a month before 21 September, a friend of mine was shot in the back of her head for her TV and hifi and when I first got the call my initial reaction was I’m going to go out and find these guys and torture them and kill them. But then I realised it’s not as simple as attacking those who cause violent crime. There’s an origin for everything, and it’s a manifestation of the frustration that we live in in South Africa. There’s lots of poverty and violence. So then it motivated me to do something more.  So I formed this peace march and we had speeches. We had the Archbishop Tutu write a speech for us and we had performances and during that month I went through a whole roller coaster of emotions and feelings. I realised that this is a much bigger cause than me. It’s an on-going journey and it’s all about understanding, embracing, your reaction, your response and if you want peace you have to take the first step.  That is where we came up with the name Peace Starts. We sort of collectively decided that peace starts in your heart and that is our slogan. Every time we do an event, we do peace starts in your heart, Peace Starts in the City like we did last year. It’s all about making that first step.

What’s the theme for this year?

This year we’re concentrating on conservation and education and making peace with our environment and creating a sustainable future for our children through education. 

Info from Cito’s partner Collett Dawson: This year we’re taking some of SA’s best artists and bands, and stripping down the whole concert, making it more acoustic and even singer/songwriter style and then a highlight for us will be that each of these artists or bands are then going to be collaborating with Double O Ensemble – a classical ensemble made up of some of SA’s finest classical musicians – who will be performing one track with each artist. This specific track of each of them, has been re-arranged for this event especially by some of our great music arrangers like Johan Laas, Mark Cheyne, Roelof Colyn, Rudo Pieterse and Adam Howard, making the event truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

You’ve got some great names – Connell Cruise who is busy making a big name overseas.

He’s a very cool guy.   

He is with David Gresham Records.

The management is with David Gresham so we’ve been dealing with them, creating relationships with record labels, Sony – David Gresham, and that’s a big thing for us. Doing what we do. You have to have great relationships, even if you’re working with these businesses anyway.   There’s always a place for us. So we don’t compete with anyone really.

These guys are all giving their time free and it’s a free event. Is it for fundraising or to spread awareness?

It’s not for fundraising at all. Peace Starts is more an umbrella organisation. We support other charity organisations that are like minded and make up different aspects of peace. From child welfare to conservation to rape, you name it. There’s so many different aspects and this year we’ve chosen to partner with Tomorrow Trust who take on about 2,000 pupils from primary, secondary and tertiary and they see them through. They subsidise their education, give them clothes and food.  They have donors that sponsor children and they have this hands on approach, so they mentor them. They monitor their school work and tests and progress. It’s really effective and it’s only 2,000 but those 2,000 will matriculate and get jobs.  The other organisation is Green Beings. They work with the low cost communities like Cosmos City and do sustainable eco systems at the schools from bio fuel to green waste and water purification and vegetable gardens.  They teach the kids so that they can teach the families.

How many people normally come through?

It’s hard to say because every year we do something different so it attracts different kinds of crowds. Our aim is not to get stuck in the same kind of format and the same kind of demographic. We’re looking at 1,000 people for this event.  Our purpose again is just to spread the word and it helps having interviews and all the pre event sort of publicity and all that kind of thing. That for me is the most effective tool for what we’re trying to do. 

So often it takes a crime or something traumatic happening to you or someone you know before you start doing something. Was your friend’s attack what motivated you?

A year before another friend had approached me to do it; I thought it was a cool idea. I was doing some research after that. The next year it was a Monday so I was just going to do a publicity event and then when this thing happened it made me realise I was motivated to do something more significant and not necessarily just anti-crime, but like I felt Tracy was like a catalyst for a bigger calling. If you knew who Tracy was, she was the sweetest gentle amazing being. She was just the last person that that should have happened to. She wasn’t a threat to anyone. That was the irony of it all. We can’t rely on the government or the police -it’s something that we have to do ourselves and it’s going to be tougher for some than others.  I think it’s about working together with the others to create a safety network. 

You see when communities get together getting things done is a whole lot easier than–

– doing things in isolation. And the other thing is the mass of our population are in real need and once we put ourselves in their shoes and start to understand and communicate, I think it’s just steps in the right direction.

Sometimes I think our whole nation needs to go for some kind of counselling. We’re all traumatised by the past and the present. 

I was listening to an interesting discussion on 702. A white caller was complaining about affirmative action and that there’s no job opportunities for her children and herself because it’s being given to the black majority and skills are being disregarded and something the presenter said is that although we have children who have been born since the 20 years of democracy, they are still an effect of apartheid because of their parents. They come from underprivileged backgrounds so it’s hard for them. It’s about breaking the cycle, and the whole affirmative action thing if it’s done properly should in essence work. There are going to be ramifications for being privileged and what we are going through is better than civil war. 

I heard the song Breathe Together. It’s such a nice song. Where does that title come from?

It sort of equalises everybody. We’re all breathing the same air and I co-wrote it with another friend.  For me it’s an anthem for peace. It’s about not being afraid to take steps and just knowing that we’re all in the same boat breathing the same air. If we realise that we’ll be doing it together. 

You’re involved in so much – you’ve been in the We Believe in You campaign, another awesome collaboration. What’s behind that? What are you trying to achieve with that?

It was an idea that came to fruition by a man called Alan Hilburg – who is an American marketing guru. A very inspiring motivating man.  He brought the Discovery Foundation to my attention. Basically they do great work for the public health sector and doctors and clinics that work out in rural areas that are underprivileged. They give them special grants and awards. They were busy putting together a documentary film about doctors and the hard work they do.  The conditions they have to work in. How they go the extra mile.  How their sense of humanity is inspiring. We call them our national heroes. So it was an idea to put together a song in the same kind of vein as We Are The World honouring doctors as heroes, doing it as a collaboration. If I think about my personal life doctors have played a massive role. We sometimes take it for granted and they do amazing work dealing with life to the point of them inspiring us to fight to survive.  Most of the doctors I’ve known go out of the way to find the solution. 

Are you aiming mainly for national health or government health or private care?

I think we must definitely give special mention to those who are in the public health sector.   If you think of teachers and firemen, there’s a lot of civil servants that really don’t get the recognition that they deserve, but I think doctors in general because even private sector doctors have to go through a bit of public health experience as well and it takes a special kind of person to commit their life to the human body and the human spirit and I think the big idea is for us give the doctors the recognition that they deserve and to bring our doctors back from overseas. Sometimes little things like that are just the only motivation they get. 

What’s the CoLab Network all about?  Obviously I’ve been in touch with Collett Dawson [partner], and she seems a most dynamic person. 

She’s a powerhouse. She’s relentless, tenacious, hardworking. There’s no transaction or communication too small. I’ve never met anybody as efficient as Collett is.  She’s also my manager and had been under contract as a publicist and then she wanted to start her own entertainment company.  I joined forces with her and because we’re both so different and cover different areas of the entertainment industry we thought we’d be a good partnership. So whether we do the services ourselves or where the network comes in, we refer people that we work with, professionals that we work with within the industry.  We’ve got amazing abundance of resources and people that we work with, people that we know that aren’t going to let us or the client down.  A lot of the work that we do is entertainment concepts for special or corporate events, or for venues. One of our big dreams which has been realised is putting on our own shows like the shows at the Lyric with the Johannesburg Big Band. There’s lots of stuff in the pipeline, we’re associate producers of Queen at the Ballet and Bovim Ballet as well. It’s looking for partnerships and opportunities.  The CoLab Network is based on relationships and Collett has this amazing gift of looking after and nurturing relationships. Seeing people grow from an apprentice to being a producer of a show. 

You were in R ‘n B, a rock band and then WONDERboom. That’s quite diverse. 

I was a bassist in a 10 piece soul band so we used to do all the Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett – all the old 50s, 60s, a bit of 70s, all the covers. That was my first professional gig. I was 17 and from that I started my own rockband and then we started Wonderboom in 1996.  It’s been fun. We were at an amazing rehearsal last night. We’re like brothers more than anything else. We just love making music together and performing is where our strength is and that’s what I attribute the longevity of the band to.   

You won the best South African rock band for the Global Battle of the Bands and second best rock band in the world. How hard was it to achieve recognition in your field in South Africa and how was the experience of becoming well known? 

I think as musicians it’s about the songs that you create and that is where the buck stops.  Without that you might be a flash in the pan, and become famous for a month or whatever, but you won’t have longevity or sustain it. That’s my frustration with a lot of the perception nowadays, like say Idols. People don’t necessarily want to create great music. They just want to become famous. I have a problem with that. It’s superficial and lacks any substance. You might achieve it but it’s temporary, short-lived. 

Where does the name WONDERboom come from?

People think we’re an Afrikaans band, and a lot of our fans were disappointed when they realised I can’t even speak Afrikaans. But it was just, we had just fused two bands, and we needed a name, and there was a sign pointing to Wonderboom just outside Kroonstad on the N1. So I saw that and I was like Wonder Boom! (said with an English accent) And Martin explained it. We did these nominations of names and voted. That was the strongest.  It was a sign. 

One of my favourites of yours is On The Radio. I like the title, how did it come about? 

On The Radio is just one of those fun numbers we wrote at the time, it was one of the first numbers of our last album which was our eighth release. We had obviously been going through changes. It was the first album that we recorded with Garth and the message behind it was whether we get played on the radio or not, we’re still going to be rocking out. And it ended up getting on radio, and the whole message is on the radio, you’ll never hear me on the radio and ironically they’ve been playing it on radio.  Radio frustrates me and I feel that there’s great opportunity for great music and content relating to certain people, but so many of them have to play that game of advertising, of formats, of doing what everybody else is doing. But there’s some good stations out there. My biggest frustration is radio DJs. They ramble on and don’t know what they’re talking about. They have got no knowledge or research. That’s the frustrating thing, if you’ve got nothing to contribute, just play the music. 

That’s why some of the internet stations you can stream are just perfect. 

You can listen and get on.  I can’t wait for internet radio in cars. It’s the way of the future. 

You’ve been in Jesus Christ Superstar, Chess. Are you going to do musicals again?

It’s got to really grab me. The first time I did JC Superstar I never dreamt of ever doing a musical. I went and auditioned and tried it out. They were struggling to find a Jesus. 

Everyone’s lost him. 

Exactly.  They were struggling to find someone who could do the range. And a friend of mine who is an actor told me about it. It’s a serious dedication, five months out of your life. You can’t do any other performances; you’ll be performing most nights of the week. I almost didn’t do it, I didn’t think it would be me, but my friend said just try it out and see what happens. I did and it was one of the best steps I’d ever taken in my life. It opened a whole new world for me. I was always hiding behind the façade of the band.

I’m just fascinated you’re from California. I’d love to be in California.

I was born in California and lived there for about a year when I was 8. Most of my childhood was in New York in Queens. We came to South Africa on a sort of religious purpose and settled when I was about 14.  There are moments I miss America because all of my siblings are back at home. But thank God for Facebook. 

You’re making a difference in SA.

I’m married and settled here. I’ve got two sons – the oldest is 17. He’s going to be 18 in two weeks.  My view on the world is there’s a place for everyone. California reminds me a lot of South Africa, with its sort of terrain and weather. 

What’s up next for you for the CoLab Network, WONDERboom?

We’re producing a show with America’s Got Talent finalist Branden James, at Theatre on the Square. I’m going to do a couple of numbers with him.  We’re still finalising but it looks like we’re going to do Robbie Williams Angels and maybe The Eagles Desperado. 

If you’re doing Desperado I’m definitely there. I’m in love with that song. I’m such a fan.

I’m also a fan. It just shows that you’ve got a passion for music and arts. After that it’s Peace Starts and WONDERboom’s doing another festival at the beginning of October. We’re going to be collaborating with Mandoza so that’s going to be quite interesting. And then I’m working on a solo album with a producer in LA. We’re Skype jamming. I’m able to do it because WONDERboom hasn’t been full throttle for 18 years. You go through cycles and every time you release an album you’re touring and there’s  gaps so I have time for some side projects.  As long as I’m singing I’m happy and if I’m not singing I’ll be directing.  It’s not always the easiest path. You are told since school that you have to do this and conform  – and we lose focus of what life is really about. It’s hard, because when you take that path, you doubt yourself all the time, and beat yourself up and go through stresses. It’s not an easy path but when you go with the flow and follow your gut and work with the universe and keep taking steps and that risk every now again then things fall into your path. It’s about opportunities and never letting fear dictate your decisions.  Our minds are our biggest obstacles.

Do you have tips about self-doubt? It’s almost refreshing to hear you say you get self-doubt because you’ve achieved so much.

Thank you. Somebody in my position will always feel that you’re normalised by the reality of life. Everybody has a different path and calling. I think that if you do it for the right reasons then you will get the right rewards. If you are delusional and think that you can sing but you can’t and you decide to quit your job and start singing, it’s like one extreme situation where you’ve got to be honest with yourself and you have to accept that you’ll make no money and be happy with that. That’s the trick with music and making it your career. It’s a very fine line between being creative for the sake of music and doing it for fame or for money. Music just comes from somewhere else. It doesn’t come from you and if you’re the right vehicle for that kind of music and go for the right reasons without having any agenda or results attached to that then beautiful things can happen. Sometimes it’s just touching people with your performance. 

I’ve got a fascination with the golden thread of humanity. I think artists, musicians have the ability to tweak a thread and make people feel things. You can inspire people. This has been inspiring to me to sit here and talk to you. Is that what it’s about for you?

I think there’s no real preconceived idea about inspiring people. I’m just doing it and it’s like a manifestation or a result that I’m inspiring. I’m touched that I am inspiring. I’m just doing it because it’s all I know how to do. I think it’s the kind of person that I am. I get very self conscious about grandeur and all that kind of thing. But I’m humbled and grateful that I do inspire.  

Follow Cito on Twitter here
Follow the CoLab Network on Twitter here
The Peace Starts 2014 Concert is at the Heia Safari Ranch  on  21 September 2014. The event is free but it’s essential to prebook here.

With thanks to my friend Alison for the pics. 

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Writer, transcriber, proofreader, editor, lover of the arts.

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