Myanymar (Burma) and the West have had a complicated relationship. We colonised them, they snubbed the Commonwealth, and it went on. And yet we don’t seem to have that complicated a relationship with Burma’s music. Why? We just don’t know all that much about it.
 
But now the walls are coming down. After decades of repression and isolation the Burmese military junta seem to be relaxing their fist-grip on power, allowing a power-share with a civilian government for the first time. Journalists have noticed censorship is easing. A freer democracy and the cultural goodies that come with it are beginning to grow in Burma.
 
But what is there for us to discover, and what has the West been missing out on all this time?
 
Ne Win, Ne Free
 
Years ago I found a compilation of Asian psych – Love, Peace and Poetry – with a South Korean record by Shin Jung Hyun & The Men, “Korean Titel A2.” It’s a melancholic 10-minute outpouring of wandering fuzz guitar, tinny organs, soaring Korean flutes and choral vocals; sublime to the very end.
 
I always expected Burmese music to be like this – the folk traditions would infuse with the heroin and marijuana fields of the countryside, making for a strange brew of Asian folk-psych, years of dictatorship giving the music a dissident edge. If it could happen in Czechoslovakia, why not Burma?  
 
Because while the rest of the world was falling like dominoes to teeny boppers, The Beatles and lysergic acid, Burma was under the yoke of an irrational dictator, General Ne Win. Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism” hated “decadent” Western culture – including its main export, rock’n’roll. 
 
Pop music was stifled, leaving Burma way behind. The country’s early attempts at the bad thing – a mixture of folk, pop and rock’n’roll – were later picked up by Sublime Frequencies, a Seattle-based record label that specializes in world music and esoterica from South East Asia, the Middle East and beyond. 
 
The real “Burmese Way?”
 
Sublime’s Alan Bishop, once vocalist and bassist with experimental Arizonan outfit Sun City Girls, put together Princess Nicotine: Folk & Pop Sounds of Myanmar (the first Western compilation of Burmese pop) following a visit to Burma. It is the first in a three-part series charting the beautiful, otherworldly and downright mad music of a far-off country we do not know much about.
 
“I travelled to Burma for the first time in 1993,” Alan says. “When I got there I turned on the radio and it immediately hit me – the scales, the Burmese harp, how they use piano, amazing percussion, the rhythms and tempos. It was as if I had landed on another planet, musically.
 
Alan found these songs on cassettes, originals and re-presses, around Burma – in shops, marketplaces or mates’ houses. It does sound like another world. Traditional instruments – hne (oboe), saung gauk (harp), pat waing (drums) – creating manic, beautiful songs like Bo Hein’s ‘Burmese Golden Drum’, which opens with feedback loops made with wood and steel, before eery call-response vocals.
 
Alan believes that Burma’s isolation fostered a radically different musical landscape, valuable in its own way. “There was not a true popular music movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as we had seen everywhere else,” he says. “So the Burmese have managed to maintain the integrity of their musical independence.”
 
Independence, or isolation? The first major hit in Burma was 1969’s ‘Mummy, I Want a Girlfriend’ – a kind of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ schmaltz for a society stifled by censors and dictatorship, by then a distant memory to a West already suffering from post-Altamont stress disorder. 
 
The other Sublime albums in the series unearth more Western-style sounds. Volume two, Guitars of the Golden Triangle, unearths early-1970s garage, psych, even country and western. It features the “Burmese Texan,” Lashio Thein Aung, with ‘A Girl Among Girls’ – nodding to British freakbeat with the help of his rough R’n’B guitar. Aung now lives in the US and performs with a cowboy hat, but remains one of the dictatorship’s most outspoken critics. 
 
This is what I’ve been looking for! 
 
But not quite.
 
“Different from the mainstream”
 
“Music like Princess Nicotine is not what people in Burma are really interested in,” says Heather MacLachlan, ethnomusicologist from the University of Dayton, Ohio, and author of a new study into Burmese pop – Burma’s Popular Music Industry: Creators, Distributors and Censors. 
 
“That’s all rather different from the mainstream,” she says. “In the West, we’re looking for something original and creative but that’s not something that Burmese people value in their music.” 
 
Instead Burmese music has always mirrored Western pop but thousands of miles away from it. “Pop music in Burma sounds exactly like UK and US music,” she says. “For the last 40 plus years, whatever is popular there at the time is pretty much what’s popular in Burma.”
 
So Lashio Thein Aung translated the British Invasion and American country/rock, and now Burmese musicians are translating rap, metal and dance-pop. 
 
Burma’s hip-hop ranges from angry young men (who can’t talk about angry young men’s favourite topics: politics, sexing or violence) to something like a Nicole Sherzinger/P-Diddy duet with far more clothes on – like Nan Su Yati Soe’s ‘Don’t Run Away.’ Kou No We is a popular performer in this vein, symbolically rebellious with long hair and sunglasses; his worst excess is threatening an unfaithful lover, rather than the powers that be. Like One Way telling their ‘Personal Experiences,’ No We raps about love, not bitches and forties.
 

 

 

Musical sounds and styles are similar between Burma and the West, Heather admits, but the way music is made there is totally different. Burmese musicians perform “own tune” (originals) or “copy thacin” (covers, “thacin” means song) – songs copied exactly and then dubbed with new Burmese lyrics, not translations.
 
Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein’s version of Shakira’s ‘Whenever, Wherever’ is eerily faithful to the original. Even more surreal – Zaw Hin Htut gives his best Rod Stewart on ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ (still beats Rod’s American Songbook). But sometimes the results are less impressive – Tint Tint Tun’s school-disco ‘La Bamba’ sounds like it belongs on a hazy dancefloor in Bangkok’s early hours, a mystical scene I’m not sure I ever want to see.
 
Rock politics
 
But a dictatorship isn’t always the best place for creativity.   
 
The “only rock band in Burma” in 1973 – The Wild Ones, musician Sai Htee Saing and songwriter Sai Kham Lait – had a Christmas concert broken up by rock-bashing General Ne Win himself. It set a precedent for the next 30 years.
 
It’s a shame because The Wild Ones were good. But by 1988 the band were already assimilated, photographed side-by-side with their country’s military leaders. Saing even performed on an album written by one of the military leaders – Mya Than San – a selling-out the integrity-obsessed West won’t be too familiar, or at all comfortable, with. 
 
The government started using music more after 1973 with the distinctly un-rousing ‘Let’s Go to the Polling Booth’ was recorded to promote a sham referendum. Burmese musicians still write and perform for government projects like public works and rigged elections today. 
 
“The government is actually quite dependent on pop music,” Heather says. “And that’s something nobody is really acknowledging.” 
 
Here music becomes a tool of power and control – but it’s occasionally used to resist it too. Aung Suu Kyi has long supported musicians and artists. Now, in a few weeks’ time, Rangoon will host a benefit concert to celebrate her return to politics – a good a sign as any that things are changing.
 
Girl Power!
 
Despite years of pop in Burma, the Western press has been getting very excited by Burma’s latest offering – the Me N Ma Girls. The band, dubbed “Myanmar’s first girl band,” are challenging Burma’s conservatism with brightly coloured outfits, suggestive lyrics and a sound that is more Guetta and Gaga than Myanmar. 
 
Their sophomore album, MinGaLarPar (Greetings) released in December last year, combines Japanese and Korean K-Pop with clubby Eurodance. 
 
In the video for single ‘Festival,’ the girls flash the cash and go clubbing, singing: “Hey you! Are you happy? You want some?” Jarvis Cocker won’t be wishing he’d red-penned that into ‘Babies’ but it’s a million miles from ‘Mummy, I Want a Girlfriend.’ Women don’t normally act like this in Burma. 
 
 
It would make a nice Hollywood story for a journalist with a deadline but music has not really changed Burma. In many ways their music is inherently reactionary – it copies more than it creates – but tastes are changing. The Me N Ma Girls’ success is a litmus test for the rest of the country, showing that even conservative, repressed Burma can do “Girl Power.”
 
And for many Burmese, the epitome of girl power, and people power, is Aung Suu Kyi. As long as her National League for Democracy are at the forefront as Burma moves towards democracy, the Burmese may have real hope for change. Musically, copy tachin isn’t going anywhere fast, but neither is Burma’s deep love for pop. With time may be the West will find something to love in the music of a free Myanmar.
 
It’s easy to laugh. But the cultural imperialism of sending Beatles records and lunchboxes to some far-off Asian country in between the B-52s and Agent Orange, and then laughing is an uncomfortable place to be. 
 
I didn’t find what I expected. But what was I looking for? 
 

As it turns out Shin Jung Hyun’s “Korean Titel A2” is called “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains” and was commissioned by South Korea’s military dictator, Park Chung Hee. Jung Hyun wrote it after disobeying his leader, then being tortured and thrown in a mental institution. It was a self-preserving act of collusion. In the end he wasn’t all that different to the musicians of Burma.
 
It could be one of those tourist board adverts: “Come to Burma, it’s dead funky,” it’s been one hell of a trip. 
 
So instead of vaults of integrity-friendly music, I found a Burmese cowboy and a Burmese Rod Stewart, censors and sell-outs, master-copyists and, well, the Me N Ma Girls and with them, the stirrings of free speech in a long oppressed country. 
 
Wasn’t it all a bit glorious?

 

Tom Rollins

 


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