Myanmar has a film industry
The new spirit of the Rangoon underground
Since Nusasonic started a festival in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2018, we have continued our journey in various formats: Nusasonic performances, artist residencies, workshops and discussions at the CTM Festival in Berlin, the Playfreely / BlackKaji in Singapore, at the Yes No Club in Yogyakarta and finally at the WSK X Festival in Manila at the end of 2019. Two days before the end of the WSK Festival, the Nusasonic team met in a café to discuss our goals for 2020. What forms of festivals and events could we imagine that not only offer good music, but also participate in developing progressive knowledge and building networks in Southeast Asia, Europe and beyond? We believe that through organic, mutual and sustainable cooperation we can learn from each other and better understand our respective fundamental differences in order to strengthen our commonalities and support a creative ecosystem between regions and existing networks.
At our meeting, we decided to produce a series of workshop and conversation-based programs in Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and also to organize a musicians' residence in Singapore and commission a series of essays based on the Nusasonic- Website to be published. Each of these programs begins with a short research trip by two people from the Nusasonic team to get to know local actors and the socio-cultural context in the respective countries. The connections and the exchange that is set in motion with these research trips should enable us to plan joint events with local partners that meet the needs and wishes of the local scenes. In cooperation with the local partners, we want to design a workshop-based creative program with discussions and small performances that can last for up to a month. The first research trip was undertaken by us, the author of this essay (Joee Meijas and Wok The Rock) from March 16-22, 2020 to Rangoon, Myanmar - just as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread to spread to the countries of Southeast Asia.
The whole Nusasonic team hesitated about our trip, especially because lockdowns were imminent or already underway - both in our travel destination Myanmar and in our home countries Indonesia and the Philippines. In the end we decided to take the trip anyway, as the circumstances in Rangoon seemed quite safe, even if we had to observe special health precautions during meetings and visits.
None of us were familiar with Myanmar apart from a few scraps of general knowledge such as the work and government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the authoritarian past of the country and the racist riots against the Muslim Rohingya. The only things we knew of Myanmar's music scene were the Noise In Yangon collective and the punk band / collective Rebel Riot. We arrived with a list of names and contacts that we had received from our Nusasonic co-curator Yuen Chee Wai and from a few friends who had visited or met artists in Myanmar, as well as the results of a quick online search on SoundCloud , Bandcamp and YouTube.
We started our journey by visiting the people, communities and places on our list. These were our anchor points. We also agreed not to limit ourselves to experimental music. Instead, we wanted to try to learn about various alternative art forms that have developed in Rangoon and also the social relationships that influence them. With only seven days, the duration of our stay was very short and characterized by the everyday restrictions that were gradually enforced. Every day we met a maximum of three people in order to have more time to get to know them better and to have more in-depth discussions. Due to the hygiene regulations, however, we could not meet everyone on our list.
Leonard Kruger from the Goethe-Institut Myanmar gave us a short helpful introduction to the social, cultural and political situation in Myanmar. He introduced us Zon Sapal Phyu (Zoncy) vor, a local artist who had just replaced him as program director at the Cultural Department. Zoncy asked the young producer / techno DJ Wai-yanto support us throughout the week.
On day one we already got a clear picture of the experimental music scene Musica Htet and Slyne of Noise in Yangon conveyed. They invited us to lunch at Shan Kitchen, a restaurant in central Yangon that serves traditional Shan dishes (the Shan are the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar). The food was delicious and spicy. We expected that Burmese food would be close to Indian cuisine, but instead it tastes very similar to Thai, Malaysian and of course Chinese food. And don't forget: the beers. They're strong, refreshing, and super tasty. We were hypnotized! Fortunately, we were still able to ask some of our first questions about their work and the experimental music scene in Myanmar.
The collective Noise In Yangon was formed in 2017 when Musica Htet returned from Singapore after graduating, where he studied sound engineering at Lasalle University. He got to know sound art and experimental / improvised music through his teacher Brian O'Reilly. He plays noise and bass (also double bass) in a free-impro jazz combo. He also works as a freelance sound designer and audio engineer for Yamaha and also operates a PA rental and service provider for Foley work with Epic Clouds. Htet participated in a Jogja Noise Bombing Performance in Indonesia and in the Asian Meeting Festival in Japan.
When Htet returned from Singapore, he met his old friend Slyne (Crazy Eels Society)who was also interested in experimental music. They started giving underground concerts under the name Noise In Yangon. Slyne is a calm and quiet person, but he is the one who always drives everyone to productivity, even though he is very busy himself with his work as a sound designer. Like other members of Noise In Yangon, Slyne comes from the jazz community. He makes experimental electronic music.
Pinky (Htet Myo Htut Aung) is the only active female member of the collective and has been active as a musician and artist since 2013. The focus of her work is on painting, short films and installations, but she has recently started to accompany her work with sound. Pinky comes from a family of musicians and has attended the Gitameit Music Center and the Academy of Rock in Rangoon. She is Ito's cousin and her father is also a member of the band Emperor. Pinky played the violin for an improv music combo. She is a member and manager of Noise In Yangon and museum coordinator at U-Thant House Museum.
The artistic focus of Noise In Yangon is not only on noise, but also moves into experiments in the fields of sound and music that extend beyond that. The collective has organized events in a variety of locations, including on a rooftop, in a library, an art gallery, and a music school. Five to ten local musicians are involved in each of the performances. Since the three (Htet, Slyne, Ito) are busy with their work as sound designers for the film industry, sound engineers or the management of music companies, their collaboration is organic and relaxed. Despite this relaxed structure, they work very professionally as organizers. You are currently looking for two people to help you with communication (graphic designer and social media admin).
After lunch we met up with Ito, who did the GYS Studio converted into a communal art space. The studio consists of three buildings and a courtyard. It has three studios for rehearsals, recordings and post-production. In the future there will be some rooms for artist residences. On the cozy balcony of GYS Studio, Ito gives us a brief outline of alternative music in Myanmar and his plan to strengthen the scene.
Then we decided to broaden our focus to learn and understand the new initiatives and / or artistic expressions in all genres in Myanmar, especially those in Rangoon. Wai-Yan, Noise In Yangon and Zoncy introduced us to interesting key figures in the scene, in particular Darko from the well-known indie rock band Side effect and Thar Soe (Thxa Soe), a hip hop pioneer of the late 90s who was also famous for his house music.
The alternative music culture in Myanmar has been active since the early 2000s. It is very new because freedom of expression only recently expanded in the country when the military regime fell in 2011 and the country became 'almost' fully democratic in 2015. Very few people are active in the scene, but they are very progressive, knowledgeable about new global trends, are full of positive intentions to come up with ideas and to experiment with them. Above all, they support each other by sharing good available space. This situation reminded Wok of the independent movement in Indonesia in the late 1990s, before and after the political reforms - apart from the high-quality premises and the presence of the Internet, of course. Although the scene is very new in Myanmar, it has developed rapidly over the past five years.
Let's start with Thar Soe. He comes from a family of democracy activists who were active at the same time as Aung San Suu Kyi. In early 2000, his bandmate, a hip hop rapper, was arrested by the military, prompting him to move to London and study music production. In London he learned about drum'n'bass, grime, techno, house and other electronic music styles that were popular in Great Britain. Interested in these genres, Soe imagined what Burmese-style house would sound like. And so he studied the long-forgotten Burmese music archive in a London library. In 2005 he returned to Myanmar and started a new project that mixed house, traditional music and rap. The result is similar to Indonesian funkot from the 90s, but his work has a far more critical content.
Thar Soe's albums became huge hits and he performed at numerous major festivals, notably at a cultural ceremony called “Thingyan,” also known as the Water Festival. In 2015 he stopped making music and performing after having problems with the government due to censorship and restrictions - that is, with members of the former military regime as well as representatives of the new democratic government. He also claimed that despite his mainstream success, he didn't make a lot of money. Because of the complexity of his music, it takes a lot of time and effort to produce it. Another problem he faced was the protection of legal claims and copyright infringement; the majority of his most successful songs are bootleg versions of western music. There are no clear guidelines for dealing with concepts such as remixes or cover songs, as there is currently no consensus on the rules for the remix and sample culture. Myanmar has an updated copyright law (from 1914) that was enacted in May 2019, but full enforcement of the law is still in progress.
Thar Soe told us that he had traveled to Bali and Yogyakarta a few years ago for a music event (he no longer remembers which year, which event it was or who he met there). Wok wondered if he might have met the world music maestro Djaduk Ferianto, who lives in Yogyakarta. Who knows? He thinks his music could be a big hit in Indonesia as he hears similarities to House Dangdut in it. Yeah
Thxa Soe plays his most famous song "Nar Pan" from Album Yaw Chin Yaw Ma Yaw Chin Nay.
Since we also wanted to learn about the mainstream music industry in Myanmar, Wai-Yan introduced us to his friend Steph Koko before that of the big digital music company Legacy Music Network directs. The company sells music of every genre to the major music network platforms. We learned a lot about Myanmar's music industry through Steph. She tries not to work with 'illegal' cover songs, even if this is becoming an increasingly rare problem as indie musicians * who write their own material are becoming more and more popular. This trend is similar to what Ito had previously reported to us in the GYS Studio. Both Steph and Ito were curious when we told them about Creative Commons digital licenses. They provide a way for all of us to learn about copyright issues and to find ways we can deal with copyright in this Internet age.
The name Darko rang in the back of our heads since we started our research. Finally we met him, who is also a member of one of the most famous indie bands, Side effect, is, in his office, Turning tables. Side Effekt started out as a punk band in the early 2000s and slowly evolved into indie rock. In 2009 he started the experimental music project with his drum kit Tser Htoo Burmélange. This project was probably the first foray into experimental music nationwide.
As a progressive artist who wanted to build an alternative cultural movement, Darko founded the cultural organizations Turning tablesto activate his big ideas. The non-profit organization supports young people in music and film. It actively improves democratic values (free speech, unity in religious / ethnic diversity, equality, critical thinking) and contemporary culture among young people. Once a year she organizes the big music festival Voice Of The Youth and is also home to WOMYN, an artist collective that the WOMYN NOW Organized performance art show. Since its inception, Noise In Yangon has supported Turning Tables by offering the monthly experimental concert Unrest organize in the premises of the organization.
We also learned about another important artist-led group or movement called Jam It !, which is from an older generation. Similar to Turning Tables, the group began as a small movement for underground music and street art and became an active indie label that released a wide variety of music styles from indie pop to hip hop to hardcore / punk. They worked with the Wathann Film Festival, Myanmar's first film festival, and the Yangon Street Art Festival, which is now well known across the country. Unfortunately we couldn't meet with them.
An interesting connection we found was that most of the young artists we met made music at the Gitameit studied at a private school that we mentioned earlier here. Htet, Slyne, Darko and Thar Soe all went to this school to study music, attend workshops or just hang out. Her interest in jazz began there, as the school teaches 'free' forms of music. Gitameit is considered to be the first private music school in Rangoon and was used by the respected composers / ethnomusicologists Ne Myo Aung and Htun Htun founded.While their students are now starting a new independent music movement, Gitameit and its founders are supporting them by working closely with them on educational projects and providing access to Gitameit's concert space for experimental music.
As we became more interested in the country's musical education, Zoncy suggested that we visit Su Zar Zar, a Burmese harp master, ethnomusicologist, improviser, and teacher who had studied music in the United States and Japan. She teaches at the Music Faculty of the National Art and Culture University, Rangoon. When she encountered sexism and other hurdles women face in becoming college professors in the country's universities, she decided to start her own music school instead, The Royal Academy of Music. She is also fighting to keep her hair short - a symbol to demonstrate her freedom at the university, where lecturers and students are encouraged to wear their hair long. She also played the traditional royal harp at traditional funeral ceremonies, although women are actually taboo to play on such occasions, as well as on non-royal occasions in general.
As a contrast to Turning Tables and Jam It !, who work on a larger scale, we hooked up with a DIY punk collective called Rebel, made by Kyaw Kyaw is directed. He is one of the music pioneers in Myanmar. His band Rebel Riot has performed frequently in Southeast Asia and gained international fame through Kyaw Kyaw's stance against Buddhist fascism. Together with his colleagues, Kyaw Kyaw has set up an information center / cooperative that promotes DIY culture, collectivization and initiatives such as “Food not Bombs” or “Book not Bombs”. There they also organize street concerts and public workshops with children. We only spent an hour together but said goodbye feeling that we need to work together and freely share critical ideas and thoughts with one another to create a strong, emerging scene.
Kyaw Kyaw at an appearance in the film Myanmar: An Unholy Alliance by Fatima Lianes (Aljazeera), in which we also see a brief glimpse into Darko's Voice Of The Youth music festival.
Another place that supports the underground music scene is MYANM / ART, a contemporary art gallery created by Nathalie Johnston is directed. This new space is located in a shopping mall that was recently built in a very lively and urban area of the city. Over the past five years MYANM / ART presented in the gallery of sound art and experimental music. The Indonesian artists Indra Menus and Julian Abraham Togar were invited to perform here in 2018. The gallery also hosted performances by Berlin-based sound artist Cedrik Fermont and musician Ignaz Schick during their visits to the country.
What about electronic music or a club scene? The current social distancing measures almost ensured that the party scene completely passed us by. Thanks to Wai-Yan, we managed to get to know a little club scene before we had to go home. Wai-Yan introduced us to the electronic music group Bouhinga by taking us to the roof of his hostel where his crew usually hang out. You are in your early twenties and have mostly studied abroad - in the US, Europe, the UK and Singapore. They played their music to us. Most of them do synth-pop, ambient, post-rock-esque tracks, and techno. A guy called Dassatha has only finished two tracks so far, but they are very different from what we have heard on our journey so far. His work is very intense and aggressive. A little club called Level 2 is the place where this circle of friends appears and hosts techno parties. Your community seems very small, but has a lot of energy and a desire to grow the scene.
OU J is a young electronics producer from Rangoon, Myanmar. This noisy hardcore single is a collaboration with rapper / vocalist Dassatha. Both represent Myanmar's new generation of contemporary club music.
At the end of our trip, Wok was able to safely return to Indonesia. Joee tried to rebook many canceled flights and ended up staying in Rangoon while waiting for an opportunity to return to the Philippines. Rangoon Myanmar was one of the last countries to detect COVID-19 within its borders and eventually went into a strict lockdown. People have been urged to stay at home to avoid overloading Rangoon's hospitals should an outbreak occur.
Fortunately, GYS Studio was able to accommodate Joee for her extended stay. This circumstance also provided a platform for small collaborations in the midst of the pandemic. It was in the studio that Joee met the four-piece metal band Blood of Century who wrote and recorded their second studio album there as artists in residence. The band is energetic, productive and popular with the audience, with members from different backgrounds. They are led by Deno Lin, an active member of Walk entertainment, a production company in Rangoon that mostly organizes music events and workshops for the metal scene. Joee was able to shoot and edit a music video with the band. It will be released soon with their new album.
Joee also had the opportunity to do live sessions with Noise-In-Yangon members Musica Htet, Slyne, Pinky Htut and Ito. A track of their collaboration landed on the sampler MAÑANITA on the occasion of the Independence Day of the Philippines. Mañanita is a term used to describe a close-knit birthday party that begins with a serenade to wake up the birthday boy or girl. Not many people knew the term until it was used by the Philippine Police Chief as an excuse for a big celebration during the lockdown. This sound / music compilation was recorded and put together by Filipino artists and their friends in the places where they were stuck during the pandemic. It's not a birthday party. It's not a protest either. It is a cacerolazo, a loud expression of displeasure based on the Latin American model, with materials that had been recorded or put together by Filipino artists in the places where they were stuck for the past few months - from Rangoon to Lapu-Lapu City. Not everyone had the privilege of being at home. And not everyone could count on the privilege of a home. The project was initiated by the Manila-based collective Green Papaya Art Projects, and it was released on June 12, 2020 by Pawns Records.
Joee also had the opportunity to take part in a short one-on-one workshop Myo Min Than a traditional musician who plays the horn (a kind of oboe). He gave Joee a good introduction to the very interesting and diverse traditional music culture of Myanmar. It can be described as melodic and is formed from a unique combination of harmonic and melodic patterns. These are based on a traditional scale which, once mastered, allows improvisation.
Traditional music overture to a dance ceremony. The Hne can be heard clearly above the percussion instruments.
From what we have learned with our limited time and movement possibilities during the pandemic in Rangoon, experimental music scenes in Southeast Asia find new forms of artistic expression and tonal directions thanks to the local peculiarities and respective challenges. And these tonal identities can be strengthened by learning from each other. We share a lot in common, but the national policies of the individual states inflate our differences and the inability to strengthen infrastructure and social ties.
At the end of June 2020, Joee finally managed to fly back to Manila and now our journey is really starting. All the new impressions and the insights gained from our trip were discussed with the Nusasonic team and our new friends and colleagues from Rangoon. We hope our dialogue will continue and eventually take shape as a kind of co-curated laboratory once travel restrictions are relaxed and the pandemic is more under control. Such a laboratory format would include a series of talks, workshops, the presentation of artistic projects and performances by both local and international artists and would take place in Yangon in collaboration with cultural experts. Let's hope that this uncertain time of the pandemic is over soon so that we can meet again at the tea house in Rangoon. In the meantime, we invite you to listen to this beautiful selection of Burmese music, selected by Musica Htet of Noise In Yangon.
A mixtape with Burmese music, put together by Musica Htet.
01. Chants of Red - Caguss aka Ito
02. Reincarnation of the One - Ivory Sammy
03. Upward Funeral - Issue
04. Leave that Orange on My Bed - Crazy Eel Society aka Slyne Nom
05. Heritage Circle - Ne Myo Aung, Aung Pyae Sone & Musica Htet
Joee Mejias is one of the curators of the Nusasonic project, active as co-producer of WSK: Festival Of The Recently Possible in Manila and co-founder of HERESY, a platform for women in the fields of sound and multimedia. She goes by the following names: mangocurry, Sister Joyce and Joee & I, an avant-pop collaborative music project that uses field recordings, traditional and found instruments, electronica and voice to create songs that evoke inner memories, awakened altered dream states and fragments of real or imagined journeys. Joee's live performances are influenced by her theatrical background and vary in their use of projections, video, installations, and live performers. She has performed in several locations in Southeast Asia, Canada, Japan and Taiwan and has toured the Philippines many times.
Wok the rock is an artist and curator active in the fields of modern art, design and music. He is one of the curators of the Nusasonic project, he is also a member of the artist collective Ruang MES 56 in Yogyakarta, runs the music label Yes No Wave Music, curates an experimental concert series called Yes No Klub every month, and has Indonesia Netaudio Forum initiated and much more. Wok has worked as a co-producer with local bands such as Senyawa, Gabber Modus Operandi, the art music collective Punkasila and Dialita, a women's choir made up of political survivors. In 2015 he was the curator of the Jogja XIII Biennale and took part in the Jakarta Biennale in 2013, the Tokyo Performance Art Meeting, the Delfina Foundation Artist Residency, the Casco Art Institute, 4A Center for Contemporary Asian Art and the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam.
Translated from the English by Adrian Jaksch.
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