Dive into the New Spirit of the Yangon UndergroundBy Wok The Rock and Joee Mejias, 2020
Since Nusasonic kicked-off in 2018 with a festival in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, we’ve continued our journey in with diverse formats: Nusasonic performances, residencies, workshops, and talks were programmed at CTM Festival in Berlin, Playfreely/BlackKaji in Singapore, Yes No Klub in Yogyakarta and finally in Manila at WSK X festival nearing the end of 2019. Two days before the WSK festival closed, the Nusasonic team sat together in a downtown cafe to discuss what we want to pursue in 2020. What forms of festivals and events could we envision, not only to feature good music but also to take part in the development of progressive knowledge and network-building in Southeast Asia, Europe and beyond? We believe that with organic, mutual, and sustained collaboration, we can learn from each other and understand our underlying differences so as to strengthen our common ground and support a creative ecosystem between regions and existing networks.
At our meeting we decided to produce a series of workshop- and discussion-based programs in Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, plus host a music residency in Singapore and commission a series of essays to be published on the Nusasonic website. Each program begins with a short research trip by two of our Nusasonic team, as a way to get to know the local actors and socio-cultural context. The connections and dialogue started on these research trips would allow us to co-create events with local partners that would suit the needs and wishes of the local scenes. Together with local partners we would design a workshop-based creative program, including talks and small performances that could span up to 1 month. The first research trip was made by us, the authors of this essay (Joee Meijas and Wok The Rock) to Yangon, Myanmar from 16–22 March 2020, just as the Coronavirus pandemic began to spread in Southeast Asian countries.
The whole Nusasonic team had hesitated about our trip, especially considering that lockdown was imminent or already present in both our destination of Myanmar, as well as in our home countries Indonesia and the Philippines. In the end we decided to make the trip because the conditions in Yangon were relatively safe, even though we would have to take care to conduct meetings and visits according to special health protocols.
Neither of us are familiar with Myanmar. Other than a few bits of common knowledge such as the work and leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s authoritarian past, and racial riots against the Rohingya Muslim community, the only thing we knew of music in Myanmar is the collective Noise In Yangon, and the punk band / collective Rebel Riot. The other information we arrived with was a list of names and contacts we got from our Nusasonic fellow curator Yuen Chee Wai, from a few friends who have visited or met artists from Myanmar, and from brief online research via SoundCloud, Bandcamp and YouTube.
We began our trip by meeting the people, communities, and places on our list; these were our anchor points. We also agreed not to focus only on experimental music. Instead we wanted to try to start with getting to know various alternative art forms that have developed in Yangon, and the social relations that shape them. The duration of our visit was very short, only 7 days, and under conditions of social restrictions that have begun to be applied. Every day we met a maximum of 3 people, so that we could take more time to get to know them more closely, and discuss more deeply. Because of the hygiene regulations however, we couldn’t meet all of the contacts on our list.
Leonard Krüger from Goethe-Institut Myanmar gave us a useful short introduction about Myanmar’s social, cultural, and political situation. He introduced us to Zon Sapal Phyu (Zoncy), a local artist who had just replaced him as Program Manager at the Cultural Department. Zoncy asked a young electronic producer/techno DJ Wai-Yan to assist us over the entire week.
On day 1, we already got quite a clear picture of the experimental music scene from Musica Htet and Slyne of Noise In Yangon. They invited us to lunch at Shan Kitchen, a restaurant serving traditional food of the Shan in downtown Yangon (the Shan are the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar). The food was super delicious and spicy. We thought Burmese food was close to Indian cuisine but instead it tastes strongly similar to Thai, Malay, and of course Chinese. And don’t forget the beers. They are strong, crisp, and super tasty. We were hypnotized! But fortunately we still managed to ask some of our first questions about their work and the experimental scene in Myanmar.
The Noise in Yangon collective started in 2017 when Musica Htet came back from Singapore after graduating from sound engineering at Lasalle University. He learned about sound art and experimental/improvisation music from his lecturer, Brian O’Reilly. He plays noise and bass (including contra bass) in a free-improv jazz combo. He works as an independent sound designer, an audio engineer for Yamaha, and also runs Epic Clouds, a PA rental and foley works service. Htet has participated in a Jogja Noise Bombing performance in Indonesia and at the Asian Meeting Festival in Japan.
When Htet came back from Singapore, he met his old mate Slyne (Crazy Eels Society) who shared a similar interest in experimental music. They agreed to start organising underground gigs under the name Noise In Yangon. Slyne is a calm and quiet person but he is the one who always pushes everyone to be productive, even though he is very busy with his own sound design work. Like the other Noise in Yangon members, Slyne comes from the jazz community. He makes experimental electronic music.
Htet and Slyne asked other musicians who also play experimental music to join their collective. Another interesting member of their collective is Ito. An extraordinary person. His father is a rock singer from a famous heavy metal band, Emperor, and Ito himself used to be a teenage pop star. Ito abandoned his stardom and shifted into indie pop and experimental music. He transformed his father’s music studio compound, GYS Studio, for use by the underground community: it hosts artist residencies, public events, and free neighborhood educational initiatives. Ito plays electronics and guitar in his experimental works. He is currently experimenting with the Orgone Accumulator in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (orgone is a pseudoscientific concept of »chi« or »life energy«). In this unique project, Ito channels his knowledge of chi, yoga, reflexology, and acupressure therapy together with devices such as an Experimental Life Meter and a DIY-made Orgone Accumulator to experiment with musical forms of healing and dealing with disease. If possible he would specifically like to work with COVID-19 patients for this project.
Pinky (Htet Myo Htut Aung) is the only active female member of the collective, and active as musician and artist since 2013. Her work is concentrated on painting, making short films, and installations, though recently she has begun accompanying her work with sound. Pinky comes from a family of musicians and has trained at the Gitameit Music Center and the Academy of Rock in Yangon. She is Ito’s cousin and her father is also a member of the band, Emperor. Pinky played violin for an improvisational music combo. She is both a member and manager of Noise In Yangon, and Museum Coordinator at the museum, U Thant House.
The artistic leanings of Noise In Yangon are not only towards noise, but also venture into wider experiments in sound and music. The collective has been organising events in different venues such as a rooftop, library, art gallery, and music school. Five to ten local musicians participate in their shows. As the three of them (Htet, Slyne, Ito) are busy working as sound designers for the film industry, as sound engineers, or running a music company, the way they work is organic and loose. Despite this relaxed structure they work very professionally as event organisers. They are currently looking for two people to help them with promotional work (graphic designer and social media admin).
After lunch, we went to meet Ito, who is renovating GYS Studio into a future community art space. The studio comprises three buildings and one outdoor courtyard space. It includes three studios for rehearsal, recording, and post production. In the future there will be a few rooms dedicated to artist residencies. We hang out at the cozy GYS Studio balcony while Ito tells us a brief story about alternative music in Myanmar and of his plan to strengthen the scene.
We then decided to broaden our scope to learn and understand about the new initiatives and/or artistic expressions happening within any musical genres in Myanmar, especially Yangon. Wai-Yan, Noise In Yangon, and Zoncy introduced more interesting key figures, especially Darko from well-known indie rock band Side Effect, and Thar Soe (Thxa Soe), a hip hop pioneer in the late 90s who was also famous for his house music.
Alternative music culture in Myanmar has been active since the early 2000s. It is very new because freedom of expression has only recently broadened,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 forward-thinking, fully aware about new global trends, full of positive ambition to develop and experiment with ideas, and most importantly, supportive of each other in sharing good available facilities. This situation reminded Wok of the independent movement in Indonesia in the late ‘90s, before and after the political reformation there, with the exception of the high-quality facilities and the presence of the internet. Even though the scene is very new, it has developed very fast in the past 5 years.
Let’s start with Thar Soe. He came from a democracy activist family that were active at the same time as Aung San Suu Kyi. In early 2000 his fellow bandmate, a hip hop rapper, was arrested by the military, which propelled him to move to London to study music production. In London he was introduced to drum'n'bass, grime, techno, house, and other electronic music popular in Britain. Interested in these genres, Soe imagined what house music might sound like in Burmese style. And so he went to study long-lost Burmese music archives in a library in London. He returned to Myanmar in 2005 and started a new project that mixed house, traditional music, and rap. The result is similar to Indonesian ‘90s funkot, but his work has more critical content.
Thar Soe’s albums became big hits and he performed in many big festivals, especially at a cultural ceremony known as the Water Festival, called »Thingyan.« He quit making music and performing in 2015 after he had problems with the government relating to censorship and restrictions – that is, both with members of the past military regime and with the new democratic government representatives. He also claimed that even though he became a mainstream success, he didn’t earn much money; because of the complexity of the music he produces, he needs a lot of time and effort to produce it. Another issue that he was faced with is the protection of music rights, and copyright infringement; most of his successful songs are bootleg versions of Western music. There is no clear way of dealing with concepts like the remix or cover song, as currently there is no consensus around the rules of remix and sampling culture. Myanmar has an updated (from 1914) Copyright Law that was enacted in May 2019, but full enforcement of the law is still in the works.
Thar Soe told us that he went to Bali and Yogyakarta a few years ago for a music event (he doesn't remember which year, what event, and whom he met). Wok wondered if he might have met Yogyakarta-based world music maestro Djaduk Ferianto. Who knows? He thinks that his music could be a big hit in Indonesia, as he hears similarities with House Dangdut. Yeah!
Thxa Soe performing his most popular song »Nar Pan« San from the album Yaw Chin Yaw Ma Yaw Chin Nay.
As we also wanted to know something of the mainstream music industry in Myanmar, Wai-Yan introduced us to his friend Steph Koko, who runs a big digital music company, Legacy Music Network. They distribute music of all genres to major music network platforms. Through Steph we learn about Myanmar’s music industry. She is struggling to not work with ›illegal‹ cover songs, though this is becoming less of an issue nowadays as indie musicians who make original work are becoming more popular. This trend is similar to what Ito expressed to us earlier, at GYS Studio. Both Steph and Ito were curious when we told them about Creative Commons digital licensing, which provides a way for all of us to learn about copyright issues and find methods with which to deal navigate copyright in this internet era.
The name Darko rang in our minds since the beginning of our research. We finally met Darko, who is also part of one of the most popular indie acts, Side Effect, at his office, Turning Tables. Side Effect kicked-off in early 2000 as a punk band and gradually changed their direction to indie rock. In 2009 he started an experimental music project called Burmélange with his fellow drummer Tser Htoo. This project might be the first experimental music initiative in the country.
As a progressive artist who wanted to build an alternative culture movement, Darko set up a cultural organization named Turning Tables to help activate his big ideas. This non-profit organization empowers youth in music and film. It is active in improving democratic ideas (free speech, unity in religion/ethnic diversity, equality, critical thinking) and contemporary culture within young people. It organises a big annual music festival, Voice Of The Youth, and is also a home for WOMYN, a female artist collective who organise the WOMYN NOW performance art show. Since their founding, Noise In Yangon support Turning Tables by organising a monthly experimental gig Unrest in the space.
We also learned about another important artist-run group/movement named Jam It!, which comes from an older generation. Similar to Turning Tables, this group started as a small movement for underground music and street art and became the most active indie label releasing diverse styles of music from indiepop, hip-hop, to hardcore/punk. They have been working with Myanmar’s first film festival, Wathann Film Festival, and the Yangon Street Art Festival, which has become widely popular throughout the country. It’s a pity that we did not manage to meet them.
One interesting connection we found is that most of the young artists we met studied music at Gitameit, a private music school that we mentioned earlier. Htet, Slyne, Darko, and Thar Soe all went to this school to study music, attend workshops or hangout. Their interest in jazz was born there, as the school also teaches ›free‹ forms of music. Gitamieit is considered to be the first private music school in Yangon, and was founded by well-respected composers/ethnomusicologists Ne Myo Aung and Htun Htun. As their graduate students are now initiating a new independent music movement, Gitameit and its founders support them by working closely with them in educational projects and by giving access to Gitameit’s concert space for experimental music.
As a contrast to Turning Tables and Jam It!, which work on a larger scale, we met a DIY punk collective called Rebel, led by Kyaw Kyaw. He is one of the music pioneers in Myanmar. His band, Rebel Riot, has performed many times in Southeast Asia and gained international exposure for Kyaw Kyaw’s stance against fascism within Buddhist practice. Together. with his colleagues, Kyaw Kyaw set up an info house/co-operative promoting DIY culture, collectivism, initiatives such as »food not bomb« or »book not bomb,« and also organizing street gigs and public workshops with kids. We only spent an hour together, but left with the feeling that in order to build a strong emerging scene, we need to work collectively and freely share critical ideas and thoughts.
Kyaw Kyaw appearing in Myanmar: An Unholy Alliance a film by Fatima Lianes (Aljazeera), where we also see a glimpse of Voice of The Youth Music Festival led by Darko.
Another place that supports the underground music scene is a contemporary art gallery named MYANM/ART, run by Nathalie Johnston. This new space is located in a shopping centre newly-built within a very vibrant and urban area of the city. In the past five years, MYANM/ART have presented sound art and experimental music in the gallery. Indonesian artists Indra Menus and Julian Abraham Togar were invited to perform there in 2018. The gallery also hosted Berlin-based experimental sound explorer Cedric Fermont, and musician Ignaz Schick during their visits to the country.
What about the electronic music or club scene? The current physical distancing measures almost cause us to miss the party scene. Thanks to Wai-Yan, we managed to meet a small club music scene before we had to go back home. Wai-Yan introduced us to electronic music group Bouhinga by bringing us to his hostel’s rooftop, where his crew usually hang out. They are in their early twenties and have mostly studied abroad in the US, Europe, UK, and Singapore. They played some of their music to us – most of them make synth pop, ambient music, post rock-ish tracks, and techno. A guy called Dasshatha, who has so far only maked 2 tracks that stand out as being quite different from what we’ve heard on our trip so far. His works are very intense and aggressive. A small club called Level 2 is their regular spot for this group of friends to perform and throw techno parties. Their community seems very small but has strong energy and desire to make the scene grow.
OU J is a young electronic producer from Yangon, Myanmar. This noisy hardcore single was created in collaboration with rapper/vocalist Dassatha. Both of them represent Myanmar’s new generation of contemporary club music.
By the end of our trip, Wok was able to safely return to Indonesia. Joee rebooked several cancelled flights and eventually had to stay in Yangon while waiting for an opportunity to go back to the Philippines. Yangon was one of the last countries to detect COVID-19 within its borders, and eventually it went into hard lockdown. People were encouraged to stay home as a way to prevent potentially over-burdening Yangon’s hospital system if an outbreak occurred.
Luckily, GYS Studio was able to host Joee for her prolonged stay. This provided a venue for small collaborations in the midst of the pandemic. In the studio, Joee met the four-piece metal band Blood of Century who were there as artists in residence to write and record their second studio album. Energetic, productive, and a crowd favorite, the band members come from different backgrounds. They are led by Deno Lin, an active member of Walk Entertainment, a production outfit in Yangon that organises music events and workshops mostly focused on the metal scene. Joee was able to shoot and edit a music video with the band, and the video will soon be released along with their new album.
Joee also had the opportunity to record live sessions with Noise in Yangon members Musica Htet, Slyne, Pinky Htut, and Ito. One of their collaborative tracks was contributed to a Philippine Independence Day celebration anthology called MAÑANITA. Mañanita is a term used to describe an intimate birthday party that starts with a serenade to awaken the birthday celebrant. Not a lot of people knew the word until it was used by the Philippine police chief as an excuse for a large birthday celebration during lockdown. This sound/music compilation was recorded and assembled by Filipino artists and their friends in the locations where they were stuck during the pandemic. It’s not a birthday party. It's also not a protest. It's a cacerolazo of materials recorded or assembled by Filipino artists in the locations they were stuck in during the past few months – from Yangon to Lapu-Lapu. Not all had the privilege of being home. And not all count being home a privilege. The project was initiated by Manila-based artist collective Green Papaya Art Projects and released by Pawns Records on June 12, 2020.
Joee was also able to take part in a short one-on-one workshop with Myo Min Than, a traditional musician that plays the Hne (a type of oboe). It gave Joee a good introduction to the very interesting and rich traditional music of Myanmar. It can be described as melodic, and composed with a unique combination of harmony and melodic patterns formed from a traditional scale that allows for improvisation upon mastery of its framework.
Myanmar traditional music Overture to a dance ceremony. The Hne is prominently heard above the percussion.
From what we learned in our limited time and movement during the pandemic in Yangon, experimental music scenes in Southeast Asia find new modes of artistic expression and sonic directions thanks to the local characteristics and challenges of each locality, and that these sonic identities can be strengthened as we learn from each other. We share a lot of similarities, but nation-state politics inflate our differences and lack of ability to strengthen infrastructure and social connections.
Joee managed to fly back to Manila at the end of June 2020, and now our journey really begins. All of this new experience and knowledge from our trip has been discussed with the Nusasonic team and with our new friends and colleagues from Yangon. We hope that our dialogue will continue and eventually take shape as a kind of co-curated lab format, once travel restrictions ease and the pandemic is more under control. Such a lab format would include a series of talks, workshops, the presentation of artistic projects, and performances both by local and international artists, and with the collaboration of cultural experts in Yangon. Let’s hope this uncertain time of the pandemic will end soon, so that we can meet again in Yangon’s downtown tea shop. Meanwhile, we invite you to listen to this fine selection of Burmese music, especially selected by Musica Htet of Noise In Yangon.
01. Chants of Red - Caguss aka Ito
02. Reincarnation of the One - Ivory Sammy
03. Upward Funeral - Heft
04. Leave that Orange on My Bed - Crazy Eel Society aka Slyne Nom
05. Heritage Circle - Ne Myo Aung, Aung Pyae Sone & Musica Htet