This post first appeared on MOG, February 11, 2008.
I recently returned from Asia, including two weeks in Myanmar (which I loved, despite the political context), where, as is my habit, I tried to track down some local music. I was invited to a punk show at a shopping mall by some enthusiastic male students from an English class I randomly led for a couple of mornings; but, as it turns out, it was a day or two before Independence Day, and the authorities were not likely to let the show take place. I skipped it. On the other hand, I did attend the most bizarre New Year's Eve party of my short life; imagine: a high-class hotel; reserved, numbered tables; an all-you-can-eat buffet; unlimited drinks; a rowdy crowd (mostly from Singapore and other parts of the Malay Peninsula, not to mention lots of Thai and Chinese, plus some South Asians from the RoI, and a pair of fat tourists, probably Germans); an emcee who can only be described as a pastiche of Chris Tucker's character in "The Fifth Element"; crowd participation (couples tug-of-war, female wrestling, an endless raffle (I won two nights in a luxury hotel in the Shan state, close to the Golden Triangle, that I couldn't use because they expired, well, a couple of weeks ago)); the weirdest dance thing I've ever seen, complete with midget and scrawny, overdriven Asian belly dancer; and a dozen or more live music performances.--All tied together by the theme of this particular New Year's Eve bash: The Gladiator (I shit you not).
The music ran the entire pop gamut, from covers of midwestern bar jukebox classics like Kenny Rodgers to odd, punky, Avril Lavigne (I think) type stuff (with some rapping thrown in, heh). The English-language hits sung in Burmese were by far the most interesting. The setup was two bands, each of which played along with the many individual vocalists and pairs of vocalists, who would all dutifully present their sheet music to the band before turning to the audience, mic in hand. One thing I really enjoyed: no vocalist could sing more than a few bars before audience members would begin streaming to the stage to pin flowers in their hair and to give them helium balloons to hold (picture, if you will, a long-haired rocker guy, with fingerless gloves, studded denim jacket, daintily holding a pink balloon). Some vocalists finished their performance completely weighted down by the outpourings of the audience -- something like putting dollar bills in the g-string of a stripper, only G-rated. The smoke machine was in heavy, heavy use. I couldn't understand the performers' names, but some of them seemed to be famous, at least in Yangon. The situation of a single band playing with multiple vocalists is more or less the norm, from what I can tell.
Myanmar's biggest band (for a decade now), Iron Cross, is a hard rock outfit with several singers. I bought two Iron Cross disks on a shopping trip with a student from the English class I mentioned. They are, to wit, Lay Phyu's "Kha Na Layy Myarr" and Myo Gyi's "Nate Sa Du Wa," and their schizophrenic trajectories, from almost Pantera-like heaviness to Hong Kong film soundtrack sappiness, is apparently completely unsurprising. I've actually really begun to enjoy all of the songs, though, even the cheesiest of them, but the standout is Lay Phyu's amazing "Ma Mayt Pyit Net" (yes, even with the string section).
I also picked up some tapes on the street that I hope to digitize soon, the first of some traditional music (which I don't expect to differ radically from the Burmese folk music available through the totally amazing Sublime Frequencies), the second, "Emperor Oasis," by a singer who looks kind of like a Burmese Sonny Crockett (that promises to be fun: though the jacket is nicely printed, the tape itself is a regular old 60-minute unit you could pick up in a drugstore (or maybe not, anymore)).
My big purchase, though, is hiphop heartthrob Sai Sai's "Happy Sai Sai Birthday" album, a recording of a show Sai Sai played on, yes, his birthday (the closer is the audience singing happy birthday to him). Much of the music sounds vaguely like something you've already heard (scraps of Eminem, what have you), but the Burmese rapping is -- pardon the expression -- totally awesome, particularly the ghetto superstar (re)remix "Chit Thu Tan Ta Tha Chin" feat. Kaung Myat (of "My Name Is Kaung Myat" fame) and Nge Nge. Sai Sai's website is http://www.saisaionline.com.
All of this music was purchased on the recommendation of one student I spent some time with while in Yangon. I asked him to take me record shopping, and it was his help that resulted in me getting to hear the disks before buying them (I mean, in the first place, he took me to the right store). Thankfully my wife was traveling with her laptop, and I was able to return the favor, loading him up with music that is completely unknown in Yangon (Pixies, El-P, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Blonde Redhead, and so on). He wrote me an email a couple of weeks ago to say that he really likes everything I gave him.