Burmese pop music is heavily influenced by Thai pop music and Indian Bollywood music. There are few links or melodical influences to traditional Burmese vocal music. Locally-produced pop songs—including that which is influenced by Thai pop music and Indian Bollywood music—are sung almost exclusively in Burmese, if for no other that military regime might try to censor foreign language lyrics it can’t understand. In recent years Korean pop and hip-hop have become popular among Myanmar’s young people.

Western music gained much popularity in Burma starting from the 1930s. Despite government intervention at times, especially during the Socialist era, popular Burmese music has become considerably influenced by Western music, which consists of popular Western songs rendered in Burmese and pop music similar to other Asian pop tunes. Classical music was also introduced during the British occupation. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In the 1970s, jazz artists Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Charlie Byrd visited Burma under U.S. government sponsorship in the 1970s, playing at small venues. In the early 1980s a performing monk released one of Burma's all time best selling cassette tapes—a collection of sermons, songs, homilies and jokes. The monk's fame apparently was too much for some people to take, he was murdered by five men who tied him to a tree and ran him over with a jeep.

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in The Music of Southeast Asia: “Sometimes, famous Western pop artists (like Madonna) get re-interpreted by Burmese vocalists and dancers. In festive occasions, all modern acts get supported by at least four big walls of loudspeakers, turning up the sound as loud as possible, and somehow most Burmese audiences are more than used to a very distorted sound. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia]

Repression of Pop Music by Myanmar’s Military Regime

Pop music emerged in the 1970s and was banned by state-run radio stations. However, many artists circumvented this censorship by producing albums in private studios and releasing them in music production shops. During the Socialist era, musicians and artists were subject to censorship by the Press Scrutiny Board and Central Registration Board, as well as laws like the State Protection Law. +

During the 8888 Uprising, restrictions loosened and many artists began writing music with themes of freedom and democracy. However, after the State Law and Order Restoration Council usurped power in 1988, the Press Scrutiny Board was reformed to censor specific political and social issues, including poverty, the sex trade, democracy and human rights. The Myanmar Music Asiayon (MMA) was established by the SLORC to further censor Burmese-produced music. +

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times: “As a musician, Zayar Thaw was familiar with the old system, under which lyrics, demo tapes, finished recordings and even cover art had to be submitted to the authorities for approval. His group, Acid, did its best to smuggle in political messages and frequently these were banned.Often the censorship was absurd. "In the 90s we wrote a song which referred to a rose," Zayar Thaw said. "At the time, this was the code word that the Special Branch were using to refer to The Lady. But we didn't know this - we were just singing about a rose. They cut it anyway."In other cases, the censors were right to be suspicious. The singer and songwriter Saung Oo Hlaing had a hit with a number called Song to Mother. "It's a song about The Lady, during her days under house arrest," he said. "The censors let it go because they thought it was about my mother." [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, January 30, 2012]

New Sounds Make Their Way to Myanmar Along with Political Reforms

In July 2012, the Thai newspaper The Nation reported: “The Myanmar bandwagon is filling up fast as Westerners rush in with offers to buy and products to sell...In return, the foreigners are sending in old-time British pop star Engelbert Humperdinck to Yangon, crooning his hits of the 1960s. Humperdinck's detractors might see this as a reinstatement of cruel sanctions, but he ought to sell out in a city keen to see what it's been missing. More importantly, the West wants to see what it's been missing, beyond the occasional jingles of the singing-dancing group Me N Ma Girls.[Source: Asia News Network (The Nation), July 10 2012]

“By all accounts, the censors have taken the padlocks off the country's riskier independent musicians, allowing them to express themselves more openly than ever. Myanmar's music underground is now visible on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. One such band, Side Effect, has its debut album "Rainy Night Dreams", out this year, in the iTunes store and at Amazon and Spotify. The band was invited to perform at the Hello Asean music festival in Bali, Indonesia, last November - its first trip outside the homeland and a good chance for its members to compare indie credentials with groups from across Southeast Asia.

“The band has no record label to lean on for support and in fact has a modest global reputation for begging for donations online. One such appeal, carried on IndieGoGo.com, said they needed US$5,999 (190,000 baht), "which sounds like a lot, but unfortunately the exchange rate is really shitty right now and our needs add up pretty fast". Among the "needs" listed were fresh gigs ("we might have the opportunity to open for the Handsome Furs on their upcoming Asia tour"), and cash for pressing and distributing the first album and "a drum set for Tser Htoo".

“Canadian band Handsome Furs played in Yangon in 2010 and gave Side Effect a hearty endorsement. Its song "Serve the People", addressing Myanmar and dedicated to Side Effect, was adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Donations did come in for Side Effect via PayPal, but ironically they couldn't translate them into cash because of the sanctions, which in part barred US firms from doing any business in Myanmar. IndieGoGo.com also felt compelled to shut down its fund-raising for Side Effect because of the sanctions.”

“Music that isn't cheerful mainstream pop remains a hard sell in Myanmar, says Darko. "People say you can't do this because first you have to do the kind of music that everyone loves. Once they become your fans, then you can do whatever you want." The few fans that the band does have gather at Darko's studio to hear them perform. Not even Yangon, the country's biggest city and former capital, has many live concerts, and a Side Effect gig on a proper stage would be an absolute rarity. Nor can any Myanmarese indie bands survive on ticket or album sales. Darko earns a living editing and producing for other musicians. He is nevertheless optimistic that their patience will soon pay dividends. "We hope to have a concert in Myanmar soon as well as getting on more stages abroad in the future."

Me N Ma Girls—Myanmar’s First All-Girl Pop Act

Yip Wau Yee wrote in the Strait Times: “Some of their countrymen call them plain ugly. Others say they are completely unrecognisable, forgettable even, when they are apart from the group. Despite such disparaging comments, the five-member girl band from Myanmar, Me N Ma Girls, are completely unfazed. In fluent English, Ah Moon, 24, easily the spunkiest and most gregarious member of the group, says: "People in Myanmar have told us that our music is quite good, but that we’re not pretty enough to be in a girl band. "Their idea of a girl group is more like the K-pop groups—you know, girls who are fair-skinned and look perfect. "But we don’t care. K-pop girls all look the same and we’re not interested in that. All five of us look very different and we have different personalities, so we’re not going to change anything." Plastic surgery has "never" crossed their minds, they say. [Source: Yip Wau Yee, Strait Times, August 10, 2012]

“Plastic surgery has "never" crossed their minds, they say. Ah Moon adds fiercely: "We just want to make music and do what we love and get on stage and sing and dance. Hopefully, we’ll win over our audience with the music." Aside from Ah Moon, the other members of the group are Htike Htike, Wai Hnin, Kimmy and Cha Cha, aged between 21 and 24. They are all graduates from colleges in Myanmar, in subjects such as Russian, computer science and chemistry. None is interested in using her degree, however. Their parents—whose occupations range from street food sellers to a church minister—are "very supportive" of their music career after harbouring initial misgivings about it. Wai Hnin says: "Our parents just want us to be happy. As long as we are not doing anything bad, they will be okay. They have seen some of our shows too, so that is nice."

“They have at least three show engagements a month for events such as company dinner parties and charity shows. Other times, they are busy with rehearsals and music recordings. They released one album late last year and hope to put out a second one in the coming months. The group’s songs are mostly sung in Burmese, with smatterings of English words and phrases. Me N Ma Girls—their name is a homophone for Myanmar girls—was formed two years ago under the guidance of Myanmar-based Australian dancer Nicole May, who selected the five girls from more than 120 audition candidates.

“They are confident, chatty women who go against the typical stereotype of a naive Burmese girl. All are dating except Kimmy. Though Ah Moon has the strongest grasp of spoken English—she even speaks with a slight American twang— the rest can converse in it relatively well. The kind of music they listened to growing up might have something to do with their spoken English ability. Ah Moon says: "We listened to Western music such as Britney Spears. We listened to a lot of Western pop, R&B and rock. Of course, we also had a lot of ‘copy tracks’ around. These are Burmese versions of Western songs. These days, K-pop has also become very popular. "Foreigners think that everyone in Myanmar is very poor, uneducated and does not know anything, but it’s not true."

“The group’s recent trip to Singapore is only their second overseas outing. Late last year, they travelled to Bangkok, Thailand, where they filmed a music video for their song "Liar!". Other than the different food and culture, there is one thing in particular that both trips have gotten them excited about: the fashion. Wai Hnin, 23, says: "The girls can wear anything they want and I think everyone looks so fashionable. It’s very ‘freestyle’, which is different from Myanmar."

“In comparison, the group says they have to be more cautious about their clothing choices. Htike Htike, 24, says: "We won’t wear anything too low-cut or skirts that are too short. And we will never wear bikinis. It’s just not part of our culture." Ah Moon adds: "When I go out with the group, I might wear a pair of shorts. But if I’m at home with my grandfather, I will put on a pair of jeans."

“The group is eager to travel to more places around the world should they get the chance. Htike Htike says: "Hopefully, we’ll get to travel to many more countries around the world. There is a lot of foreign media who have written about us, so people may have heard of us over there, but they do not actually know our music. "We would rather go to those places and perform, so that we can spread our music. We really want to be able to bring a bit of Myanmar to the other parts of the world."

Rock Music in Myanmar

Rock music, called stereo in Burmese has been a popular form of music since the 1980s, having been introduced in the 1960s. During this period, the arrival of various bands including the influential Thabawa Yinthwenge (The Wild Ones), which included lead singer Sai Htee Saing, an ethnic Shan in 1973, paved the way for ethnic minority musicians to gain visibility in the Burmese music industry. Sai Kham Leik is a well known composer. Popular musicians from the late 1980s and 90s including Zaw Win Htut and Sai Htee Saing have produced propaganda albums written by military officers such as Mya Than San. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In recent year's punk has been growing in popularity in Burma, just like many other southeast Asian nations. Modelling many 70s and 80s classic Western punk bands, Burmese punk shows a musical defiance that has not been seen before in Burma. In the German made 2012 documentary film "Yangon Calling" over a period of six weeks film-makers Alexander Dluzak and Carsten Piefke secretly filmed, as they documented the Burmese punks life, documenting everything from meeting friends and family, visiting rehearsals and filming secret concerts. +

Punk in Myanmar

Jonathan DeHart wrote in The Diplomat: “Nowhere is punk more vital today than Burma. A number of recent reports have documented the “Burma Wave” and the fascinating process of Burma’s punk community coming out from the underground, where it remained in hiding during decades of rule by a ruthless military junta. The New Yorker gives a glimpse of a collection of black and white photographs, taken by Istanbul-born photographer Pari Dukovic, revealing Burmese youth kitted out in full punk attire, who have taken more openly to Yangon’s streets since the nation’s iron-fisted military dictatorship officially faded from view in 2011. [Source: Jonathan DeHart, The Diplomat, April 16, 2013]

But dig a bit deeper and you’ll discover powerful socio-political undercurrents flowing beneath these outermost manifestations of punk in Burma today. A comparison with the punk that surfaced in 1970s New York highlights the social and political import of punkdom’s rise in Burma. As written in the introduction to Dukovic’s photo portfolio, “Punk in nineteen-seventies New York tended to be more concerned with aesthetics than with politics… Often, the ‘establishment’ it railed against was your mom, or your school principal.” By contrast, Dukovic told The New Yorker, “The punks I met (in Burma) were beyond just wearing the fashion—they truly had an ideology and something that they strongly believed in. It’s about what they believe in, rather than how they look, that is the most important thing.”

Of the early days of punk's rise in Burma, Yangon punk Darko who sings in the indie band Side Effect told the South China Morning Post, “You could get thrown into jail over nothing. The police used to pick up the punks and beat them up for no reason, and shave off their hair." In those days, Burmese punks were truly hardcore, using aerosol canisters to color their hair and keeping it spiked even during the country’s New Year Water Festival. “The punks used glue for sticking down leather to stick up their hair,” a punk named Scum added. “You couldn't get that glue out, so after four days of partying at the Water Festival they had to shave their hair off. I didn't do that because I dressed like a punk every day, not just for the festival.”

The level of oppression felt in Burma has inspired strong feelings of dissent. For an example, take a sampling of lyrics penned by a band called The Rebel Riot. As The Guardian notes, the words speak for themselves: “No fear! No indecision!/ Rage against the system of the oppressors!" Or how about: "We are poor, hungry and have no chance/ Human rights don't apply to us/We are victims, victims, victims.”

Even as the government slowly loosens its grip on the country, homegrown punk acts like The Rebel Riot and No U Turn, among many others, still continue to face repression by officialdom, according to German magazine Der Spiegel. When compared to the poppy consumer brand of punk (think Blink 182) that has evolved in the West in recent decades, this raises the question: can authentic punk – or for that matter counterculture in any form – only flourish in oppressive environments?

The lyrics to Culture Shock’s “Urban Rubbish” go: “Every day, everything I see is just so nauseating/ Immoral, corrupted, devastated society/ And we don’t wanna live in a place where everything is declining.” The group’s lead singer Scum is in his 30s. He spent six years in prison after getting arrested for marijuana possession at a concert. The band is from a sub-genre called D-beat crust punk. Ye Ngwe Soe is the lead singer of No U Turn. That band has been around since 2002 but didn’t get a chance to record recoreded its first album until 2009. [Source: The New Yorker ]

Underground Punk and Metalcore Scene in Myanmar

There are many underground rock, punk and metalcore bands such as All Else I Fail, Last Day of Beethoven, Yakkhadeva, Temper Level VIII, Tha Ta Lin Chate, Idiots, Offkeys, etc. The prevalence of Burmese cover songs (particularly from Asia nowadays) has led to the adoption of "copy tune" and "own tune" to describe the origins of a song's melody. New websites that have poped up in recent years such as Myanmar Xbands have given attention to the Burmese punk scene along with other alternative Burmese music. The site has developed into a hub for artists to display their music to a Burmese and international audience for free download. While other Burmese punk bands like pop punk band Side Affect, turned to raising funds on IndeGoGo, to release their first album. The band just managed to raise enough funds to release their album in May 2012, shortly before their efforts fell short to international sanctions. However, other popular Burmese punk bands such as No Uturn or Rebel Riot has turned to self release, releasing their demo’s on popular download sites such as Myspace and Reverb Nation. +

The Nation reported: “Formed in 2004, Side Effect is comprised of singer-guitarist Darko C, guitarist-bassist Jozeff K and drummer-singer Tser Htoo. They call their music "indie/punk rock". For Darko the name Side Effect - suggested by a friend - evokes the way older Burmese people treat the younger generation, imposing rules and limitations. "The art here has to be polite and gentle," he tells The Nation at his Yangon apartment amid beautiful paintings by his wife. "They don't accept the furious side of art." And that rejection is bound to have a "side effect", Darko explains. [Source: Asia News Network (The Nation), July 10 2012]

Darko first heard the growl of punk music on a record by the American grunge specialists Nirvana. "I felt I could play the same way," he says. Soon after that, he felt the genre's full impact while listening the track "Last Night" by the Strokes, another US band. "I stumbled on the music video. That song changed my life. It was completely different to what we'd been listening to. It was like waking up!" A decade ago it was extremely difficult to find music they could relate to. Darko would save up his lunch money to send away for a cassette by a foreign artist and wait a week or more to get it.

“He writes and produces Side Effect's tunes, drawing inspiration from everyday life and the current shifts in Myanmar. "Change" is about the sanctions slammed on Myanmar by the West to try and force reforms. Among the lyrics to "Change": "Sanctions may slow us down, but you will never understand our broken dreams." Also See New Sounds Above.

Rap and Hip Hop in Myanmar

Hip hop and rap emerged in the late 1990s and is now the prevailing genre of music among Burmese youth today. Bands like Iron Cross, Emperor and BigBag are popular among the middle-aged and some groups of youth. There are hip-hop enthusiasts all over Burma with artists such as Ye Lay, Sai Sai, and J-me. [Source: Wikipedia]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “After a few days in Yangon, I flew to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, to see a live performance by J-Me, one of the country’s most popular rap musicians and the star attraction at a promotional event for Now, a fashion and culture magazine. Five hundred young Burmese, many wearing “I Love Now” T-shirts, packed a Mandalay hotel ballroom festooned with yellow bunting and illuminated by strobe lights. At the hotel, a dozen Burmese fashion models ambled down a catwalk before J-Me leapt onto the stage wearing sunglasses and a black leather jacket. The tousle-haired 25-year-old rapped in Burmese about love, sex and ambition. In one song, he described “a young guy in downtown Rangoon” who “wants to be somebody. He’s reading English language magazines, looking inside, pasting the photos on his wall of the heroes he wants to be.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, March 2011 ]

“The son of a half-Irish mother and a Burmese father, J-Me avoids criticizing the regime directly. “I got nothing on my joint that spits against anyone,” the baby-faced rapper told me, falling into hip-hop vernacular. “I’m not lying, I’m real. I rap about self-awareness, partying, going out, spending money, the youth that’s struggling to come up and be successful in the game.” He said his songs reflect the concerns of Myanmar’s younger generation. “Maybe some kids are patriotic, saying, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi is out of jail, let’s go down and see her.’ But mostly they’re thinking about getting out of Burma, going to school abroad.”

“Not every rapper treads as carefully as J-Me. Thxa Soe needles the regime from a recording studio in a dilapidated apartment block in Yangon. “I know you’re lying, I know you’re smiling, but your smile is lying,” he says in one song. In another, titled “Buddha Doesn’t Like Your Behavior,” he warns: “If you behave like that, it’s gonna come back to you one day.” When I caught up with him, he was rehearsing for a Christmas Day concert with J-Me and a dozen other musicians and preparing for another battle with the censors. “I have a history of politics, that’s why they watch me and ban so many things,” the chunky 30-year-old told me.

“Thxa Soe grew up steeped in opposition politics: his father, a member of Suu Kyi’s NLD Party, has been repeatedly jailed for participating in protests and calling for political reform. One uncle fled the country in 2006; a cousin was arrested during student protests in the 1990s and was put in prison for five years. “He was tortured, he has brain damage, and he can’t work,” Thxa Soe said. His musical awakening came in the early 1990s, when a friend in Myanmar’s merchant marine smuggled him cassettes of Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer. Later, his father installed a satellite dish on their roof; Thxa Soe spent hours a day glued to MTV. During his four years as a student at London’s School of Audio Engineering, he says, “I got a feeling about democracy, about freedom of speech.” He cut his first album in 2000 and has tangled with censors ever since. Last year, the government banned all 12 tracks on his live-concert album and an accompanying video that took him a year to produce; officials claimed he showed contempt for “traditional Burmese music” by mixing it up with hip-hop. During a recent trip to New York City, Thxa Soe participated in a benefit concert performed before hundreds of members of the Burmese exile community at a Queens high school. Some of the money raised there went to help HIV/AIDS sufferers in Myanmar.

Zayar Thaw: Myanmar’s Hip-Hop and Political Star

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times: “In a musical genre in which profanity is routine and violence taken for granted, Zayar Thaw is one of the most unconventional hip-hop singers recording today. He never uses bad language, never touches drugs and is more often to be seen in a crisp white shirt than Gucci and diamonds. But, like his American heroes Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, he has been in plenty of trouble with the law and his work has been repeatedly censored - for Zayar Thaw is a star in Burma; a dictatorship where culture and opposition politics go hand in hand and where popular music is a serious business. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, January 30, 2012]

At the age of 31, he has already spent three years in prison for peaceful opposition to the Government. However, a sudden and uncertain thaw has spread through Burma in the past few months, and in April he will stand as a by-election candidate for the National League of Democracy, the party led by the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. The constituency that Zayar Thaw is contesting is in Naypyidaw, the bizarre new capital constructed from scratch six years ago in cleared jungle. It is the seat formerly occupied by President Thein Sein. If the hip-hop singer wins, it will be a significant symbolic victory for the democracy movement,

As a musician, Zayar Thaw was familiar with the old system, under which lyrics, demo tapes, finished recordings and even cover art had to be submitted to the authorities for approval. His group, Acid, did its best to smuggle in political messages and frequently these were banned. Often the censorship was absurd. "In the 90s we wrote a song which referred to a rose," Zayar Thaw said. "At the time, this was the code word that the Special Branch were using to refer to The Lady. But we didn't know this - we were just singing about a rose. They cut it anyway." In other cases, the censors were right to be suspicious. The singer and songwriter Saung Oo Hlaing had a hit with a number called Song to Mother. "It's a song about The Lady, during her days under house arrest," he said. "The censors let it go because they thought it was about my mother."

Acid has contributed but if Zayar Thaw becomes MP for Naypyidaw, it may be his last single. "The Government's changed a little bit, it's true," he said. "But whether they continue or not, we have to go on in our own way. We need to do it ourselves; we can't just wait and see." The NLD has recorded an election fundraising album, with contributions from most of the pop establishment, which has been spared the usual censorship rigmarole.

Jason Mraz Performs Anti-Trafficking Concert in Myanmar

In December 2012, Yadana Htun of Associated Press wrote: “American singer-songwriter Jason Mraz mixed entertainment with education to become the first world-class entertainer in decades to perform in Myanmar, with a concert to raise awareness of human trafficking. Mraz's 2008 hit "I'm Yours" was the finale for Sunday night's concert before a crowd of about 50,000 people at the base of the famous hilltop Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the country's biggest city. Local artists, including a hip-hop singer, also played at the event organized by MTV in cooperation with U.S. and Australian government aid agencies and the anti-slavery organization Walk Free. [Source: Yadana Htun, Associated Press, December 16, 2012 ]

“Myanmar is emerging from decades of isolation under a reformist elected government that took office in 2011. Mraz called his top-billed appearance at the concert a "tremendous honor." "I think the country is, at this time, downloading lots of new information from all around the world," he said. "I've always wanted my music to be here, (for) hope and celebration, peace, love and happiness. And so I'm delighted that my music can be a part of this big download that Myanmar is experiencing right now."

“Organizers said Mraz was the first international artist to perform at an open-air, mass public concert in Myanmar. Jazz artists Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Charlie Byrd visited the country under U.S. government sponsorship in the 1970s, when it was still called Burma, but played at much smaller venues. Many in the crowd queued for two hours before being admitted to the concert site. Yangon native Sann Oo, 31, wearing a white T-shirt with a sketch of Mraz, said he was pleased that Mraz had come and that there would be a broadcast of the event. "His visit can promote the image of Myanmar, because people outside have been seeing the country as an insecure place, and poor," he said. "Now they can see how we look like from the concert. It also opens the potential for more concerts by foreign artists."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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