Sai Htee Saing: More Than a Shan Songster
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Sai Htee Saing: More Than a Shan Songster



WHEN I heard of the death of Sai Htee Saing, his famous song “Nwe Ok Or” (“The Summer Cuckoo”) immediately echoed in my mind. Many of his fans thought this song best represented the frail-looking ethnic Shan singer whose sweet, simple tenor voice had charmed them for many decades.

He was 58 when he passed away on March 10 in Rangoon General Hospital.

Sai Htee Saing, Shan songwriter and singer. (Photo: SHAN)
Sai Htee Saing’s songs could be heard everywhere—I listened to a group of young men in Rangoon jamming his most popular numbers, a woman at my guesthouse hummed his tunes, a bookshop I visited was playing an old album of his, a VCD of one of his performances was playing on a bus I traveled on. At the remote headquarters of the rebel Shan State Army-South, 1,400 feet up in the mountains, a group of soldiers sang his songs.

In a Rangoon interview, Sai Htee Saing recalled setting out on his career more than 30 years earlier, promoting Shan music at a time when teaching the Shan language was banned in schools.

In public performances, he demonstratively wore traditional Shan costume, referred to himself with self-deprecation as “tao paw thar,” or “hill tribesman,” and sang about the experience of being Shan in a country ruled by the Burman majority. They weren’t obvious protest songs but verses expressing his love for his homeland and describing its natural beauty—the scent of cherry blossom, for instance, captured in a few poetic lines.

He gained national popularity early on after the government-owned Burma Broadcasting Service—now Myanmar Television and Radio Department—began to air his songs in 1969.

Sai Htee Saing, Sai Khamlek and two other musicians formed a band called “The Wild ones.” It became a phenomenonal success in the 1970s and 1980s, during the era of Burma’s late dictator Gen Ne Win.

The band was unique at that time because it composed its own songs, offering a new style of original composition at a time when cover songs were gaining a foothold in Burmese musical culture.  

Although Sai Htee Saing’s compositions were carefully scrutinized by the infamous censorship bureau, the Press Scrutiny Board, he managed to disguise political messages that slipped past the censors. Music critics found references within the lyrics to the struggles of the Shan people.

All that changed after the 1988 uprising, when Sai Htee Saing unaccountably succumbed to the temptations of promoting government ideology. Like other musicians who made the conscious decision to curry favor with the junta, he soon gained special privileges.

His repertoire now included material written by former military propagandist Mya Than San. He headed Burma’s musicians’ union but was accused of neglecting the interests of its members. Soon, Sai Htee Saing’s audience abandoned him.

His old songs are still popular in Burma, however, and his albums continue to sell well. Invitations regularly arrived from expatriate Burmese to perform at Burmese festivals overseas.

When I saw him perform in London at a Shan New Year concert on December 5 last year he was a sick man, but he captivated the audience with an hours-long program of all of his famous songs. They are his legacy and will ensure that the name of Sai Htee Saing lives on in Burmese memory.

The author is a researcher of Shan and Burmese pop music.

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