Burmese Pop Music: Identity in Transition
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Burmese Pop Music: Identity in Transition

By Min Zin SEPTEMBER, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.7

Dominated by cover songs derived from foreign imports, Burmese popular music continues to struggle to find its own voice. In a closed society like Burma, culture is all about preservation and less to do with innovation. Any creative breakthrough produces moral panic, not only in the minds of the powers that be, but also of the majority of folks. In a deep-down analysis, the structural interests of both politics and the market are the most decisive factors in shaping the creative capacity of the society at large. The 30-year-long journey of Burmese pop music can be seen in this light, since it is very much a product of this control culture and is still subject to the restrictive and exploitative political and market structure. It was in the early 1970s that Burmese pop music began to set a tone. But it did not get off to a flying start. "After the military staged a coup in 1962, the regime prohibited all export and import licenses," recalls one Rangoon-based music producer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Since we could not import musical instruments, recording equipment, long-play discs or even music magazines, the Burmese music industry suffered economically as well as technologically." Another unfavorable condition was the emergence of censorship. The regime set up a censorship board for the Burmese Broadcasting Service (BBS) radio music program in the late 1960s. The board set certain criteria for the selection of songs, including vocal quality and lyrics. In most cases, it rejected Western-style compositions. "Accordion" Ohn Kyaw, one of the leading musicians in the early days of Burmese pop music, collected some of his censored songs and produced a reel-to-reel album, giving it the title "Rejected Songs". "It was the beginning of the Burmese pop music industry. After the success of his album, many young musicians who were denied access to the government-radio venue followed his example, which was the best alternative for young musicians," Maung Thit Min, a famous composer and music researcher, explained to The Irrawaddy. A similar album by another rejected singer, Takatho Tun Naung, became very popular among young fans, and his greatest hit, "Mommy, I want to have a girlfriend, please find someone for me," kicked up a row in the cultural environment in the late 1960s. Denunciation of nascent Burmese pop music, especially "cover songs" derived from foreign music, was quite common in the mainstream establishment at that time. The xenophobic ruling generals saw the newly emerging pop music as a social disease imported from foreign countries, threatening Burmese culture and traditions. They often vowed to root out such "un-Burmese" influences from the youth culture. Ironically, however, many popular marching songs honoring the Burmese army were equally foreign, being Burmese renditions of Japanese military songs. These cover songs have been played over and over again on the state-owned radio and TV stations every day since Burma gained independence. Despite attempts by the conservative ruling class to nip Burmese pop music in the bud, however, technological changes worked in favor of the progressive forces. The new sound systems that music producers adopted in 1970s contributed to a better audio quality. When the censor board refused to play their cover songs on the state-owned radio station, young musicians recorded those songs in private studios and distributed them through music production shops. "Those new songs had a unique character, not only in terms of melody and unconventional lyric style, but also in a technological sense. All radio songs were in the mono system, but newly produced cover-song albums were stereo. That’s why Burmese pop music became known as ‘stereo songs’," noted Soe Thein, Burma’s best-known music analyst. Although BBS’s Burmese-language service continued to reject Western-style cover songs, many of the "stereo-song" pioneers had a small window of opportunity to display their talents to a wider audience on the BBS English-service’s weekly half–hour "Local Talent" program, which aired Saturday nights. Artists such as Tony Hundley, Joyce Win, Marie Conway and Jimmy Jack, who sang in English on the "Local Talent" program, later went on to become famous "stereo" singers under their names Bo Bo Han, Nwe Yin Win, Tin Moe Khaing and Lasho Thein Aung. However, the most popular stereo singer in the 1970s was Min Min Latt. "He was ultra-advanced. You can call him the savviest pioneer of Burmese pop music," opines guitarist Myat Thu. "Yes, he only sang cover songs, but he injected a new taste into the sensibility of Burmese music fans." While Burmese pop music made new strides, a number of music bands came out, with hip names like Electronic Machine, Playboy, The ELF, and The King. Local amateur bands also mushroomed. This led to the beginning of outdoor concerts in Burma.

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