JamIt!: Giving Myanmar musicians a stage

It’s 7pm on a hot, humid summer night in Yangon at a faded bowling alley on the outskirts of town. Out in the parking lot (a loose term as it’s overgrown with grass and weeds) gather forty Burmese youth dressed in everything from short skirts and heels to tight black ripped jeans with punk-inspired t-shirts. Inside, the tireless owner is scrambling to get some air-conditioning units kickstarted and bands are milling about with lukewarm beers. The doors open, the fans pay USD3 to enter, and the music kicks off. Eight bands play sets of 20-45 minutes each and the styles
could not be more varied, from a Portishead-inspired duo to a three-piece hip hop act with plenty of rock in between.

Welcome to JamIt!, a year-old project started by musicians Eaiddhi and Ye Ngwe Soe to provide opportunities for local unsigned, underground bands to play live. The concept was inspired by days when the two friends, in their younger days, would sit out on the street at night and strum their guitars with friends — but this time one notch up by choosing a more public location and inviting friends.

As Eaiddhi tells us, “We got this idea just to perform in public places like Kan Daw Gyi park with our acoustic guitars and invite some friends. It’s more like a party. Just like the old times when we were young playing guitars in the streets and that’s what all the young Myanmar people do.”

Since that first gathering a year ago, JamIt! has quickly grown from its humble roots. The first show drew just twenty fans but recently shows are drawing a crowd of around 300. The frequency of the shows has increased and the variety of acts is growing. Myanmar fans are taking note and grateful for the opportunities that JamIt! is creating.

One fan, Py Soe, stated that, “There are many underground bands in Myanmar… and I think they should get the chance to play to an audience. JamIt! can give them what they want.”

The challenges of organising concerts are immense: there are few venues in Yangon willing to host live bands, power supplies are irregular, sound equipment is expensive, sponsorship is virtually impossible to come by and getting the word out to new potential fans is tough. Yet Eaiddhi and Ye Ngwe Soe power on and the hard work is certainly paying off. One cannot help but be impressed with the quality of what they are putting together.

When asked about what it takes to stay motivated, Eaiddhi replies: “Despite the frustrations, I love doing it and I really enjoy it. Me and Ye Ngwe Soe always talk about this: when we’re growing old, we still don’t want to go and hear this same old shit. There’s gotta be places and bands we can go and see for real, good music. This is part of our dream too. One band can’t create scene, if we are together this is something.”

JamIt! is just one example of the growing push by the younger generation to promote creativity and free expression. The arts scene has taken off and the entertainment sector is liberalising and expanding — compared to three years ago, Yangon’s events calendar has exploded. New multi-purpose spaces such as Pansodan SceneDeitta Gallery and TS-1 are hosting theatre, music and exhibits while organisations such as ‘FAB’, an LGBT events group, and Myanmore, an online portal, are driving the social scene.

Whilst some of the ‘new’ Myanmar projects aim for financial benefits, JamIt! simply wants to promote talented musicians to more fans. They sum it up by saying, “None of these underground bands become rich from playing music. We are not trying to make money but we need money to make music. We hope that if can make more gigs happen, the bands could get more and more fans and it would also be a place to get more albums out.”

By Anne Cruickshanks

Mandalay wants to rock

Across a table littered with beer mugs and whiskey glasses a handful of Mandalay Rock Arms (MRA) members are animatedly discussing their next gig. They talk of set lists and sound equipment, and a debate ensues over whether one of the songs is too mainstream. As the glasses pile up, the conversation gets livelier, and it’s apparent that these guys take their music very seriously.

Unfortunately, not many of Mandalay’s residents do.

In 2007, Mandalay Rock Arms (MRA) was formed in Myanmar’s second-largest city. A group of young Burmese, inspired by pirated CDs brought in from China, started jamming, emulating the strange sounds coming from the Seattle grunge scene — a decade late — and underground rage bands of the late 90s and early 2000s.

Five bands emerged writing original grunge, punk rock and metal songs, and a collaboration was formed in hopes of introducing these new styles to the Myanmar people. Songs were recorded in tiny home studios, live ‘shows’ were performed for friends’ parties and members showed their loyalty by branding themselves with MRA tattoos.

“A few people were interested. But most people were suspicious because we were not traditional in our music, and not in our appearance.”

It sounds like a movie script, right? Next they all go off and get record deals, grace the pages of magazines and make a fortune on their music. But no, this is Myanmar and their story has been far from a fairy tale. Neither their music, nor their looks — the long hair, tattoos, piercings — were well-received. Any of the limited options they had to play live became even more limited. As Glenn from the band Innocent put it, “A few people were interested. But most people were suspicious because we were not traditional in our music, and not in our appearance.”

Despite these setbacks, in the past five years Mandalay Rock Arms has grown to ten bands, with several other artists collaborating with them in writing and recording new music. Step by step they are making a name for themselves, having recently been invited to Yangon to participate in a new monthly indie series called JamIt. They found Yangon music lovers to be much more open-minded to new sounds than those of Mandalay. As Hkawng Dau Jumwu laments, in Mandalay, “We (MRA) are all each other’s fans — I play, they listen, they play, I listen.”

Money is not a motivating factor. How could it be when albums tend to sell for USD 2 in the stores and about USD 0.30 on the streets? Most members of MRA hold down day jobs — selling mobile phones, working in retail shops, or proper desk jobs.

“All of these bands once had a hit or two pumped over radio waves in the early 2000s — they enticed the upper-class Burmese but left the real music lovers shaking their heads at their undeserved popularity.”

But it’s their collective energy that keeps them going. As in many Southeast Asian countries, Mandalay’s alternative bands rely on each other to lend support, work together on projects and jointly promote their music. And as a group, MRA is now getting more support and praise from Myanmar’s popular rock bands. The talent is clearly there, but the commercial sector continues to turn a deaf ear on the situation.

“The radio and production companies continue to pump out commercial pop, rap and cover songs,” says Eugene, lead vocalist of Skunx. “The producers, event organisers and bands — their actions are totally fan-based and they play whatever will win them fans and keep their friends in the industry happy.”

Case in point: last year saw shows by Michael Learns to Rock, Air Supply and Jason Mraz (as part of a promotion to stop sex trafficking) come to Yangon — the only three international acts to grace the stages of Myanmar in years. As if it could not get any worse, an ABBA Tribute band is being flown in for a show next month. All of these bands once had a hit or two pumped over radio waves in the early 2000s — they enticed the upper-class Burmese but left the real music lovers shaking their heads at their undeserved popularity.

“Songs were recorded in tiny home studios, live ‘shows’ were performed for friends’ parties and members showed their loyalty by branding themselves with MRA tattoos.”

So back to this gig they are so excited about — is this the start of the fairy tale ending? At the time of writing, MRA had secured a skate park for a gig at the end of November. Permissions are in place, which is a huge accomplishment — and one that was hard-earned with numerous meetings, shaking of hands, and perhaps a few sly bottles of Johnnie Walker thrown in on the side.

The venue is a skate park and even that may be a loose term — it’s more of an open-air roller-skating rink frequented by teenage couples on weeknights and middle-class families on weekends. Not really a place where you would imagine to find hard rock and metal bands playing. But it’s a venue and dammit, MRA is going to rock.

There are big things to come from these guys. That fairy tale ending will happen one of these days… it’s only a matter of time.

By Anne Cruickshanks

Check out some of MRA’s tunes here.

Yangon calling: Bloodsugar Politik has something to say

It’s not unusual for bands to change their style or set up a side project to experiment with new styles — except in Myanmar. Myanmar is a country of rich traditions and where, despite the recent political developments, changing opinions or attitudes takes its sweet, precious time. The music scene is no different. Fans latch on to an artist or band and expect to hear the same style album after album. Myanmar music fans are fiercely loyal yet any change in a bands’ style is generally met with a muted response or a scathing review from the media.

But one group has taken the leap and the result is one of Myanmar’s most dynamic, talented and energetic bands. Meet Bloodsugar Politik: three friends who have been playing together since 1997 under the moniker Big Bag. One of the most popular bands of the last decade, Big Bag’s seminal album TelePunk placed them firmly among the top ranks of Myanmar’s music scene. Yet as their sound started to mature and evolve, their fans continued to demand the same old sound. Not one to succumb to outside pressures, lead singer and guitarist Kyar Pauk established Bloodsugar Politik.

Their first album, One Second Sentence, was released in June 2012 with little fan fare. The album infused various styles and rich, English lyrics peppered with curse words and subtle commentary on Myanmar society. A few shows followed at bars around Yangon with a mixed crowd of Big Bag fans, Burmese rockers, and a few expats. Often at the start, there would be quizzical looks on the faces of audience members leading the band members to think that ‘perhaps this is just too much’ for the Myanmar music scene. But inevitably, feet would start tapping, heads would start nodding, and the audience would gravitate closer to the stage. That’s the power of good music and that’s exactly what Bloodsugar Politik wants to achieve.

Other Sounds sat down and talked with Pauk about the band, the Myanmar music scene, and what is in store for the future.

The Myanmar media often labels Bloodsugar Politik (BSP) — and often Big Bag as well — as ‘punk’ but this does not seem apt. How would you describe the music of BSP?
We (Big Bag) started as a Green Day and Offspring cover band back in ’99/’00, that might be the reason. And the early tracks of Big Bag included a lot of the pop-punk style, I guess they have not forgotten that. I think of Bloodsugar Politik as an alternative rock band with a little punk/grange influence. But basically, we do not want to label our music — we just wanna play some rock n’ roll.

The versatility of the band is one of its most impressive aspects. Not only can you jump between various genres and styles, but each member of your band can play a wide range of instruments. Do you think this contributes to your ongoing innovation?
Yes, the fact that all three of us can play many instruments apart from our majors helps us to experiment with new styles. We can understand each other more easily because we understand the instruments the others are playing. It leaves us with fewer boundaries. One member can clearly describe what he wants from others (by picking up their instrument) — it’s like we are talking the same musical language.

“We need more open-minded organizers and an audience who can appreciate new music and new bands. Then we need more venues with affordable prices.”

Bloodsugar Politk’s live shows are highly energetic and it’s often said that the band is better live than on record. What are your thoughts on that?
We try to play our songs differently on stage. We don’t take what we’ve recorded too seriously, and I mostly don’t remember what I played in the studios. So every time we play on stage, it seems new to me and I mostly make up some random stuff as we go. Sometimes we’re good, sometimes we fuck up.

That is really unusual in the Myanmar music scene. How do your fans react?
Our fans totally understand what we are capable of and what we aren’t. They know very well that we are no better than them. To them, we are just three normal dudes doing what we can. We don’t necessarily need to be musical heroes or gods, so we make mistakes and play random stuff from time to time.

Why did you chose to sing in English with Bloodsugar Politik? 
To reach wider range of audience is obviously one reason. And I like writing in English for a change, and playing with words. Sometimes, English is more useful to translate some of my feelings. I would never be able to write a song like ‘Free Disease’ or ‘Bleed Me’ in Burmese.

Your band name features the word ‘politik’ and several of your songs have political undertones or strong statements about morals. Do you try to use your music to make a political statement?
Not at all. I have no power to change anything politically, but I can still mock those people or systems I don’t like. And I did. I have many ‘inside jokes’ about the Burmese political scene and I wrote some songs about them. But I’d never expect any change or progress just because of my songs. I wrote them just to make a shout out, to share it with people who feel the same way as I do. It’s just a way to scratch the itch when you can’t completely cure the itch.

“…we do not want to label our music — we just wanna play some rock n’ roll.”

Bloodsugar Politik played in Hanoi, Vietnam at the ASEAN: Art is Work festival in May 2013. How was that experience?
That gig was the most amazing experience in our lives. The crowd had never heard of us before yet they seemed to enjoy our music so much. The organizers were so friendly and we had a chance to hang out with other bands from ASEAN countries. I can’t thank the organisers enough for this kind of opportunity — we could not have imagined it a few years ago.

Vietnam’s music scene ten years ago is reminiscent of Myanmar’s present day scene. What do you think it would take to help promote and develop a stronger scene — particularly with regards to live music?
We need more open-minded organizers and an audience who can appreciate new music and new bands. Then we need more venues with affordable prices. Right now, we don’t have many venues, and the existing ones are very expensive. Plus, nobody wants to actually pay to see a new band.

Personally, I don’t know how to fix this situation. We need less greedy organizers and venue owners, and more fans who wants new bands. But the Burmese music scene has gotten better and better since around 2011. We now have — since early 2013 — monthly underground gigs like JamIt. They do not make any money but it gives us a chance to play live and be heard.

What new bands in the local music scene these days excite you?
There is so little coming out that is new and good, it’s all primarily hip-hop and K-pop style. But there’s a new rock band from Mandalay called Skunkz — I’m literally waiting to listen to their album. I saw them live twice. They are totally awesome.

Your last album, One Second Sentence, was released in mid-2012. Any plans for another studio record?
We are planning to record Bloodsugar Politik’s next EP in the coming summer. It’s delayed because right now we are busy with Big Bag’s gigs. We have named that EP Yellow on the Outside. We wrote seven songs already and have recorded two of them.

By Anne Cruickshanks

To check out Bloodsugar Politik, find them on FacebookiTunesSoundCloud… or jamming in the studio in Yangon.