I did not make any notes in Myanmar. I was too distracted by Yangon’s charming, but often horrifying, beauty. Stains black as mould climb up every building face, a rotting legacy of struggle. In 2010, the country once known as Burma emerged from five decades of military rule. Now, it is bursting with character.
On a sidewalk next to Bo Gyoke Road, a man chops samosas into a soup. Here South and East Asia meet. Who was it that told me the food in Myanmar is terrible? God only knows what they were eating. I almost don’t want to tell you that every meal was better than the next.
“You should go to Shan state,” says KP, lead singer of the Burmese band Big Bag. We’re sitting at dinner in the suburbs and I’ve posed the ultimate of tourist questions — where’s the best food? On the table in front of us is a sort of elaborate hot pot, filled with sticks of questionable meat parts.
KP lifts a tattooed arm to swig his cheap draught beer and passes me a copy of his book, a bedtime story for adults, about a rogue who teaches an uptight town to loosen up with a new drug.
“When you grow up in this kind of country, you have to make fun of everything. You have to make yourself happy,” he says. The 33-year-old musician was born in a time when everything was controlled — even CDs had to be smuggled in and copied to tapes for fans to buy.
KP had to record his first albums on VHS reels, and was limited to singing covers of popular songs — a clever way to circumvent censorship. When he released his first self-made album, called Villain, only three of the 14 songs he sent to the censor board were approved.
“If they thought something was suspicious, they’d call me up and make me explain, [and I’d have to say] no, no, this is about my lover… you have to lie,” he remembers. “But the Burmese language is twisted, and if you twist it enough, you can get away with it.”
The government banned him from playing several times — the longest stint lasting six months. “They took us as their enemies. We can spread a message, and once we say something on stage, it can’t be undone. That’s what they are scared of the most.”
His days of wordplay are over now — the censor board was abolished at the end of 2010, once Myanmar held its first election in 20 years, and it’s become much easier for bands to get permission to play public shows. In fact, I’ve caught KP on a rare two-week vacation. Big Bag is fully booked across Myanmar.
Before we finish dinner, two men approach the table and ask KP for a photograph. At first he jumps, visibly on guard. “You cool?” he asks them. Not everyone is nice, he explains. But these are just fans, and they’ve been listening to his music for nearly 10 years. It was this moment we realised, we were eating fried rice with a Burmese rockstar.
The next night, we got a chance to see one of Yangon’s free rock shows underneath the Hledan bridge — an overpass next to a sparkling shopping mall. A crowd of Burmese kids rocking studded jackets and bright red mohawks gather in the wide concrete space between two busy lanes of traffic to watch their favourite bands — Kultureshock, No U-Turn and Y.A.K.
From the outside, the crowd looks rough, angry, unapproachable; but as I sit and watch, the music starts and their faces brighten. They leap and twirl each other around the concrete, singing along. Green-haired, toothless, tattooed and thrashing, they have massive smiles.
This is Kultureshock’s first album release since lead singer Skum got out of jail in 2009. “We didn’t expect much, but we are really happy,” he says, when I catch him after the show. They’ve completely sold out of the 90 albums they pressed. He invites me to a beer station — the Burmese bia hoi — and once again I find myself at dinner with leaders of the Burmese music scene.
Someone fills a pint for me from the beer tower on the table, and I ask Skum why he thinks his music is important to his fans. “Bands from the US, they have very little issues to speak of,” he replies. “But here, there are too many things to speak of, too many things to fight for, too much injustice... we’ve got real issues.”
I probably didn’t have to ask that question; the feeling of release had rippled through the crowd with every scream and power chord. The mosh pit was therapy — and it was full of joy.
At the other end of the table, Thazin Nyunt Aung, half of female rap duo Y.A.K., laughs as No U-Turn guitarist and music promoter Eaiddhi shows her a video from the night’s performance. Thazin and Skum had closed out the show together with a collaborative finale.
In 2012, Eaiddhi launched a party called Jam It!, which has become a bridge between the music scenes. “Before, at a punk concert, they never invited hip-hop guys. When we started jamming, we invited everyone. Hip hop guys, metal bands, punk bands ...we were all friends. We wanted to show [everyone] that we were performing on the stage together,” Eaiddhi says.
It’s late, and all the beer is gone. Eaiddhi stands up and screams: “Where are we going?” So we all pile into a cab and end up at the night’s most fitting after-party; a hip-hop dance-off. My own favourite kind of therapy.