Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 20 February 2014
Kyar Pauk is a vocalist, guitarist and producer for Bloodsugar Politik and the former lead man of Big Bag. He talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about his life as a musician under censorship and what makes him tick as songwriter.
What made you decide to become a musician?
I grew up in Taungoo in Bago, where there were no playgrounds, TVs, or toy stores. As kids we used to play guitar and drums for fun. There was literally nothing else to do. My father was a drummer and I started learning drums from the age of four, and did my first recording as a 13-year-old. My grandfather actually started an orchestra in that tiny town… Anyway, by the time I was 16 I was never at home. I grew up on the streets, hanging out with friends who were a lot older than me and playing gigs. I flunked my exams and slept in the studios. I guess you could say I was a gypsy type.
I eventually got a degree as a dental surgeon and married my professor’s daughter at the age of 23, which is pretty young. At the time my professor was pretty much looking after me because I was never at home. But after two years I backed out of being a dentist because I was unhappy. I hate the 9-5 life and all I wanted was to make music. So I dropped out of the clinic in 2009 and started working at a radio station. No regrets. Music is one of the few very things I’ve chosen in my life – otherwise I was just doing stuff to please my parents.
Your first album with Big Bag was released back in 2003. Was what it like being a musician back then?
Getting approval from the censorship board was standard procedure for me, but so many of my songs were rejected. One album had a quarter of the songs knocked back. Censorship was a really complicated process and sometimes it could take up to six months to get the permission needed to legally distribute an album. The first stage involved providing several copies of an entire album’s lyrics, and if the board thought that certain words conflicted with their laws or was anti-government, they’d cross them out and say, “You can’t use it.” The second stage was applying the changes they told me to make on an audio CD, and submitting that to them. However by that time I was already performing the songs as I’d originally written them. It was so f*&%king crazy!
The rules and regulations were very unpredictable: it was one rule for one person. The censorship board would check a singer’s background for certain actions: did the person make an anti-government speech on stage? I hadn’t done that, fortunately.
I’d get a call being summoned to meet with the censorship board. I never dressed up or anything for those meetings. I found it impossible to reason with them. They would rewrite my lyrics and say, “Sing it, sing it – it’s okay, right?” My reply would be, “It’s okay, I won’t bother.” And then I’d put the recording up on the internet. It wasn’t that those people insulted or threatened me, but all the same, it was a bully speech.
What sorts of lyrics were disallowed?
Jail, imprison, sentence, inmate – they never let musicians use those words. Although it was tricky, I managed to find loopholes. Take for example my album title “One second sentence” – how can anyone possibly know what I’m implying? I’ll tell you that what it meant was the feeling of being imprisoned for a fleeting moment. It used to be part of a normal day to have those feelings – for example if I read the propaganda newspapers or watched the 8pm news. I’d feel totally speechless when I saw something extraordinarily stupid or stunningly cruel… I don’t have that sensation anywhere as often anymore.
Another thing is that Myanmar words are kind of tricky – one word can have three or even four meanings, so it’s easy to twist them. I would tell them it’s about this or that, but it’s wasn’t. And as their English was so limited, I’d translate any approved lyrics into whatever I wanted.
One other trick I had was “bleeping.” I started the “bleep trend” in Myanmar actually. I barely use harsh words in my daily life but I did so in my songs because I was angry and wanted to prove that censorship was idiotic. I did it album after album, and they didn’t realise what I was doing because they thought a bleep is a musical sound. They don’t know what music is.
What do you write about in your songs?
I don’t write stories: I’ve always tried to mock the system. One song I wrote, for example, is about having no power, no electricity and no water in my toilet.
Does Myanmar have a healthy indie scene nowadays?
I can’t say that it does. It’s really hard to invade the current scene with new sounds. There’s a yearly awards system organised by City FM but it’s such a joke because the awards are given to people who sing cover songs. And the live scene is really difficult because we don’t have enough venues to support live gigs. Newcomers will find the existing venues impossibly expensive.
Will you take your music outside Myanmar?
I’ve already performed in London, but I’m not looking for international recognition. But I do want to perform in front of international audiences in English. I want the world to know that there are people like us doing this kind of thing in Burma.
But the reason I sing in English isn’t because I’m good at it or anything – this sounds weird but sometimes I can’t express my feelings in Burmese.
Why did you set up Bloodsugar Politik while Big Bag was such a success?
Frankly, we got bored. We’d been playing together for almost 10 years. When we started that band I was a drummer, but then our singer went to prison for drugs so I took over. He’s out of prison now but he’s not in the band. All of had the feeling that we wanted to start experimenting, to do something new, something not “us”. We all knew that one day Big Bag would come to an end. So I told the band that I wanted to do a side project and they said, “So do we.” So we’ve been able to do it together and that’s been really good.
For more info about Kyar Pauk and Bloodsugar Politik, visit http://www.reverbnation.com/Bloodsugarpolitik