Tag Archives: indie music myanmar

Mocking the system: Kyar Pauk from Bloodsugar Politik

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 20 February 2014

Kyar Pauk onstage - Photo by Chris James White - www.chrisjameswhite.com
Kyar Pauk onstage – Photo by Chris James White – http://www.chrisjameswhite.com

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!

Photo by Chris James White - www.chrisjameswhite.com
Photo by Chris James White – http://www.chrisjameswhite.com

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.

Photo by Chris James White - www.chrisjameswhite.com
Photo by Chris James White – http://www.chrisjameswhite.com

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


The path less travelled: An interview with Darko C. from Side Effect

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 9 January 2014

Darko C.
Darko C.

Side Effect’s vocalist and lyricist Darko C. talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about Myanmar’s fledgling indie music scene and the ongoing challenges he faces as a musician.

When was Side Effect formed and when did you first become interested in being a musician?

I started the band back in 2004 and we currently have four members – myself as vocalist and on guitar, Tser Htoo on drums, Eaiddhi on guitar and Hein Lwin on bass.

I learned to play acoustic guitar when I was in seventh grade, which was a very typical thing to do. I think almost every Burmese boy can play guitar. When I was a kid I used to listen to local rock music – it was all cover songs and I loved them, but when I grew up and started to listen to bands from Europe and America I started to notice there was a difference, that original compositions are much more important than covers.

When you make music it’s real. There’s passion. A cover singer might sing a song in the same way as the original but there’s always something missing because they didn’t write the lyrics. What I love about music is that it’s an art form – you can do whatever you want. I could write a song with just one, two or three cords but it doesn’t mean that song isn’t as good as those from the West. I found that I loved writing songs, though I wrote many shitty ones in the beginning.

Another thing is that when you say that you’re in a band in Myanmar, people have this picture in their minds of a group of musicians who perform for a singer. “Ok, who is the singer?” they’ll ask. That’s because musicians are usually hired on a one-off basis to perform for the singer. But the bands I love are a group that plays its own songs in own its style. But this is what makes it’s so hard for Side Effect to be recognised locally.

Side Effect played at the same concert as Franz Ferdinand in Malaysia – surely you’re being modest?

No, we really aren’t well known in Myanmar. Among expats, we are – the other day I was at a hair salon and the guy working there said, “Oh yeah, Side Effect – they’re the band that’s popular with foreigners.” But if you ask most locals, they wouldn’t have heard of us. I think that only those who don’t like popular Myanmar music would probably like Side Effect. That’s why Citymart doesn’t sell our CDs – because we’re not best sellers.

We’re not stupid, but we’ve been very stubborn about not following other’s paths. We’re doing things differently – trying to be a real band by only performing original songs, no matter what. Of course we’re happy if people appreciate our music but we don’t mind if people don’t like us. It’s the music we love and we’re expressing ourselves the way we want to as artists. My friends with successful bands told me to make the sort of music that people want to hear and then I’ll be free to do whatever I want once I’m famous. But for me, respect is more important than popularity or fame. I always tell people not just what Side Effect is doing but what we’re not doing. That’s important too.

What’s an example of a song that wasn’t popular among mainstream music fans?

Well politics in general isn’t popular. Songs can be happy, sad or even angry, but people simply aren’t used to political songs, to songs with a message. People think it’s dirty – there’s a perception that music and art should be pure.

We have a song with English lyrics called Meikhtila, which is about the violence that happened there. The first line – which just came to me in English, is “Look what you’ve done.” That was a message to those who started the violence and spread religious hatred.

Anyway, before we played the song at a gig at Tamwe Bowling Alley, I explained to the Burmese crowd what it was about and why we don’t hate people just because of their religion – but that we hate people who are bad and racist, no matter what religion they are. The next day, I saw on Facebook that one of our fans had posted something on his wall like, “Side Effect said weird things last night that don’t connect with the music.” I was like, “What???” But we don’t care because we are trying to express ourselves.

Is it easier to express yourself now that censorship has been lifted?

Yes – getting our lyrics through the censorship board was difficult. I knew what kind of lyrics had been censored in the past, so when I was trying to write songs, I already knew what would happen. I was censoring myself.

It was very predictable in terms of what would and wouldn’t get through – most of the time. The most sensitive stuff was obviously political and swearing wasn’t allowed.

The trickiest rules were those which were meant to protect traditional Burmese values or society. I couldn’t write about something like smuggling, which is commonplace in our society. The government didn’t want a song that acknowledged that – everything had to be positive.

There’s a song on our next album which doesn’t have a fixed title yet, but it will be something like “New Outfit.” It’s about the feeling I get that nothing has really changed in terms of politics – just the outfits have. We can still smell the dictatorship.

"We can still smell the dictatorship."
“We can still smell the dictatorship.”

What other issues do you write songs about?

Apart from the current political situation, I mostly write about personal freedom. Young people are pushed into conformity, so I stand for the young people by saying, “Do what you want and don’t be afraid of being different.”  Being a free thinker isn’t yet appreciated in Myanmar.

I wrote another song called “Lonesome Yangon Blues” which is about the feeling we had living in Yangon – time passes really slowly here. You can’t do much during the day and you can’t make many plans… For example, trying to set up a concert is very unpredictable because you don’t know if you will get the permit. The process has actually become more complicated now and that’s a problem. It takes between two weeks to a month and you need to go to six different offices to arrange it, regardless of whether the concert is big or small.

Is there any way around that?

In the past we often chose to do free shows because they didn’t require a permit, unlike ticketed concerts. But now we have to get a permit for every type of performance so it’s very hard to make any money. When we played a free show at Kandawgyi Lake about nine months ago, I broke my foot on stage while jumping. My mind was kind of wild.

A permit costs about K200,000 and it’s not legal money. Getting permission from the township authority is the worst. An official there said to me that an extension was being built in the back, and asked if I wanted to make a donation. I said sure, and gave him K 20,000 and he said, “People normally pay K100,000.” I apologised and said I didn’t have that much and he told me to come back the next day with more money. He didn’t give me the papers I needed. The Myanmar Music Association isn’t really helping with this stuff – in fact we also have to pay them to set up a concert.

Tell us about your tour through Europe last July.

We played seven gigs in Denmark and Germany and recorded an album in France. In Berlin we played in front of 20,000 people and it was great – the crowd was dancing all through the sets. They didn’t know what we were singing about when we performed in Burmese, but they seemed to really enjoy our music. We even saw some of our fans in Berlin, who had come to our gig there in 2012!

The main reason we went was because Germany’s most famous punk band, Die Arzte, invited us to come and they arranged for a booking agency to pay for our flights and performances, which was amazing.

Our manager Daniel Gelfer arranged for us to extend the trip by playing more gigs – we played three in Denmark and four in Germany. We also spent six days recording eight songs from our upcoming album in Normandy, France. We recorded it in a studio called The Digital Factory, which is owned by the director of The Lady, Luc Besson. I met him when he came to Myanmar right after the film was released and he offered his studio to us free of charge. And he kept his promise, three years later.

What was the recording process like?

It was so different from recording in a studio in Myanmar – here, what you see is what you get in terms of the instruments available. We rely on studios to provide the instruments and equipment but there’s often no choice about the drums, guitars amplifiers and so forth. The instruments and amps are what defines the tone and sound of music, so ultimately things turn out differently from what we want to create.  Studios in Myanmar are also really small – often the studio is so small that the drums and guitar are played in separate rooms. In Normandy we were able to choose the exact equipment we wanted to use and it was really professional.

When will your third album be released and what will it be called?

We haven’t come up with a title for it yet – it was meant to be released early this year but it won’t be until around June. As we only had six days to record in France, we still need to record some extra back-up vocals. We’re also going to include three tracks played live in Berlin – so it will be an album made in France, Germany and Myanmar, which is great.