Tag Archives: music censorship myanmar

Myanmar’s Lady Gaga: An exclusive interview with Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 February 2014

Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein on stage
Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein on stage

Glam rock stalwart Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about the ups and downs of life as a celebrity and the toll piracy is taking on musician’s livelihoods.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on two solo albums, both of which will be released this year. One album will be similar to what my fans are used to, while the other will be a little bit different – you could call it an underground, new alternative to my music. I don’t have a title for that album yet, but it will be released after Thingyan [the Burmese New Year in April].

I’m working on the other album with the Lazy Club band and the album will be more like my last album, Damsel in Distress [released in August 2012] – it will have a mix of ballads, pop, rock and retro.

All songs on both albums will have original lyrics.

You’re often compared with Lady Gaga – how do you feel about that?

I was performing before Lady Gaga became famous but I think people say this because my sister designs my outlandish, glam rock outfits – she kind of tests me as to whether I have the guts to wear them! But I am a poor girl from a third world country so I dare not compare myself with her.

She takes a good selfie!
She takes a good selfie!

How much of a problem is piracy for you and the entire music industry?

Myanmar’s music industry is breaking down as a result of the uncontrollable piracy. Let me start with an example of how rampant it is – my best selling album took two or three years to sell just 10,000 copies – and that’s among a population of 60 million people. The amount of official CDs I sold is about the size of a single township’s population, but I believe that more than a million copies of my album sold were pirated versions.

Piracy is a big business and there is no rule of law to control it. It provides jobs for poor people, selling pirated CDs, and most are unaware that it’s a crime. But it’s also a big business for the rich people who own the factories that make the pirated CDS. Due to the fact that an official album costs $2 while it’s possible to buy three pirated albums for $1, musicians here have to make their money from live performances.

The Myanmar Music Association (MMA), of which I am the general secretary, is campaigning for tougher laws against piracy. But we’re not the authoritative organisation to actually bring about change. Under current laws, the penalty is either a one or two month prison term or a fine of no more than US$200 or $300. Of course the criminals opt to pay the compensation because it’s such a small amount. The big guys in the piracy business can make about $10,000 a day – that amounts to millions over a year. Plus there’s a lot of bribery and corruption – we get threatening phone calls and the judges are bribed. They will even bribe our own lawyers!

Glam alert!
Glam alert!

Can musicians make money from royalties?

The first radio station that signed a contract to pay musicians royalties was in 2008, and in December last year, City FM was the last station to come onboard. We had to meet with them many times to get them to agree to pay us royalties.

What’s the payment per song?

[Laughs] It’s a 600 kyat. And most of the time, it works out to be about 100 kyat per person, because we split the money in various percentages among the vocalist, musicians, composers, the producer, and the sound engineer. For a solo song, I’ll get a little more than 100 kyat, but if it’s a duet it will be around 50, 60 or 70 kyat.

In Thailand, the amount paid is fairly similar, but Thailand has so many more radio stations than Myanmar, which only has seven. We don’t have local stations, so the situation for musicians here is very different in terms of the money we can make from royalty payments. But things are better now in general because the MMA is made up of elected members. Prior to 2011, there were some musicians who were members, but they had to fight a lot with the members who were from the government or ministry. The government appointed the MMA members and often discussions would just come to an end with, “You have to do this or that – and don’t complain.” So the musicians belonging to the MMA were quite powerless to support us.

Never a dull moment...
Never a dull moment…

Were you affected by censorship?

Yes, of course. I was often told to change my lyrics. There was one song I performed called “Phensidyl” [a stimulant cough syrup containing codeine that’s produced in Myanmar and illegal in some countries] that is actually against the drug, and it’s also a love song. It was created by a legendary composer, but the censorship committee seemed to have an allergic reaction to the mere mention of the word “phensidyl.” They asked me to change the words and I didn’t want to, but I had to for the official recording. The composer had passed away by then, so one of his best pupils changed it for me. Then in 2010, just before the elections and the democratic reforms, one of my concerts was aired on a state-run TV channel. Before I sang the song live on air I pleaded to be allowed to sing the original lyrics. Although they didn’t exactly say yes, they didn’t cut transmission and I’ve been allowed to sing the original lyrics ever since. Even my plea was aired.

Does the media in Myanmar give celebrities enough privacy?

Yes, very much so. We have no paparazzi here in Myanmar and sometimes the media actually covers up drug scandals or what not from the public. Of course, people want to know about the lives of celebrities, but it’s possible for us to choose how much information we give to the public. And I don’t have much to lie about anyway [laughs].

Do you feel that success is tied to flaunting good looks?

I always try to look beautiful within the local cultural context. I don’t reveal too much – it’s just not my style. Being sexy in Myanmar is different from say, America. Take Shakira – she used to be a simple girl singing in her own language but when she went to America they sexualised everything about here. Here it just doesn’t sell. But that said, there’s some pretty revealing outfits among Myanmar’s hip hop scene!

She leaves so many star-struck
She leaves so many star-struck

Do you have any issues when you’re in public?

I hear a lot of “Oh my Gods” every day, but that’s okay for me. It’s become normal and I’m used to it. Even when I’m not wearing makeup, people still recognise me and follow me around. Sometimes I’m not even able to shop because people are asking for autographs and pictures, and of course I have to allow them. It’s a combination of boys and girls – and sometimes even really, really young kids!!

Have you thought of going out with a disguise – such as by wearing sunglasses?

No one wears sunglasses in Myanmar so that wouldn’t work. [laughs]

Have you had any stalkers?

Yeah I have. I was in Mandalay last year and was meant to be taken to a concert venue from my hotel. The hotel told me to go down and get in the car, so off I went with my makeup crew. By the time we reached the venue I realised it wasn’t the same chauffer that had driven me on other occasions because he clearly had no idea where to drop me off when we arrived. He was meant to take to me via a secret route so that I could get inside. It turned out that he was a creepy fan, but he wasn’t trying to harm me. But the concert organisers were shocked and security came as soon as I called them on my mobile and grabbed me out of the car. That’s been the only incident in my 10 year career.

Queen of the one-piece
Queen of the one-piece

You’ve said that your Christian faith is an important part of your identity, and you’re also a successful businesswoman, having achieved so much during your decade long career. Where do you see yourself headed from here?

It’s funny, you know – people call me a “doctor-singer” because I’m a qualified doctor, and when I release music clips, I’m an “actress-singer” – even though I’m not at all into acting. When I sing different styles of music, I come to know that I have different types of Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein inside me. There are a lot of other parts that I don’t even understand yet. I think I might be at the beginning of an underground, alternate version of myself as a musician.


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.