Q&A: As Myanmar counts votes, a Yangon musician pushes political music past censors
American musicians have it tough, but try making it work in Myanmar. To be an artist in the isolated Southeast Asian country is to face nearly impossible barriers. The Internet is spotty, the music scene virtually nonexistent and every original song must still be approved for release by a government-affiliated censorship board.
That's the daily reality for Myanmar musician Darko C and his band Side Effect. The Yangon-based rock group, which in 2014 made history by being the first Myanmar act to perform at the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, forges ahead despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
That appears to be changing, though. On Sunday, the country held the first open elections in 25 years. For democratic activists, the goal was to vanquish years of military rule by a wealthy class that controls most avenues of power. At the center of the movement for change is the National League for Democracy, or NLD, a political party whose leader is the Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
On Tuesday, Darko C spoke from his home in Yangon about the changes occurring in his country, his hope for the future and a new collection of Myanmar protest music released last week.
Can you describe your experiences over the last few days?
Yes, Sunday was a special day. It was the first time that I had the experience of voting. It was a very exciting moment. To be honest, I was not that excited in the morning when I woke up. All the roads were empty. There were no cars. The streets were quiet and everybody was quiet. But at the [polls], there were very long queues waiting to vote. I went in and voted and I was happy, but we didn’t want to have so much excitement about it, you know?
But at the end of the day, I went to join the crowd right in front of NLD’s head office, and there were a lot of people gathering and very excited about the elections even though the [results] were not going to come out that night. We were all very excited, very moved that we did the voting, and that we supported the NLD change.
Are you optimistic?
On Monday the results were coming out, and they’re still coming out. It’s not finished yet. According to the news, I’m sure the NLD has already won. But the accomplishment is not finished until they announce the winners. There are still places that they are waiting for the [results].
It’s all very crazy and we are very careful at the moment, because it’s going to take three months before they hand over [power]. All the people have voted, but they cannot show their happiness – apart from outside of the NLD office. There were people celebrating there, but the rest of the towns and the rest of the country have been very quiet. They’re not sure if the handover will be peaceful. We’re still being very careful at this moment.
You don’t want to get your hopes up too high because you’ve been disappointed before?
Yes, we have had bad experiences before back in 1990 when the NLD won and the military government didn’t hand over power to the winner. This kind of thing could happen if we are not lucky, which is why we have to be very careful of this moment.
How long did you have to wait in the queue to vote?
Not that long. I was there very early, so only a half an hour. There are three [government] houses to vote on. We waited in the line – they provided a card or receipt before that so we could vote in the election. And then we went to a booth to place the stamp on the voting card. Then I put my vote in for the other house, and then the other house – three times for all three houses.
And then finally when you’re done voting, you had to give the receipt to one of the guys in the office. To prove that I had already voted I had to dip my pinky finger in a pink ink box. It’s still on my pinky finger. It seems like it will go away in a few weeks.
Is everybody walking around with pink pinkies?
Yeah. A lot of people have that.
Have you been able to write music about the changes?
The music is going really good. One of the Side Effect songs about the democratic government was released on a compilation album called “Voice of the Youth.” It is a record that was made by an organization called Turning Tables Myanmar, which I work for right now.
“Voice of the Youth,” includes five things. One thing is music and social change, a tour to the five corners of Myanmar. And then there was a song contest, and there was a boot camp in Yangon with boys and girls from the corners where we went. We picked the best four and we brought them back to Yangon and gave them more intense and advanced training. And there was a two-day festival in Yangon which included over 30 bands and hip-hop groups from Myanmar.
This record was out right before the election, but we had an issue with one of the songs called “Myanmar Politics” by an artist called Bliss. I thought there would be no problem at all and we didn’t need to pass anything, but when I was trying to release the album, we still needed to register the songs to be able to release them.
We had to go to the [government-run] Myanmar Music Assn., where the official told us: "You have to remove that song. It is very sensitive and dangerous." He was giving his opinion and judgment to us, but then we had to demand and say that we take responsibility for the release and if something happened, it was on us. After that, when they realized they could not stop us from releasing the album, they gave us a registration number and finally the album is out.
Is that something that would not have happened a few years ago?
Definitely. That could not happen. I think this is the first time that this kind of song has been officially released.
That’s amazing. Congratulations.
Thank you, man. I’m really proud that we did it. Before if we did this, we wouldn’t be so sure that we could release this sort of thing. All the songs are about politics or the news happening in Myanmar. It is totally positive news.
Is the music played on the radio in Yangon made by artists who are part of the ruling class?
Not really. It was like that before, that the majority of the musicians were from the rich families. But now there are many musicians who are not from the rich families and have been struggling really, really hard to get noticed.
Some of their songs are being played on the radio, but that’s only a few musicians, because to be a musician is not really a career here. It’s more like a hobby. You have to have a lot of money, and only if you have time to do it. Many of the young people are working the whole time, and they rarely have time to make it even though they really love music.
How have the political changes affected the music scene in Yangon?
Making music is more of a passion here, man. The music industry is still crappy here. I’m not sure, but there are many kids starting to come into the music industry. Mainly pop music, here they sing about boy-and-girl stuff, cars, telephones and Facebook and stuff like that. ...
To see the new musicians that would like to do the real deal, I think would take time. All the new guys coming into the music all want to be a pop star or rock star. They all just want to be a celebrity.
That is quite sad, but I think it will change soon because if we have the real freedom to speak the truth and to explore a bit more, I think more established bands would start to write more songs about it. The next generation might get inspired and might speak what they believe in. That would be the real change that we need to see.
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