A Punk in Yangon

The merciless sun has started its journey towards the horizon, and I am grateful to be out of the boiling taxi, walking away from the rush hour traffic into the small streets of Tamwe. Small food stalls are selling pancakes, and vegetables are being pushed around on wooden wheelbarrows. I am following Darko C deeper into his neighbourhood as he explains how he used to play on these streets as a kid. “It’s my hood, you know?” he laughs, as he leads me to one of his favourite beer stations in the area, where we are meeting a good friend of his.

Darko is not just the manager of Turning Tables and a close friend, he is the front singer of the most well-known punk-rock band in Myanmar, Side Effect. And today we are meeting up with his old friend Skum, who is the front man of the hard-core punk band KultureShock. We order a Myanmar beer and some barbecue, and after ten minutes I see a tall, bony guy strolling down the street with dreadlocks and worn-out jeans. You can spot him miles away with his rivets belt and tattooed underarms, and he gives me a big smile as he sits down on the plastic chair, “Hi guys!”.

We are here to talk about the underground music scene in Yangon, and Skum starts out by telling me about how he got in to punk in the first place.

“When I was very young, my brother died in a car accident right after my father died in a plane crash. There was only one month between their deaths.” His father was a pilot, and with the loss of two male members of the family, Skum was left with his two sisters and his mother. He tells me about his mother.

“She was very, you know, very strict and unaware of what was going on outside of the society. She was, like, she believes everything goes by the book. Like I was living in a book. I never had a chance to play with the other kids. She used to lock me up in the apartment, when she went out to do something.”

In all these hours by himself, Skum developed a certain scepticism toward authority: “Because I was never allowed to go out and play with the other kids, I began reading. Both my father and mother were into reading, so there were lots of books in the apartment, and I questioned everything, every traditional belief, even the role of my parents and teachers.”

Even though Skum was well-read, he quickly became a bad boy in school, and it didn’t take long for him to get hold of some of the illegal music in the country:

“When I learned about heavy metal […] it was like a whole new world that opened up and I thought: this is the thing I was looking for: Rebellion! It was like a salvation to me.” Skum soon transcended into punk, which he describes as a whole new level, even more pessimistic and opposed to the conservative system he feels so trapped in. He explains that he started KulturShock to express all the anger inside him, all the boredom and the frustration over living in a restrictive military dictatorship.

“But, you know, to be a punk musician was actually not really one of my dreams, it’s not like I dreamt of being the front singer in a band since I was little. It just happened, you know. I just love anything with an attitude.”

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The sun has set and it is starting to get darker now. The neon light is making Skum’s cheekbones seem even higher, revealing the marks his body has gained from heavy drug use and six years in the infamous Insein Prison.

“You know, I was brought up in what they called The Socialist Era. It wasn’t really socialist, it was a military dictatorship, but that was the word they used. Back then we were a closed country, and the only musical resource we had was the pirate cassette tapes that were smuggled into the country from Thailand. Sailors smuggled most of the heavy metal and rock music, and there was a small shop downtown that sold the foreign tapes. We went there every day and bought at least one or two mix tapes.”

Darko and Skum agree that it was dangerous business to be a punker back in the days. But even now it is not a dance on roses.

“It’s hopeless” Skum says, “both for mainstream and underground musicians. First of all, the mainstream musician is completely shit. They don’t even make their own songs.” He laughs and continues: “Most Burmese songs are about love, because they don’t know what else to write. All they have ever listened to has been about love.” He pauses for a moment, then he adds: “But it’s also out of fear, fear what would happen to them if they wrote about other stuff.”

For the underground musicians it is not so much fear of the regime, but financial constraints that poses a barrier.

“For most of the gigs in Yangon need to ask for permit from the local government [which is] more than $300, often more. Most of the underground can’t pay for that, so they are doing gigs without the permit.”

Even without the permit, the bands still have to find $400-500 for the venue and money for sound and light on top of that. Even instruments must be hired, as most musicians can’t afford a drum kit or amplifier. And the venues are not pleased to host punk concerts, as they know it is not appreciated by local authorities. As a result, most bands rarely play more than three gigs per year, and to Skum that is a big problem:

“The general public don’t know anything about the punk scene, nobody knows me.” He smiles at me. “Or okay, only a few. But there are many people that would like to play some gigs. We want to be an inspiration for kids, to show them that they can start a band. If no one sees us, nobody will try. Nobody will, you know? We can be an inspiration, you know, to make music.”

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And that is how our talk ends. While I turn off the dictaphone, the two friends joke about how the police will always turn up at their illegal concerts to claim their bribe, and as often before I observe this distinct mix of playfulness, punk attitude and an underlying seriousness. Like people who have seen too much, but jut don’t give a fuck. As I walk towards downtown I think of all the times I’ve played a gig for a couple of free beers, and I wonder how these guys had ever managed as punk musicians in a military dictatorship.

Author: klarachristensen

While currently pursuing a master's degree in Social Policy at Oxford University, I have previously worked for Turning Tables in Myanmar coordinating a music dialogue project for marginalized youth. My current interests revolve around conflict mediation between ethnic groups in post-conflict settings and how music can e an integral part of trust-building.