How do you explain the music of the Chin people, the dominant ethnic population of Indy's Burmese community? It's actually quite simple. Chin music sounds a lot like American music - - a lot. In fact, not only is Chin music structured almost entirely around American song forms and instrumentation, it frequently borrows entire melodies from the library of American popular music. So, at a typical Chin performance, you're just as likely to hear a version of the theme from Titanic or Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" as you are to hear a piece from the traditional Chin music repertoire.
What is traditional Chin music anyway? It's a tricky question. Around 1899, a group of American Baptist missionaries arrived in Burma's Chin State. Active until the mid '60s, these missionaries introduced Western musical theory and American genres like country music and gospel. So thorough was their cultural makeover, that the majority of Chin people now identify as Christians and there's little evidence left of pre-Christian musical traditions.
I recently spoke to local Chin guitarist Van Za Thawng. I asked if he or any other musicians in the Indianapolis community played traditional Chin music.
"We have a few traditional songs; they are like American country music. It's very similar," Vah Za Thawng told me.
His response echoed similar statements I heard from other Chin people, emphasizing the conviction that American genres like country and rock are integral threads in the fabric of traditional Chin-Burmese music.
Music under Burma's dictatorship
The oppressive rule of Burma's military dictatorship has kept the nation's culture in a semi-paralytic state. After seizing power during the coup of 1962, General Ne Win's regime immediately created a censorship board to monitor all music submitted for broadcast to the Burmese media.
I asked Burmese pop superstar May Sweet about the effects of the regime's strict censorship. Sweet, who shot to stardom in the 1970s, visited Indianapolis for a rare concert appearance last spring.
"When I was part of the Burmese music industry, there were a lot of restrictions," said Sweet. "All the lyrics had to be reviewed by the censors. If your album was censored, it wasn't allowed to be released and there was nothing you could do. So everyone was composing love songs to avoid being censored."
In the early days of the dictatorship there were also restrictions placed on certain forms of Western entertainment, particularly rock and roll. Although the crippling legacy of censorship affects artistic expression in Burma to this day, a few rebellious musicians have skillfully evaded the forbidding grip of the regime's censors. A pair of these artists have exerted significant influence over musicians and listeners in the local Chin community.
Iron Cross and Sai Htee Saing started their careers two decades apart and hail from vastly different regions of Burma, but they share several important traits. Most importantly, both have melded the rhythms of rock and roll with subtle, often encrypted messages of social justice.
During the '70s, Sai Htee Saing and his band The Wild Ones helped to usher in a new period of Burmese popular music. In the same way that Bob Dylan and the Beatles cleared the path for the singer-songwriter movement in Western music, Saing's original compositions inspired Burmese pop artists to step away from the prevelant tradition of "copy" or cover songs.
Saing and The Wild Ones used their soft, understated psychedelic rock to lyrically extoll the virtues of their Shan heritage and identity (the Shan are one of many suppressed ethnic minorities within Burma). Saing was also known for his ability to slip provocative political lyrical messages past the censors.
Saing's popularity waned at the end of his career when he succumbed to government pressure and began using his music to promote state ideology. But after his death in 2008, fans chose to remember Saing for his invaluable contributions to Burmese music and his songs are still widely heard today. In fact, I've often heard his music playing while dining at Kimu, a Burmese restaurant in Greenwood.Iron Cross
Ask anyone in the local Burmese community about Iron Cross and you're likely to hear the same response:
"Iron Cross - - number one band in Burma. Chit San Maung - - number one guitarist in Asia."
Iron Cross rose to popularity in Burma during the 1990s, perfecting the same mix of power ballads and metallic riffing that ruled American radio ten years prior - - but Iron Cross have significantly more substance than your average '80s hair metal band.
That's in large part due to the extraordinary skills of guitarist Chit San Maung, whose virtuosic solos and jaw dropping showmanship rival any American or European guitar heroes. While there's nothing inherently political about Chit's furious guitar work, it sounds unquestionably defiant in the staid Burmese pop scene.
There's also the influence of the group's singer Lay Phyu, one of Burma's biggest stars. Phyu once released an album called Power 54, a veiled reference to the home address of repressed Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Phyu also once refused a command performance for the family of an influential military general, replying "Those are not my people."
As subtle as those gestures may seem here, under Burma's repressive military junta, it's enough to land you in prison (or worse) and Phyu was temporarily forbidden from performing in public.
In July of 2012 Iron Cross visited Indianapolis for a concert at Old National Centre's Egyptian Room. It was a historic moment for Indiana's Burmese community and the sense of excitement and anticipation rivaled Aung San Suu Kyi's headline-grabbing appearance in Fort Wayne last September.
You can purchase CDs by Iron Cross and Sai Htee Saing at Chinland, a Burmese grocery store located at the corner of Madison Ave. and Stop 11 Rd.Sublime Frequencies
There's been incredibly few commercial recordings of Burmese music available in the United States. Even Smithsonian-Folkways - - perhaps the single greatest purveyor of international music - - is guilty of this neglect, with only two albums devoted exclusively to Burmese music in their vast catalog.
One American label is seeking to rectify this deficit: the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies. Co-founded by Sun City Girls' vocalist Alan Bishop, Sublime Frequencies have issued five albums and a DVD of Burmese music since the label's inception in 2003.
I contacted Bishop to inquire why the label has focused so strongly on Burmese releases.
"How can it be ignored or denied?" said Bishop "How is it possible that one of the most unique, perfectly composed and performed, intense and awe-inspiring musical legacies the world has ever known is looming north of the equator physically tucked-between world cultural giants India, China, and Thailand, without more than a whisper from ethnomusicologists or those who define themselves as 'purveyors of world music?'"
"Not only are the roots of this music unique, but so are the results after incorporating outside instrumentation from modern colonial and international influence. What the Burmese have done with a piano is so precise in the adaptation to their existing form and melody that one would think they invented it. Burmese music has a very distinct sound and whatever instrument is assimilated into its core only seems to magnify the original intent without depending upon outside ideas relating to each component utilized."
Five selections from Sublime Frequencies' Burmese releases
Princess Nicotine - Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar
A diverse overview of the spectrum of Burmese musical expression, from classical to folk to pop. Of particular interest here are the recordings of traditional hsaing waing ensembles; their spectacular ramshackle sound wouldn't be out of a place on a mid-'60s Sun Ra LP. Musically, these groups split the sonic difference between the tuned gongs of Indonesian gamelan and the abrasive percussion of China's Peking opera.
Guitars of the Golden Triangle
A selection of vintage electrified folk music from Burma's Shan State. Textures here run from soulful psychedelia to heartfelt country. Highlights include a handful of raw garage rock stompers by Shan music legend Saing Saing Maw.
Music of Nat Pwe
A Nat Pwe is sort of like a musical exorcism. The Nat Pwe orchestras exist within a ceremony designed to appease the disgruntled ghost spirits known as "nats." Featuring a swirling barrage of unearthly sounds, this is one of the most intense and unique musical experiences you'll ever encounter.
This is an audio-vérité documentary of the mundane and magical sounds of contemporary Burmese radio. Ranging from military propaganda reports to Avril Lavigne cover songs, this hour-long journey sounds randomly assembled, but consistently fascinates.
The Crying Princess
A beguiling collection of of rare Burmese 78 RPM records released between 1909 and 1960.