If there is one clear sign that Burma is in the midst of a political and cultural shift, it’s in its music scene.
Two years ago, the only pop songs being generated in the country were “copy tracks,” slavishly reproduced hits copying international stars like Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and various “K-Pop” idols from South Korea. The country was in mired in decades of military rule, its people reluctant to speak out against political leaders for fear of brutal repercussions. “Democracy” was a loaded word.
Then Nicole May arrived from Australia, leaving behind a career as a dance coach to teach in the orphanages of Burma. Recognizing a hole in the country’s music scene, May teamed up with Burmese music producer Moe Kyaw, and the two began talking about forming the country’s first girl band. They put an ad in the paper for an open casting call, and 120 girls showed up.
Five were chosen by May. Rather than basing her selections on looks, she says, she picked candidates for their outspokenness and energy. Each of the girls had a college degree, ranging from computer science to Russian. Their band name: Tiger Girls.
Their first track was a cover of Jamaican rapper Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning,” which they debuted to a crowd of 3,000 in Mandalay during the annual Thingyan Festival, Burma’s New Year Festival. The audience, May recalls, was initially shocked at the sight of five girls singing a blend of English and Burmese lyrics, and dancing in styles that flew in the face of the country’s social conservativism. Then they started to get into it.
The group’s first track became a staple on Burmese radio stations, and the girls were booked to perform at a handful of private events. (Performing in clubs in Burma is not an option, lest the young women be deemed prostitutes.)
Still, profits were elusive, so after a year, the band cut ties with Moe and re-emerged as Me N Ma Girls (a play on “Myanmar Girls”). Their plan: to write original songs and push the limits of the country’s censorship board, which regulates virtually everything: costumes, lyrics, dance moves, videos, album titles.
From the start, the young women were told by industry insiders they would fail. “We were just too different,” says Htike-Htike, a soft-spoken Me N Ma Girl with blonde hair extensions and false eyelashes, speaking during a break between rehearsals in May’s rundown colonial share-house in central Yangon.
Further, by writing original music, the young women lessened their chances of getting sponsors for shows and merchandise. There was no money in original music, according to band member Ah Moon, whose red streaks in her hair belie her traditional upbringing. That is, unless “your daddy was rich and connected,” she says. The girls all had day jobs; one worked as a graphic artist, another as a zoologist.
With May’s help, the band secured a rehearsal space, where they met five days a week. Through YouTube and Facebook, they slowly built up their fan base, using their easy pop tunes and sway-along dance moves to draw views and “likes.” They booked a few corporate events at major hotels. Their blend of Western pop and Burmese tradition took off with a certain set of young, open-minded kids. Their first album, released in December, sells for 20,000 kyat, about $2.50. They still have their day jobs.
One song, “We Won’t Give Up,” is about perseverance and girl power. Another accuses a boyfriend of lying. “Fancy” talks about loving fashion but not being a slave to brands. Most songs are in English and Burmese. One song, “Mingala-Ba,” compares the people of Burma to regular folks around the world. (“Same hopes/Same dreams/Like any other girls in the world.”) Other tunes get more political: “Come Back Home” is about Burma’s refugees, many of whom still reside in Thailand and elsewhere.
The videos are generally makeshift and choppy, with the girls switching between traditional costume and revealing dance-floor looks—cut-offs, tank-tops, leather pants—that are typical in the West, but are still racy in Burma.
At the Burmese Water Festival, a celebration held in the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, last April, the girls had a breakthrough. Incumbent President Thein Sein sat and watched the band stage-side, while a crowd danced and thumped behind gun-toting soldiers.
Things are changing in the country, albeit slowly. This past week, political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi won an unprecedented seat in parliament. The young band members are forging their way in a country still closed to the world, a place where children live at home until marriage and are generally only given a grammar-school education before being sent to work.
The young women’s parents, some of whom are villagers with very little income, don’t completely approve of their daughters’ pursuit. The band members, with their T-shirts, boyfriends, and text messages from friends, brush it off. “Freedom of speech starts right now,” says Ah Moon. “We want to show the world our traditional culture, but also prove that our country isn’t so closed, so poor and backward. We want to show people that things are changing.”