Music Interviews
2:25 pm
Thu December 1, 2011

Shakira And Collective Soul's Hits, With A Burmese Twist

Originally published on Thu December 1, 2011 5:02 pm

Despite decades of repression, and even isolation, the pop music scene in Myanmar is thriving. And it's not just any pop music: In many cases, carbon copies of American pop songs spring up with a Burmese twist.

Heather MacLachlan, a music professor at the University of Dayton, traveled to Myanmar a few years ago to study the country's traditional music, only to discover that most people were listening to pop. She writes about the phenomenon in her new book, Burma's Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors, Censors.

"A lot of Burmese people — and musicians especially — when they talk about what is a good song, what is a quality piece of work, what they say is, 'It's a song that sells a lot, a song that's commercially successful,' " MacLachlan says in an interview with NPR's Guy Raz. "That's how they judge artistic quality. So they know as well as everybody else that the best-selling music in the world comes out of the American and British pop-music industries. That's the music that they've very much taken to themselves, and it has become something that's really part of Burmese life since the early 1970s."

These bands do write original material, but the "copy songs" often feature different lyrics to subversively spread political messages.

"They sometimes write lyrics that are rather poetic, and they use different kinds of metaphors that can be interpreted as undermining the regime," MacLachlan says. "But they have to be very subtle because, of course, the music is censored and the censors immediately ban any kind of music that is overtly pro-democracy."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

We are going to continue the tour, now, of Myanmar's rich culture. Despite decades of repression and even isolation, its pop music scene is thriving. And not just any pop music but in many cases, carbon copies of American pop songs, but with a Burmese twist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHENEVER, WHEREVER")

RAZ: Does that sound familiar? It's the Burmese version of a better-known song called "Whenever, Wherever" by Shakira.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHENEVER, WHEREVER")

RAZ: Heather MacLachlan is a music professor at the University of Dayton and a few years ago, she traveled to Myanmar to study the country's traditional music - only to discover that most people were listening to pop. So she wrote about it in a new book; it's called "Burma's Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors And Censors." Heather Maclachlan, welcome to the program.

HEATHER MACLACHLAN: Hello.

RAZ: When you got to Burma, you thought you'd be studying this indigenous music. But you got there, and what happened?

MACLACHLAN: I immediately found that when I asked people in my workaday Burmese, I would like to meet a singer or I would like to meet a musician, I would find out that they were involved in pop music. And so after about three weeks, I realized, this is what's happening. This is what's meaningful for people in Burma, so this is what I want to write about.

RAZ: Why pop music?

MACLACHLAN: A lot of Burmese people, when they talk about what is a good song, what is a quality piece of work, what they say is, it's a song that sells a lot, a song that's commercially successful. So they know as well as everybody else that the best-selling music in the world comes out of the American and the British pop-music industries. And so that's the music that they have very much taken to themselves, and it has become something that's really part of Burmese life since the early 1970s.

RAZ: Some of this music, including the covers, of certain American pop songs, are actually amazing - and they're pitch perfect. And I want to play one. This is a cover of the song "December," by Collective Soul. This is in Burmese. The band is called Iron Cross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DECEMBER")

RAZ: All right, Heather, just for comparison, let's hear the original by Collective Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DECEMBER")

RAZ: All right. I mean, this Burmese band is doing a note-by-note cover of this song, and you write that a lot of these pop bands sort of use pop music, and they're writing different lyrics, to kind of spread political messages but subversively, right?

MACLACHLAN: Yeah. It's hard to say a lot. And of course, the reality is that pop musicians in Burma create both original compositions and then the kind of music that you heard, which they call (foreign language spoken) or copy songs. And in both cases, they sometimes write lyrics that are rather poetic, and they use different kinds of metaphors that can be interpreted as undermining the regime. But they have to be very subtle because, of course, the music is censored and the censors immediately ban any kind of music that is overtly pro-democracy.

RAZ: You went to Burma originally to study indigenous, traditional music. Were you ever able to find it?

MACLACHLAN: Yes. There is some indigenous and traditional music going on. But mostly when I asked people, they simply said, I don't know how to do that. We've kind of moved on from that. And it's really sad to see that a lot of the indigenous and classical arts are in trouble in Burma. On the other hand, people really enjoy pop music, and it's very meaningful to them. They play it at weddings and they listen to it - it's the soundtrack of their lives, the way it is for many American people and people around the world.

RAZ: Heather, before we let you go, I have to hear this one. This is another one we came across, that I love. It's the Burmese version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LIKE A VIRGIN")

RAZ: I bet Madonna would love this. Is this literally, "Like a Virgin" in Burmese?

MACLACHLAN: No. When we hear these (foreign language spoken), important to remember that the Burmese lyrics are not translations of English lyrics. In this case, the song is about a young girl, a girl who's single and who's having fun, and so on. But of course, in Burmese culture, the assumption would be that if she's unmarried, she is indeed a virgin. There's no ironic take on what virginity means.

RAZ: That's Heather Maclachlan. She's a music professor at the University of Dayton. Her new book is called "Burma's Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors And Censors." Heather, thanks.

MACLACHLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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