Myanmar band writes music history in Germany | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 14.12.2012
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Myanmar band writes music history in Germany

A performance in Germany was unimaginable for the band Side Effect. Until just a short time ago, they were still living in an isolated country. But with Myanmar becoming more open, cultural exchange is now possible.

Side Effect's performance in Berlin was much more than just a fun concert. It was the group's very first appearance outside of Myanmar. They'd played in a small club in Hamburg the night before, but the big stage in Berlin was a whole different league.

The crowd started dancing during the first song and just a few minutes later the whole room was bouncing. Some were even stage-diving.

"That's the first time I've ever experienced stage-diving," singer and lead guitarist Darko C. told the audience. "Thank you Berlin! You can't even imagine what that means to us!"

Darko, 31, founded Side Effect in 2004. The indie band, whose sound recalls groups like The Strokes or The White Stripes, worked hard to develop its own style. And that in a country that was politically and culturally insulated until just a short time ago.

Side Effect singer Darko und drummer Tser Htoo show their tattoos of the band's logo

Singer Darko und drummer Tser Htoo have matching tattoos of the band's logo

In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the music industry consisted almost entirely of cover bands that rewrote their own heartfelt texts to successful Western pop songs.

But in the past few months, things have been changing. The military junta seems to be open to change: Political prisoners have been released and censorship suspended. Barack Obama recently became the first US President to enter the country and promised during his visit to end America's economic sanctions.

Sanctions have had an impact on Side Effect, as well. With the help of musician friends in Canada, the group raised funds for their debut album via a crowd-funding website. But they're still waiting for the $3,000 that were donated: The online platform wasn't able to send them the money due to economic sanctions.

Playing for change

The Berlin crowd went crazy when Side Effect started playing their song "Change." The refrain, a melody dotted with "Ohs," is easy to sing along to and the audience joined in with Darko.

"Change" is one of only a few English-language songs the band sings. They'd never expected to take their music abroad, so wrote most of their material in their native language. It's also the exception in that the song has an optimistic text.

"Most of the time I am such a downer; I find life is pointless and meaningless because life here is not very promising," said Darko. "For example, if you got a degree, you get a job in a Western country. But here it doesn't work that way. No matter which degree you've got, there is no job waiting for you and you have to try very hard to make a living. I was looking for a reason to live on, and I found that was music."

The 2007 protests led by Buddhist monks had an impact on Darko. "I was thinking, they cannot beat the monks. The monks were very peaceful and they were praying for the people," he said.

But Darko, like so many in his country, was wrong: The government violently cracked down on the praying monks.

"That changed my point of view," said Darko. "We decided to do something for this country. We are not politicians, but what we can do best is be musicians. This country needs good musicians, poets and artists." Turning the other way, or moving abroad, is not the right thing to do, he added.

Censorship and paper drums

Side Effect singer and guitarist Darko C.

Singer and guitarist Darko C. was blown away by the positive response in Berlin

But facing their country's problems head-on is not easy for the three members of Side Effect. They can't make a living from their music. They only have sporadic opportunities to perform, and most of those are unpaid. Darko and his wife run a small men's clothing store; drummer Tser Htoo works for a radio station; and Darko's 23-year-old brother Jozeff is planning to become a sailor.

Darko says his father, a marine engineer, puts a lot of pressure on his sons - in a culture where family has a lot of influence. The musician managed to go his own path, but against his father's will. Now he's concerned about his losing brother. There aren't many musicians in Yangon, the capital, who can match Side Effect's style, but Darko says he understands that his brother has to find a way to earn money.

In August of this year, the country's censorship laws were suspended. That has a practical impact on the band, which used to have to submit their song texts to the state censorship authority.

Even though most of their lyrics deal with the depressing reality of everyday life, the authorities often removed passages, like one line that talked about buying a cinema ticket on the black market. That may be common practice in Yangon, but it doesn't represent the image of the perfect society which the military government wanted to protect.

"We are now in danger, actually," said Darko. "There is no censorship, but it is not totally free. If there is a problem with our lyrics, we have to go to jail."

"Freedom - you believe it?" added drummer Tser Htoo sarcastically. "There is still a lot of control. I don't believe them. We have been living our whole lives under dictatorship and they did a lot of bad things to us."

Nevertheless, the musicians seemed relaxed and lighthearted in the interview. They started to giggle when they talked about a chronic shortage of instruments. Drummer Tser Htoo practices on book because he can't afford his own drum set. "Different piles of books make different sounds," he explained.

Once a week, the band rents a rehearsal room with a drum set for two dollars. In Myanmar, that's the equivalent of a day's wages.

Honest music

Myanmar rock band Side Effect in Berlin, with documentary filmmaker Alexander Dluzak

Documentary filmmaker Alexander Dluzak (right) and Side Effect chatted with the audience

It was documentary filmmakers Alexander Dluzak and Carsten Piefke who brought Side Effect to Germany. They had portrayed the punk scene in Myanmar in their film, "Yangon Calling."

"We met Darko on the very first evening," said Piefke. "Without him, the whole film wouldn't have been possible. He took us around and introduced us to a lot of musicians. We knew right away that we had to find a way to bring the guys to Germany for a concert."

Financial support from the Goethe-Institut turned the filmmakers' plan into reality. The German punk band Priscilla Sucks rehearsed and performed with Side Effect in the first musical exchange of its kind between the two countries.

"They can't believe how well their music is received here and how much the audience flips out," said bass player Misses Big Bang from Priscilla Sucks. "They're totally polite and say thank you all the time. And they're really happy all the time, too. That's really surprising to me because when you start talking to them, you hear a lot of sad stories - that really touches me."

After the concert, Darko was visibly exhausted, but also very impressed. "The people here are so honest and sincere - just like we have always been with our music since 2004," he said. In Myanmar, Side Effect has just a small fan community. But, added Darko, when a musician has endurance and stays true to himself, then it will pay off at some point. "That's what I felt tonight."

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