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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 21:25 GMT 22:25 UK
Burma's growing music scene
Nyi Htut, singer with the band Emperor
Popular singer Nyi Htut dreams of bigger fame

Burma is usually associated with political repression, the lack of freedom and a continuing economic crisis.

But most people in Burma still have to find ways of surviving despite the problems.

In the towns and cities at least that also means finding entertainment.

Lay Phyu , lead singer with Iron Cross
Lay Phyu has a lot of young fans
While watching films is the main activity, listening to music and attending concerts is a growing pastime.

And despite the country's international isolation and economic crisis, there is a thriving popular music scene.

Although there are only a handful of home-grown artists, their records sell like hot cakes in the local markets and music shops.

Now the capital, Rangoon, even boasts its own music chart - sponsored by a new independent FM radio station, and published weekly in the newspapers.

Rock songs are the most popular - and sound similar to the music in vogue in the US and Europe 20 years ago. The main bands also regularly perform live concerts.

"The two main bands are Emperor and Iron Cross," said Bo Hill, music critic for the Myanmar Times. "There's a couple of other bands who singers perform with but they don't have set singers.

"Emperor and Iron Cross, and mainly Iron Cross these days with their main singer Lay Phyu - the man of the moment.

"It's the way he dresses and his presence on stage. He's an amazing performer, and he just seems to connect especially with young people."

Beatles songs

Burma's music scene only started a few years ago. The new breed of singers have had to introduce the Burmese audience to rock using popular western sounds of the past few decades.

"Rock and roll is not our kind of music so we have to introduce rock to Burmese fans," said Nyi Htut, lead singer for Emperor.

Burmese boy
A budding star? A young boy strums a guitar
"So that's why we had to start with cover songs. We have to translate English songs, like Beatles songs."

There are now a number of karaoke clubs and discos in the capital. And many of Rangoon's famous artists started as wedding singers in hotels and restaurants - performing regular short sets of no more than three songs each.

They sing a variety of English, Chinese and Burmese lyrics. The more popular singers are rewarded by the patrons, who buy a garland of flowers - costing $1 - to drape around the singer at the end of their performance.

But increasingly, hotels and nightclubs are hiring entertainers to put on live performances. This has boosted the number of professional singers in Rangoon making a living from music, like Joel Yin who performs every week.

I'm very optimistic about my music

Nyi Htut, singer
"I love to sing in English, not only now, since I was young I liked singing in English that's why I continue to sing English. But I have my record in Burmese also," he said.

"We have love songs, we have country and western. All our songs are own composition songs."

For the time being at least, Burma's pop scene seems likely to remain one in which the music and songs are borrowed from abroad and rendered into Burmese.

"Well the musicians themselves admit it's easier to play copied music and also they say the audience doesn't accept anything original," said Bo Hill.

"There's a couple of bands who are trying to mix traditional Myanmar music with the Western influence but the audience tends to shun these and for the moment something that is copied is much more accepted.

"But singers are so much more confident in what they can do because of previous records sales. And all of them are saying, 'Yes we'd love to do original music'."

Emperor's lead singer, Nyi Htut, said he hoped to build a studio and write his own songs.

"I'm very optimistic about my music," he said. "In Thailand there are lots of rock fans, lots of rock stars, and they live in huge houses and they sell millions and millions of records.

"So some day we are going to reach that stage, no one can tell, but I hope so."

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