Putting a Beat to Burma’s Reforms

By Andrew D. Kaspar 21 December 2013

RANGOON — The fourth floor of the Global Platform Myanmar office in Rangoon is a setting not unlike that of hundreds of other development NGOs across the globe. Diagrams map out campaigning strategies, Post-It notes cover poster boards—presumably the visual remnant of a vigorous brainstorming session—and a color-coded spreadsheet details the week’s agenda with seminar sessions such as “Diversity Management,” “Fundraising Tools,” and the all-important, albeit brief “Tea Break.” It’s all pretty typical of an NGO like Global Platform, which focuses on poverty reduction and youth empowerment. But the booming bass beat emanating from below cannot be ignored.

Down on the ground floor, the members of the hip-hop group Dope Music Entertainment (DME) are preparing to lay down a studio track after four days with Martin Jakobsen discussing and learning about rap history, the music genre’s techniques and its potential as a medium of communication.

Jakobsen is from Turning Tables, a Danish nonprofit that fosters creative expression by offering training and professional equipment to musicians, videographers and producers of both. Having set up “labs” in Lebanon, Tunisia and Cambodia, the Turning Tables team set their sights on Burma in January, and by mid-October a crew was on the ground in Rangoon, assembling a recording studio and recruiting local instructors.

As is the case at other Turning Tables sites, including in Beirut, where Palestinian refugees are the target demographic, the emphasis at the Rangoon house is on marginalized young people seeking an outlet to express themselves.

“The country is opening up and there’s an opportunity to make change, and the youth have a lot to give and to learn,” Michael Aberg, lab manager of Turning Tables’ Rangoon operations, told The Irrawaddy. “And this NGO, we do it by means of music and video.”

Call it creative expression capacity building.

Right now Turning Tables provides training sessions in videography, music production and audio mixing by appointment, and on Friday wrapped up a weeklong workshop on creative activism. The team plans to expand what it offers to include photography and D.J.-ing instruction, with additional web-based trainings on platforms such as the popular blogging website WordPress. Another project will address a shortage of Braille books in the Burmese language, with plans to record audiobooks that will unlock previously inaccessible literature for the blind.

They will do it all from the four-story house that the organization now shares with Global Platform Myanmar, an outgrowth of the aid agency ActionAid International. As has been the model in other locations where it has set up labs, Turning Tables is partnering with the local NGO in order to share ideas, resources and talent.

The hope is that a democracy campaigner with an untapped talent in videography might be inspired to pick up a camera and record her efforts when she returns to her home village to undertake development work, as all fellows recruited by Global Platform must do. And vice versa: that a young rapper might strike up a conversation about politics over lunch with a fellow, and from that conversation, have his interest in policymaking piqued.

“It’s really a chance to make these two different groups meet,” says Anne Louise Carstens, manager of the Global Platform Myanmar office.

From a production standpoint, Aberg said he hopes the Turning Tables-Global Platform partnership will allow fellows traveling to Burma’s more far-flung and remote regions to return with audio samplings of “instruments that I could never dream of.”

In the recording studio, there’s still some acoustics padding to be done, but thousands of dollars’ worth of recording and mixing equipment and software are at the ready.

Sai Sein Aung, also known as AI-2, will in part be responsible for training any aspiring musicians and music producers that come through the house’s doors. After being chosen for the job, he spent more than a week learning from Mark Ephraim, an American producer who owns a recording studio in New York City.

Though he can play eight different instruments with proficiency, Sai Sein Aung had never touched a “Maschine” prior to Turning Tables’ arrival in Rangoon.

“I have the musical skills, but didn’t have the technical skills,” the 25-year-old told The Irrawaddy, after demonstrating the capabilities of the Maschine, a colorful console that can produce hundreds of sound effects through touch-sensitive pads and modulation dials. “When the knowledge is combined, it’s better for me.”

And, Turning Tables hopes, better for any young musicians or audio mixing enthusiast who finds his or her way to the house in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township.

The idea that an international NGO might implement this vision in Burma would have seemed impossible just a few years ago, when government censorship was pervasive and any gathering of more than five people was illegal. Since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, official censorship has been scrapped and a long-oppressed civil society is increasingly finding its voice.

Nineteen-year-old Aung Nyein Chan, a member of the DME crew who goes by the rap name “Dark Soul,” clearly thinks in terms of a new era of free speech.

“We can say anything we like, and we can tell through rap a lot of messages, a lot of things that we want or don’t want. We can rap about violence or anything. That’s why we like to rap,” said the musician, who counts Machine Gun Kelly, Eminem and local rapper J-Me among his influences.

Down the hall in a cramped back room, Generation Wave co-founder Min Yan Naing is mixing DJ Screw, his turntable and subwoofer set up adjacent to the house washing machine. It is in part thanks to the efforts of Min Yan Naing and his young Generation Wave colleagues, many of whom were imprisoned by the former military regime for their pro-democracy campaigning, that Dark Soul and the Turning Tables instructors are able to gather at the house in Rangoon.

Within the first two weeks of the lab’s launch, the Turning Tables crew shot a music video, soon to be released to the wider World Wide Web, and DME produced a song featuring Jakobsen that may well be the first Burmese/Danish-language rap track ever recorded. The house saw visits from Darko C, lead singer of the popular Burmese rock band Side Effect, and Saw Phoe Khwar, an ethnic Karen reggae artist who is said to be a favorite of President’s Office Minister Aung Min, the government’s point man on peace negotiations with Burma’s armed rebel groups.

Thang Man Vung, better known as Zalat, co-stars in the music video, which would best be described as an ode to peace and the human spirit. “Freedom” is a track with local flair, featuring footage set amid iconic Rangoon landmarks and incorporating, as an integral part of the beat, the distinctive smooching sound used in Burma’s teashops and restaurants to get a server’s attention.

“Sometimes we can change attitudes and behavior with music,” 22-year-old Zalat told The Irrawaddy, speaking of the medium’s importance to her. “It makes me happy and motivates me.”

The goal is to eventually leave the enterprise entirely to the local instructors. Turning Tables founder Martin Fernando Jakobsen (no relation to the aforementioned Jakobsen) says a “small but talented, eager and resilient independent film scene” combined with a rich musical tradition in Burma bodes well for the self-sustainability of the lab.

“There is an unbelievable mass of raw musical talent that springs from the fact that music is deeply embedded as a means of expression among Myanmar youth,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The natural existence of music everywhere in youth culture and in popular public meeting places like Inya Lake is next to only what I have encountered in Haiti and Africa.”

Next month, Turning Tables and Global Platform will launch “One Woman, One Camera” in cooperation with the international development NGO Oxfam. The initiative will see 20 young female activists from five different areas in Burma receive trainings in women’s rights and videography.

The Turning Tables video instructors will teach the women how to shoot with handheld cameras that each will be given to take back to their hometowns, where they will document issues of importance to them. At the house in Rangoon, the editing team will work with the raw footage, and the newly minted female directors, to turn the material into short documentaries.

As evidenced by Turning Tables’ foray into a once repressive nation, it is an optimistic time for freedom of expression in Burma. Still, under a government that continues to jail activists for simply staging protests, the mood among some remains hopeful but guarded.

As the DME boys rehearsed in an anterior room of the Turning Tables house during a visit by The Irrawaddy in October, Zalat paused momentarily when asked whether she, like Dark Soul, felt free to speak her mind in Burma today.

“I think right now, the situation is open like 80 percent, but we need 20 percent more,” she said. “We can sing, but we cannot yet shout.”