‘I Thought It Would Be Great to Mix Traditional and Dance Music’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 6 April 2015

When Thxa Soe made a debut with his album “Yaw Thama Hmwe” in 2006, Burmese listeners were awed by his music. For many of them it was a revelation that traditional folk songs they had heard onstage performed by Burmese traditional troupes could be blended with Western electro music.

Due to the lively rhythms of both music forms, his songs are heartily embraced both in cities and the Burmese countryside, where local Top 10 songs are rarely popular. The 35-year-old musician spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Phyo Tha about his music, his views on piracy in the music industry in Burma and local artists’ obsession with doing cover songs.

How did you get the inspiration to blend Burmese traditional folk songs and electro music?

Basically, it is all started with my indomitable spirit. I went to London to study music in 2001 and during classes I hardly found any popular original Burmese music to play as all songs I had were covers. I felt quite ashamed [for the lack of originality].

Through reading, I learned about the fact that local music had long flourished, even in the Bagan-era. I was very curious to know what kind of music they were listening or playing at the time. Luckily, I had access to the British Library in London, I found some Nat Doe, a lively Burmese traditional music with strong beats performed at Nat Pwe (traditional spiritual musical performances), there. At the time, I was studying dance music and surprisingly found that they share, in some range, the same tempo. Then, the idea popped up in my mind that it would be great to mix them. I went back to Burma in 2003, 2004 to travel upcountry, doing some more research on Nat Doe. As a result, I could release ‘Yaw Thama Hmwe’ (which means ‘Mixed’) in 2006.

In the Burmese music scene at the time, the genre you chose was quite revolutionary. What was the audience’s response?

Some people liked it. But I was hugely criticized, too. I was labeled as “someone who ruined Burmese traditional music.” I have never been condemned like that before. But for me, what I did was something like dressing up a Burmese girl in Western clothes. So I have kept doing that kind of music and now I have six albums under my name.

What do you think of the music you have produced so far?

I have not changed, but people’s points of view have. I have earned applause from senior people from the traditional Burmese music circle. They even advised me on what song I should choose as I’m the only young musician who is interested in traditional music.

Now, I have been asked to write music for a state-level event. For example, the Minster of Immigration and Population requested me last year to write a theme song for the nationwide census gathering and for the SEA Games in 2013. Before that I was banned [from performing] and accused of ‘destroying traditional music.’ Haha.

You have complained a lot about pirated music albums here as you are also one of the victims. What is the current situation?

Piracy has been a cancer for the music industry here since around 2003. Even though we tried to fight against it, we still can’t overcome. We reformed the Myanmar Music Association in 2011 and organized an anti-piracy team of which I’m the secretary. So far we have seen some light at the end of the tunnel. Due to the team’s effort, we saw a double increase in [local] album sales in the market. Despite the government’s cooperation in anti-piracy, it would be much better if they are more helpful.

If you compare with other art forms, most music here still can’t gain international recognition. Why not?

Because most of the musicians here have no shame—they have been singing cover songs as if they were their own. I have been an anti-cover song artist so many people in the industry here hate me. The more Burma is exposed to the internationally community these days, they should be more careful in what they are doing.

Basically, as an artist you must have your own creation. What mostly happens here is that people either do cover songs or take some parts of music from international hits to blend them into their own. They know very well it is unethical, but they just keep doing it as it doesn’t require much effort. Plus, it is easy money.

What about your international performances. How did the audiences out there respond to your music?

Last year, I performed in Vietnam where I was invited by BBC world. In 2013, I toured in Europe. I found they liked my music. For them, that kind of mixed songs between traditional and electro is not very strange as they have already experienced something like that from mixing African and electro music. But they heartily responded to my music as it is very lively and good to dance to.

Do you think the Burmese music industry could potentially one day leave cover songs behind?

I see a growing number of young artists trying to make their way with their own creation. But they still can’t overcome those who make cover songs using international hits. It’s very sad. But if they keep what they are doing, they could make it. The situation will be better, I think, probably in next five decades.