Tuning In

By Jerry Peerson 9 July 2014

YANGON — Artistic collaboration between locals and foreigners is alive and well in Yangon.

Recent events coordinated and sponsored by both foreign and national entities have introduced the community to high-caliber cultural entertainment, as well as a spirit of mutual appreciation for the arts and their respective backgrounds.

As a musician myself, the seeming growth of such events in this city looks like a welcome opportunity to bring out talent teeming under the surface.

During one weekend in June, I attended two events sponsored by the Myanmar Ministry of Culture, and the Myanmar Music Association, in collaboration with the embassy of Ireland in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The events, at Chatrium Hotel and the more intimate Pansodan Scene, were designed as a cultural exchange between the musical traditions of Ireland and Myanmar.

Mick Moloney, a respected Irish musician, New York University professor and frequent visitor to Myanmar, was accompanied by three very talented young women, and shared the hall with several professional Myanmar musicians from the National University of Arts and Culture and the Myanmar Music Association.

Mick explained that one of the first things he noticed when he arrived in Myanmar was that the two countries share a national symbol: the harp, or as it is known in Myanmar, the saùnggauk.

The events were the first ever, according to the sponsors, to feature both national instruments on one stage. One of the highlights of the evening for me was when renowned harpist Michelle Mulcahy was spotlighted to perform her own composition—part of her PhD in Arts Practice—which deftly combined the harp traditions of both Irish and Myanmar cultures.

An enchanting performance by local harpist Saung U Thein Han Gyi on the saùnggauk, and vocalist U Thet Swe followed. The pair weaved divergent melodies together and apart for a unique sound enhanced by the ancient Myanmar instrument.

The events also featured readings by Irish poet, and now Yangon resident, Joe Woods from his own work as well as excerpts from James Joyce’s ‘‘Ulysses’’ for the first official celebration of Bloomsday in this country.

Another event that weekend brought an artistic exchange of contemporary musicians, poets and painters to the ever-popular Open Mic Night at Nawaday Tharlar Art Gallery.

This was the ninth such event, organized by gallery curator Pyay Way, who says he started Open Mic Night as a way to “prove that young people are interested in art and that they are talented.”

This was the second occasion on which I was able to perform a selection of my own original music, joined throughout the night by a multitude of other extremely talented Yangonites and foreign artists.

I was particularly impressed by several young Myanmar poets, whose articulate, profound and sometimes humorous pieces occasionally elicited skin-tingling emotion from the crowd.

A major crowd-pleaser of the night was when a Myanmar band played a rendition of The Beatles’ ‘‘Hey Jude,’’ and the audience joined in for the song’s recognizable sing-along ending.

These events provided a platform for a diverse expression of Yangon’s burgeoning artistic talent, and deepened the underlying promise that locals and foreigners alike are boosting a breath of fresh air into the city’s arts scene.

This article was first published in the July 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.