Rangoon’s Independent Music Scene Comes Alive

By Naomi Gingold 13 September 2013

RANGOON — Rangoon’s independent music scene shook the city last weekend. At a closed bowling alley in the eastern part of town on Sunday, DJs, underground hip-hop artists and alternative Burmese rock bands united under the banner of “Jam It!”  to entertain a crowd of young revelers into the late hours of the night.

Frustrated at the lack of live music and music venues that would agree to host alternative and underground acts in Rangoon, two independent musicians started Jam It!, an organization that strives to put on monthly live music events, late last year. One of those musicians, Eaiddhi, has since become the guitarist of Side Effect, one of the country’s most internationally known bands, while the other, Ye Ngwe Soe, is the lead singer for No U Turn, another major band in Burma’s underground punk scene.

The group’s first show was held outside a famous amphitheater in Kandawgyi Park and consisted of a few bands playing acoustic guitars for a handful of friends. Jam It! eventually found a home at a local restaurant but turned to Right Track Bowling Centre for their latest event.

In terms of ambience, the Jam It! organizers couldn’t have made a better move. The vibe of the darkened, after-hours bowling alley complimented the raw, DIY mood of the event, and concert-goers loved it.

Sunday night was the biggest show yet for Jam It!, with a crowd of about 250 people. The evening began with DJ Zaw Gyi spinning tracks—followed by the band Allergic Reaction—but really started to gain steam when the spunky lead singer and guitarist from The Myth took the stage with her band.

Hip-hop trio Cyclone descended on the crowd after The Myth, bringing with them a wave of appropriately dressed fans that seemed to spread out across the space. The beats were catchy and the raps were tight, with concert-goers singing along from the trio’s very first number, a song called “24-7.” Cyclone was quickly followed by Snare, a duo of former Cyclone members that have recently been riding high in the world of Burmese hip-hop.

After Cyclone and Snare finished their ear-catching sets, Skunx, a group whose style is probably best described as a mix of metal and electro-hip-hop, stormed the stage. The lead MC, sporting dreadlocks down past his shoulders, performed a number of high-energy, well-crafted songs with his crew that really roused the crowd.

Side Effect, fresh off their European mini-tour, took the stage as the last band of the night. Introducing the set, lead singer Darko told the band’s excited fans that although he was glad to have performed for such huge crowds in Europe, he couldn’t be happier to be back in Burma, performing for a local audience.

At the bowling alley, fans danced along to the music, jumping and pumping their arms, occasionally singing along and even chanting the band’s name. At one point, Darko jumped out into the crowd, still singing, and joined the dancing.

One of the songs Side Effect played was “Meiktila,” which Darko wrote out of sadness at recent violence against Muslims in Buddhist-majority Burma.  Speaking after the show, he said, “I wrote this song in English because I want the world to understand there are also people who don’t think like that. For us, we don’t really hate Muslim people. We can live in harmony. We totally believe that.”

Side Effect is a Burmese alternative punk rock band that first gained recognition overseas when their successful fund-raising campaign on Indiegogo, an international crowd-funding website, went awry last year because of US government sanctions on Burma. They have since won a large overseas following—a fact that was reflected in the makeup of the crowd this weekend, which included a number of expatriates.

Sunday’s iteration of Jam It! was officially the closing party for the Wathann Film Festival, held annually since 2011, and it featured some of the top acts in Burma’s underground and alternative music world playing alongside unknown bands. Both Jam It! and Wathann are part of a recent flowering of an independent arts culture in Rangoon that has taken off since the easing of repressive government measures.

At the end of Side Effect’s highly enjoyable set, Darko announced, “The party’s not over. We’re still going to be here and party with you!” before he jumped off stage and an electronic dance beat filled the darkened bowling alley.