A Burmese Reggae Album for Love and Country

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 1 June 2015

Saw Poe Kwar must be among Burma’s most talented artists when it comes to musically conveying his beliefs, raw emotions and political ideology to his fans—and to those in power as well. After listening to his newest album, I hope President Thein Sein and the key players of his reformist government will pick up a copy.

The 10 songs of his latest reggae record beautifully and emotionally address issues relating to the social and political context of our shared country. His songs express a broad spectrum of sentiment, from sarcasm and mockery to sadness and loving kindness.

The title track, “Go Rest on a Big Branch,” is especially meaningful for Burmese people, most of whom have cultivated a deep loathing for the military leaders who ruled them over the past five decades. Its mocking rhymes are paired with an amusing melody and the overall message to Burma’s former (or perhaps current?) leaders is clear: Please, just go away.

The phrase “go rest on a big branch,” for those not In The Know, is a Burmese expression that literally means “go away” or “don’t meddle with us.”

The song reads: “You, don’t dictate over us. Take a look at what you’ve done; it’s been more bad than good. We all know it… Go and rest on a big branch.”

In simple terms, the song reflects the feeling of many Burmese people, though it might be difficult for foreigners to get the point. A cartoon accompanying the song offers more clarity for the non-Burmese among us, depicting a reggae musician as he releases a slingshot aimed at a man-bird wearing a military cap and perched on a tree branch.

The song’s chorus goes: “Step out if you are not aware; go away if you don’t understand.” For the Burmese audience, the pronoun “you” is at best a thin veil for a more specific target of criticism.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Another song—less irreverent and more sorrowful—is “The Landmine.” It is, in this listener’s opinion, the most touching song on the album.

It begins with a conversation between the singer and a young Karen girl in a remote village. When he asks the girl why one of her legs is missing, she answers: “While my mom was taking a shower in a stream, I was playing with my younger brother in the jungle nearby. Then the two of us stepped on a landmine. My brother died instantly and I lost my leg.”

The girl asks the singer, “Also in your city, are there landmines?”

“No landmines there,” the singer replies hesitantly. “But like landmines, there is fearsome hatred that is planted in the hearts of our human beings. It causes a lot of wars, violence and conflict in many areas. They are ‘landmines’ planted in humans’ hearts.”

The story, whether based on fact or fiction, would be sad in any context. But its poignancy is profound in Burma, where the real stories of Karen and other ethnic minority families echo the young girl’s hardship as 60 years of civil war have left the country peppered with landmines.

According to the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), at least 3,200 people were killed and injured over a 10-year period ending in 2011, though the actual number was almost certainly far higher. The ICBL said: “As of May 2013, mine warfare continues to take place within the country by both government forces and some non-state armed groups, but on a more limited scale than previous years.”

Saw Poe Kwar’s song calls for a complete end to the use of landmines.

This album is the fifth for the devout reggae artist Saw Poe Kwar, who is in his late 40s. He describes reggae in one of his songs as rhymes of peace, a symbol of freedom and true love or loving kindness. As one of Burma’s foremost practitioners of the genre, Saw Poe Kwar is a passionate advocate for peace, freedom and equality. For the Karen crooner, there is no place for discrimination based on color, ethnicity or creed, as revealed in the song “Human = Human.”

Another tune tells a tale of two lovers who lost each other after Burma’s former military regime cracked down on a peaceful student demonstration near the Rangoon University campus in 1988. It is titled “A Love Tale-88.” Other songs call for the end to wars across the world, as well as in Burma’s ethnic minority areas.

It’s obvious that the singer released the album with the objective not only of entertaining his audience, but also to better inform them of the complex country in which they live. All of the songs are accompanied by cartoons illustrated by Lai Lone that are laden with political overtones.

Saw Poe Kwar titles the first song of the album “Love is the Answer,” setting listeners up for what, it becomes clear, is the essence of the record.

Bookended by the track “Love Each Other,” the album’s message is indisputable. The first song reads: “There is no fighting…, there is no more crying…; there is no trouble…, there are no more problems. That means no more war.”

Amid all the complexities of Burma’s transition, the message of Saw Poe Kwar seems to call for more love as the antidote to what ails us.

For that, I think the word “love,” which the singer uses throughout the album, must be interpreted politically. I believe that politically speaking, “love” means exercising empathy, benevolence, goodwill and altruism toward people. And I believe that a government and its constituent parts must practice that kind of love as they govern. Only with that love in mind can a government truly serve its people.

And to put it in terms of electoral politics, you have to love in order to be loved.

It’s an axiom all of Burma’s aspirant leaders would do well to internalize ahead of a nationwide election later this year, when the ballot box will indicate where the hearts of the people lie.