I need to talk about music here for a minute.
One of the consequences of being a pariah state is that you have to manage on your own. While this is obviously detrimental to trade and national prosperity, it does have the effect of preserving your culture from external influences. Globalisation’s just sailed right past Burma, and the big brands that spend ten times more on marketing than they do on products are nowhere to be seen here, except as very expensive special imports.
This is also true of music. Big international acts don’t seem to have much of a presence here, with a few inexplicable exceptions, such as Justin Bieber.
However, that’s not to say that Burmese popular music would sound alien to your Western ear. Oh no. It’s just the same, only sung in Burmese. And when I say just the same, I mean that there’s a fair chance you won’t immediately notice they’re singing in a tongue you can’t understand. Because they’re doing it in an American accent.
Better than this, though, I heard one song which had a bit of a dancehall-ish middle eight, featuring a short Burmese rap delivered in a Jamaican accent.
And the songs themselves often sound very familiar. Not to the extent that they’re a straight rip-off - which I suppose makes them more original than a fair bit of what fills the charts in the West - but they always sound a bit like that song you can’t quite put your finger on.
The national canon does seem rather limited, though, because I’m already becoming familiar with much of it. Partly from the obligatory bus karaoke, partly from snatches heard walking around, but mostly from guys singing on street corners. I’ve never known a place like this for young men just sitting around strumming guitars and singing songs with their friends. It happens everywhere you go, to the extent that many a cafe has a guitar or two hanging up for people to pick up and play.
I really like it.