Thangyat reloaded

After being banned for nearly 30 years, the tradition of performing satirical songs during Thingyan is enjoying a revival as a new generation mocks the authorities.

By VERENA HÖLZL | FRONTIER

The Chinese foreign affairs minister is convulsing in rage. “Myitsone!” he roared. “Myiiiiitsone!” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is listening, calm and graceful as usual. “Quirkier!” shouted Ah Yine. “Your voice needs to be quirkier!” the comedian said.

Ah Yine was at a monastery on Yangon’s northern outskirts to rehearse with Suu Kyi, the foreign minister and a group of other people who, in real life, are 20-year-old students. They are stomping, clapping, raising their fists and chanting.

Under the shade of a corrugated iron roof, they are training for Thangyat, songs performed on stage during Thingyan, the traditional New Year water festival. For mocking the authorities or highlighting the country’s problems in Thangyat performances, members of their parents’ generation could have gone to jail for up to 20 years.

“Speaking up is part of our Burmese identity,” Ah Yine said, explaining how the tradition survived being banned for nearly 30 years.

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Ko Hlwan Paing, 20, was not born when the junta banned Thangyat in the aftermath of the anti-government protests in 1988. This was the second year the Business Administration student performed during Thingyan. “Last year, when the government was not ours yet, the performance was of course more exciting,” he said, smiling.

Hlwan Paing said Thangyat is more about “pointing out problems” than making harsh criticism. “Unconsciously, we are still afraid,” he said.

In the songs, the students speak out against mega dam projects, a broken education system and the limitless power of the military. Accusations are cushioned in jokes and irony.

“On stage, you can always say more,” said U Aung Din, 53. The former political prisoner, who was a student in 1988, attended the rehearsal to show support to his artistic successors (he didn’t perform Thangyat himself but regards the students his successors). When he was young, Thangyat singers did not have keyboards and sound systems, but otherwise little has changed. It’s something that makes Aung Din proud.

The tradition, which has been experiencing a gradual revival in Myanmar’s freer society since 2013, is more alive than ever. U Aung Soe Min couldn’t be happier about this. The owner of the Pansodan artspaces in Yangon no longer performs Thangyat. “It is time for a new generation,” he said.

Aung Soe Min also believes it’s time to be creative with music. “During military rule, it was unthinkable to mix Burmese music with modern beats,” he said.

Together with a friend, he started a project he calls Siwa. The idea is to modernise Myanmar music. “Modern music so far is usually Western music,” he complained. “We need to value our own music more in order to develop self-esteem. How else would we ever have a genuine sense of freedom of expression?”

Together with DVB, he is producing a TV show called “Open Music Festival”. In a recent episode it featured a Thangyat veteran who has been organising water festival singing since the ban was lifted. He has handed over his role as the group’s leading voice to a youngster – a sign of the changing times.

On his tablet computer, Aung Soe Min is playing a video of their performance and bobbing his head to the beat of the rhythm. A dozen young people in white shirts, longyis and donning red headbands are setting one foot in front of the other while shouting and chanting as if in a demonstration.

“Thangyat is freedom of expression,” Aung Soe Min said. This year, for the first time, the singers did not need permission from a censorship board and were allowed to perform in front of City Hall. Even if there is a long way to go to attaining genuine freedom of expression in Myanmar, one thing is for sure: When Aung Soe Min turns on his catchy tunes, all you want to do is dance.

Title photo: Verena Hölzl / Frontier

By Verena Hölzl

By Verena Hölzl

Verena Hölzl has been based in Yangon since February 2015. She usually reports on Myanmar for German media outlets.
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