Late for Nowhere

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Music Review: Yone Lay’s “Gangster Life”

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Hip-hop that should be stopped

Myanmar boasts a vibrant hip-hop scene spearheaded by a number of talented rappers. Unfortunately, Yone Lay is not one of them.

The first time I listened to the song “Last Chance” on Yone Lay’s album Gangster Life, I thought something was seriously amiss with my stereo system.

The song starts out agreeably enough, with well-known singer Chan Chan’s pleasant voice lilting over a softly strummed guitar. After about half a minute, however, things go terribly awry.

This is the point at which Yone Lay takes the microphone and starts rapping in a way that is shockingly at odds with the rhythm of the song. Chan Chan is singing pop, while Yone Lay delivers lethargic rhymes to an off-kilter beat that apparently only he can hear.

It’s like being caught between two radios tuned to different stations – I wanted to turn off the hip-hop radio and let Chan Chan finish her song without the interference. This is unfortunate because 99 times out of 100, I would pick hip-hop over saccharine pop vocals.

Except that some people just weren’t cut out for rapping. There’s more to the art form than simply spewing rhymes into a microphone and aping the “gangsta” trope, which, like “punk”, has been rendered virtually meaningless through years of misappropriation by glee clubbers.

Hip-hop requires timing, flow, versatility and a few other hard-to-define attributes that might best be collectively described as “soul”. The most talented rappers make it seem easy, but when it’s done poorly, it inspires a greater appreciation for those who have mastered the essential skills.

This point is aptly illustrated in “Underground Life”, which is by far the most likeable song on Gangster Life. The six-minute track features a collection of eminent guest rappers, including Jauk Jack, Kyaw Htut Swe, Satan, Player-K and Mi Sandy.

Despite the song’s chintzy electro-orchestral backing music, the guest rappers spend the first five minutes demonstrating how Myanmar hip-hop is meant to be performed: It’s flowy, powerful and playful. Were the bass track to be deleted, you would still be able to sense the beat pounding through the rhythmic vocal delivery.

Then, with a minute to go, Yone Lay takes over with his cotton-mouthed, beat-deaf style, and the song instantly tanks. The listener can discern a crucial lack of conviction, and the effect is like dumping cold water on a merry campfire: sizzle, hiss, lights out.

Yone Lay does acquit himself reasonably well on songs like “Just Two of Us Like Before”, in which he sings pop music accompanied by an acoustic guitar. But in the midst of what is ostensibly a hip-hip album, such tracks seem rather dull and out of place.

You might not know it from listening to Gangster Life, but Yone Lay is quite accomplished as a composer of songs for numerous Myanmar pop stars. This is where he first gained fame and where his true talents lie.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Yone Lay give up recording his own music. He’s free to exercise his creativity in any way he chooses – just as I’m free to delete the Gangster Life mp3 files from my iPod as soon as I’m done writing this review.

Written by latefornowhere

January 9, 2014 at 3:29 am

Nick Drake, lost son of Rangoon

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Central Women’s Hospital (Yangon), formerly Dufferin Hospital, birthplace of Nick Drake.

On June 19, 1948, five months after Myanmar gained its hard-won independence from Britain, another noteworthy incident occurred in Yangon, this one escaping the world’s notice at the time but destined years later to have a significant, if underrated, impact on a field far removed from global politics.

The event in question was the birth of Nicholas Rodney Drake at Dufferin Hospital, now the Central Women’s Hospital (Yangon) on Min Ye Kyaw Swar Street in Lanmadaw Township.

Nicholas’ parents Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation employee Rodney Drake, and Mary Lloyd, the daughter of a senior member of the Indian Civil Service – had met in Burma in 1934 and married in 1937.

In 1950 the family moved from Rangoon to Bombay, and the following year they returned to England and settled in a country house in the village of Tanworth-in-Arden in west Warwickshire.

The boy born in Rangoon would grow up to become Nick Drake, a singer-songwriter who released three albums of melancholic, guitar-based music from 1969 to 1972.

His short career ended in 1974, at the age of 26, when he died from an overdose of a prescribed antidepressant. Whether the overdose was intentional or accidental has been a point of debate in the years since.

Nick Drake – who would have been 65 years old this week – was never a popular musician during his lifetime, and his albums Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972) each sold fewer than 5000 copies when initially released.

Part of the blame for this lack of success lay with the musician himself: Suffering from depression and tending toward extreme introversion, he usually refused to perform live or give interviews.

In the years after his death, Drake’s music was forgotten by nearly everyone except a small group of hardcore fans. But in the 1980s some notable musicians began citing him as a major influence, including REM’s Peter Buck and The Cure’s Robert Smith. The Dream Academy also dedicated their hit song “Life in a Northern Town” (1985) to Drake.

His influence continued to grow, if at a glacial pace, through the 1990s. The decade saw the release of a series of documentaries about his life, including Lost Boy: In Search of Nick Drake, narrated by Brad Pitt, who confessed to being a fan of the musician.

Drake’s big posthumous breakthrough finally occurred in 1999 when The Guardian newspaper named Bryter Layter the best alternative album of all time, but more visibly when his song “Pink Moon” was used in a popular Volkswagen Cabrio television commercial.

While some long-time fans were disturbed by the use of Drake’s music to sell cars, the advertisement brought his songs to a whole new generation of listeners, and resulted in a massive increase in sales: More Drake records were sold within 30 days of the ad’s appearance than in the 30 years following the release of his debut album Five Leaves Left (1969).

Other important musicians began citing Drake as an influence including Lucinda Williams, Badly Drawn Boy, Lou Barlow, Kate Bush, Paul Weller and The Black Crowes — and more companies, such as US telecom giant AT&T, based television advertisements around his songs.

Drake’s late-blooming popularity is well deserved. Many musicians claim that their music “comes from the heart”, but few demonstrate an uncompromising willingness to delve deep inside their troubled psyches, and then share with the world the thorny truths they find within.

Drake clearly had no qualms about taking this approach. His lyrics reflect his lifelong battle with depression, as well as his love of inward-looking poets like William Blake and William Butler Yeats who were not afraid to cast themselves adrift in the turbulent seas of emotional ambiguity.

Musically, Drake’s songs have an organic, authentic feel, the antithesis of K-pop boy bands and other pseudo-musicians who have been artificially manufactured by producers with the primary aim not so much to entertain as to make money.

Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter are characterized by austere instrumentation, including minimalist string, brass and saxophone arrangements, while Pink Moon is even starker: just a man and his guitar carving out a quiet corner amid the cacophony of the world.

The sound of this last album is pure Drake, joyfully somber, a soundtrack for the sweet agony of dark, fathomless nights. The songs seem mysterious at first, and only become increasingly enigmatic with subsequent listens.

Herein lies the real appeal of Drake’s music. While many new albums wear out their welcome after 10, or five, or even fewer listens, the 31 songs that make up these three albums still, four decades on, pack a beautiful and terrifyingly transcendent punch.

Written by latefornowhere

June 19, 2013 at 2:21 am

Myanmar death metal on video

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Below is a link to some video footage I took at the “We Are the Legend” metal and hardcore matinee in Yangon on May 17. Three bands are represented: Last Day of Beethoven, Suicide Plan and Tagadoom. The visuals are okay, but the sound is pretty crap, due to the fact that I very stupidly forgot to bring my external microphone to the concert. Enjoy …

“We Are the Legend” metal and hardcore show on Vimeo





The Last Day of Pleasant Music

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Darkest Tears from My Heart at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (photo supplied by the band)

Yangon’s death metal underground searches for acceptance in an ocean of pop and hip-hop

Things were not going well for the young headbangers of Yangon. Forty minutes into a rare outdoor concert that had brought together nearly every band involved in the city’s death metal underground, the plug had been pulled and the lights were out.

Was it part of a sinister plot by iron-fisted authorities to silence the 14 bands on the bill, which boasted a spine-tingling litany of acts such as Nightmare, The Last Day of Beethoven, Darkest Tears From My Heart, Married for the Pain and Take My Last Breath?

Not quite, according to show organiser Aung Khant. At work was a force much darker than censorship, a force that has had an enormously negative impact on Yangon’s metal scene: lack of respect.

“The problem was not the government. They gave us a permit for the concert. The problem was the people who run [concert venue] Kandawgyi Park, who took our money to rent the stage but didn’t supply us with enough voltage, so the music blew the system,” he said. “This is something that would never happen to a big-name pop or hip-hop act in Yangon.”

Popular musicians not only get all the voltage, Aung Khant complained, they also get all the sponsorship money. With Yangon suffering from a lack of small venues suitable for up-and-coming bands, the majority of concerts are held on big stages in parks and theatres, and they don’t come cheap.

“In Myanmar there are hundreds of shows every year, but there is no place for underground metal,” said Novem Htoo, the vocalist of Nightmare. “No one will sponsor our concerts. When we approach potential supporters, all they want to know is what famous musicians will perform, and then they never get back to us.”

“They don’t understand music. All they know about is money,” added the band’s guitarist, Aung Myo Linn.

The watershed year for underground metal in Yangon was 2007, which saw the formation of Nightmare, The Last Day of Beethoven, Darkest Tears From My Heart and a handful of other groups.

Five of these new bands immediately got together and recorded two songs each, releasing them on a ten-song compilation CD, which was distributed for free at shows. Around that time a promoter named Ko Ye also kicked off an underground concert series called Woodstock, named after (and funded by) his fashion shop in Yangon.

“We had big audiences for the first few concerts in that series. They knew our songs from the CD sampler,” said Pho Zaw, guitarist for The Last Day of Beethoven.

Darkest Tears From My Heart singer Moe Lone added that the Woodstock series was launched out of love for metal music, but organisers eventually fell prey to the clarion call of big-name acts, adding local superstars like rocker R Zarni to the bill for the fifth and sixth concerts. They would end up being the last shows in the series.

“The organisers understood metal music in some ways and misunderstood it in others. They made a mistake by mixing metal and pop-rock music,” Moe Lone said. “Our fans wanted to see metal bands, and the other fans wanted pop music. It ended in conflict and disappointment for everyone.”


Left to right: Aung Myo Lwin (Nightmare guitarist), Aung Khant (promoter), the author, Flitz Brown (promoter), Novem Htoo (Nightmare vocalist)

It was the beginning of a downturn for the metal underground. For a few years no one stepped in to organise shows exclusively for metal fans, and bands lacked the funds to record and release their own music. Many of them bowed out of the scene for good. In 2012 there were only two metal concerts (including the Kandawgyi Park fiasco), and audiences were small.

“It’s expensive to book time in recording studios, or even to buy instruments,” said Novem Htoo. “Some of the bands lacked the patience to deal with these problems, so they broke up and some musicians moved overseas.”

Others, including Nightmare, have soldiered on. The band plans to release their debut CD, with all-original material, some time after April. Currently in the mixing stage, the 12-song disc titled Nga Dto Thamine (Our History) will be the first solo album to come out of Yangon’s death metal scene.

Nightmare was formed by friends who shared an interest in metal music, with influences including American bands Suicide Silence and Lamb of God. Novem Htoo said they chose their name to indicate that they were a force that could not be ignored. “People don’t like having nightmares, but it’s not their choice and they can’t avoid them,” he said. “They have nightmares whether they like it or not.”

Musically the band matches the growling, ripsaw intensity of their brethren in the West, but while Western death metal lyrics often focus on violence, horror and the occult, Nightmare writes about topics like broken families and people who destroy themselves in the pursuit of material wealth.

“We want to give our fans who are having personal troubles something to grab onto, something to make them feel reassured,” Novem Htoo said. “We want to give them a sense of self, tell them to live happily, and then when it’s time to die, they will die like everyone else.”

The Last Day of Beethoven also focuses on self-realisation. “Most of our songs send a message of not giving up, of not being so downhearted. And some songs are just meant to get an energetic reaction from the crowd,” said guitarist Pho Zaw.

He added that the band has not been affected by the recent relaxation in the censorship of music lyrics resulting from Myanmar’s slow plod toward democracy. “We don’t write rude songs or use rude words like some hip-hop singers, so we never had problems with censors,” he said.

And the band’s name? “Beethoven created pleasant music. What we mean is that when we take the stage, there will be no more pleasant music, it’s the last day of pleasant music,” Pho Zaw added.

With any luck, Yangon metal fans will soon have more “unpleasant” music to enjoy. Aung Khant is currently scraping together money to organise another group show, this time at a venue where he hopes the power will stay on. He’s aiming for June, but an exact date has not been set.

In another positive sign, he said he has noticed an increased interest in metal music among teenagers, despite the lack of concerts and recorded material.

“A couple of years ago, 16- and 17-year-olds were only interested in hip-hop. But now we’re seeing some new young guys getting into the metal scene,” Aung Khant said.

“Everyone has their own musical tastes,” Novem Htoo added. “I think some of these young people come from family situations or economic backgrounds that are not so good, and maybe for them the passion and the screaming vocals of metal music provide some kind of respite.”

Whether Yangon’s underground metal scene remains stagnant seems beside the point for some of these musicians, who look set to continue making their music with or without fans and concerts.

“Compared with pop music and hip-hop, metal takes a lot more time and practice to do well, and we’re all dedicated to improving,” Moe Lone said.

“I don’t even understand why I like metal so much, but I know it’s lodged in my blood and in my mind. And whenever I listen to other types of music, I get a headache and feel a little sick,” he said with a smile.

This story was published in the April 2013 issue of Southeast Asia Globe monthly magazine.