Scanning recent messages on the Burmese band Side Effect’s Twitter feed gives some sense for what it’s like to be a punk rocker in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
One from the beginning of January reads “Twitter is still new for us ‘coz they had banned it for a long time.” Later that day: “Electricity went off again! Damn!” A few weeks after that: “Buddhism helps us a lot with how to use Internet patiently. 99 times slower than the connection in your country.”
Sluggish Internet and spotty electricity are two of the hurdles Side Effect faces in trying to get their music heard. Here’s another: Presidential Executive Order 13,310. That’s one of the U.S. sanctions against Myanmar.
Side Effect was raising money on IndieGoGo—a crowd-sourced fundraising site. They’d raised almost $3,000 before IndieGoGo froze their account and refunded the money to the donors. They were concerned that sanctions would block distribution of the money.
“We are not working with the government,” says Darko C., Side Effect’s singer and guitarist, “We are just a group of young people who are trying to rock Yangon, and Burma.”
The band members get their rock from some familiar sources: they cite Kurt Cobain as a huge influence, and love groups like The Strokes, The White Stripes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The band’s drummer, Tser Htoo, had a musical upbringing that was a little less rock: he sang tenor in his mom’s church choir. Now he counts the drummers from Blink 182 and Korn among his influences.
The subjects of Side Effect’s songs also take on some traditional rock themes. One is titled “Ye Wai Wai.” “That means getting drunk,” explains Darko. He wrote the song six years ago, right after he finished college. The band didn’t have money for rehearsal space, or even a drink.
“We were so down; we were so down. So the best thing that I can do is to go to a friend who can buy me a drink,” he says.
The lyrics of another song, called “Film,” deal with ladies. They talk about taking a date to the movies; Darko says that’s one of the only ways to get away from the watchful eyes of uptight adults in Yangon.
The band wants to put both of these songs out on an album—that’s one of the things they were going to use the IndieGoGo money for. Since that disappeared, they’ve been putting appeals out elsewhere, and have re-raised about $500.
And they’re getting help from some friends. The Toronto-based duo Handsome Furs is asking its fans to support Side Effect. The bands spent a week hanging out when the Canadians played Yangon in 2010. Dan Boeckner of the Handsome Furs says he was blown away by the heroic lengths Side Effect went to to play music.
“I was just so inspired by meeting those guys,” Boeckner says. “We have friends in bands and there’s a lot of complaining about being on tour and how the economy is getting worse and it’s hard to be an artist and etc. etc. And then I got to Myanmar and met these guys and was like…my friends in the artistic community are giant babies compared to these guys.”
Handsome Furs wrote the song “Serve the People” about Myanmar, and dedicated it to the guys in Side Effect. The song became an anthem of sorts for Occupy Wall Street and for G20 protests in Toronto, but Boeckner says he’s most proud of the fact that it played on a Yangon radio station.
Side Effect returned the favor, recording a version of the Handsome Furs song “Radio Kaliningrad.”
Recently, Myanmar’s gotten international attention for taking some steps towards reform. Darko said he didn’t think life had changed very much yet for ordinary people in Yangon. One thing did occur to him though.
“Before, I wouldn’t be dare to talk to you like this,” he said during our interview. “After this program is online, the government guy will be knock on the door—knock-knock-knock—and ‘Can I ask you a question, can you come with us for a moment?’ And then you know like [snaps] 45-years sentence. That could happen to us. But now, you know, we don’t really feel that fear.”
The E.U. and the U.S. have been talking about ending sanctions, and have already lifted some restrictions. Side Effect hopes that more bands will come to play in Yangon, and that, soon, they can get the money together to release their first album.
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