Girl Band Challenges Old Conservatism in Burma

By webadmin on 07:23 pm Jan 11, 2012
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With sensual choreography and provocative outfits, Burma’s first girl band pushes the limits of artistic acceptability in this socially conservative country.

But when their parents call, asking why they are not home at 10 p.m., the five band members scurry back to being deferential daughters. “We are living two different lives,” said Lung Sitt Ja Moon, who is known onstage as Ah Moon. “We do what we want to do onstage, and then we go home to our parents.”

The band is called Me N Ma Girls, a play on “Myanmar girls,” referring to an alternative name for the country. They are battling conservative parents, government censorship and boyfriends who think it is outrageous that they go onstage in such skimpy outfits.

“We try our best to be hot, but not too sexy,” said Wai Hnin Khaing, another band member.

Burma is emerging after years of dictatorial military rule and isolation. There is talk that the censorship board, which vets songs, articles and movies, will be abolished. Government-sanctioned art and traditional, ankle-length sarongs are being challenged by the prospect of more Western-inspired entertainment, clothing and lifestyles.

“People think that if a girl is wearing something too sexy, she’s not normal,” said Ah Moon, whose preacher father is still grappling with her career choice. “They think she’s a bad girl.”

The members of Me N Ma Girls, all in their early 20s, often travel to rehearsals dressed in traditional outfits. The denim shorts and tank tops they rehearse in would raise eyebrows on the streets of Rangoon.

The band members do not see themselves as rebels. All five have college degrees: chemistry, zoology, mathematics, Russian and computer science. They are tapping into a trend by Burma’s younger generation to embrace Western pop culture.

Me N Ma Girls released its first album in December and has been raising its profile with a recent string of concerts in Rangoon. The band is the creation of an Australian dancer and graphic designer, Nicole May, who came to Burma three years ago and teamed up with a Burmese, Moe Kyaw. He initially financed the effort.

May chose five women from 120 candidates who responded to an ad for a band called Tiger Girls. “I wanted five girls who had energy and magnetic attraction,” she said.

But her winners did not have the South Korean look Moe Kyaw was aiming for: light-skinned with willowy bodies.

“I was skeptical,” he said in response to e-mailed questions. “If you were to ask me if I thought they had the looks for a successful girl band, I would say no.”

Moe Kyaw said he initially relented because he thought that the girls were talented and that looks were not everything. “This was during the days of Susan Boyle,” he said, recalling the unprepossessing Scottish singer who soared to stardom on a British TV talent show.

But he changed his mind. A year ago, the partners parted. The girls followed May and changed their name to Me N Ma Girls.

The notion of an all-girl band is still novel here, said Heather MacLachlan, a professor of music at the University of Dayton and the author of a recent book, “Burma’s Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors, Censors.”

The band sings about love and heartbreak and boy-meets-girl situations that might be benign in other cultures but rankle in a society where children live with their parents until they are married.

In the video for their song “Festival,” the girls dance in a sweaty nightclub and take a dip in a swimming pool. They peer over sunglasses as they sing the suggestive lines: “Hey, you! Are you happy? You want some?”

“I’ve NEVER seen girls behave like that, ever,” MacLachlan wrote in an e-mail, referring to Burmese girls.

As pop musicians in Burma, Me N Ma Girls face a unique set of problems. The power regularly goes out in one of their practice locations and the roof leaks during the rainy season. The censors barred the band from using colored wigs last year. “Tipping” the censors eases the process.

Growing name recognition has yet to translate to financial success.

Wai Hnin Khaing’s mother makes a living selling pork salad on the street for 200 kyat, or about 25 cents, a plate.

Lalrin Kimi, who goes by Kimmy onstage, grew up in a mountain village near the border with India, an area that suffers from famine and plagues of rice-eating rats. She lives with her siblings in Rangoon and makes a living singing in bars and restaurants.

Her father disapproved of her joining the band. “He wanted me to do only gospel songs,” she said.

The girls have big dreams.

“I want this band to hit Hollywood!” said Su Pyae Mhu Eain, the zoology major, known as Cha Cha.

Cha Cha’s own experiences inspired a song about a breakup, featuring the chorus, “You are a liar!” The song’s video was shot in Bangkok late last year.

For most of the band, that trip was the first time outside impoverished Burma. They marveled at Bangkok’s mass transit, the malls and the anonymity of a big city.

“I felt freedom there,” Kimmy said. “We could wear whatever. We didn’t need to care about other people. Here, if we wear shorts, we get teased.”

The band also saw the libertine side of Bangkok, including a sex show. “There were so many things we don’t see in Myanmar,” Kimmy said. “Prostitutes — so many!” (The show, which featured one particularly explicit sex act, was too much for Cha Cha. She ran to the ladies’ room and vomited.)

The girls are planning a return early this year, where they will perform with other bands from Burma. In the meantime, they focus on rehearsals, and keeping their parents soothed.

Band member Htike Htike Aung received a text message from her mother after one recent rehearsal carried over to midnight.

“Do you know you still have parents!” the message read, followed by more pleading: “My little daughter, call me back!”

She returned home and found her mother waiting for her with a home-cooked meal.

“She never goes to sleep until I get back,” Htike Htike Aung said. “I felt so bad.”