Despite decades of repression, and even isolation, the pop music scene in Myanmar is thriving. And it's not just any pop music: In many cases, carbon copies of American pop songs spring up with a Burmese twist.
Heather MacLachlan, a music professor at the University of Dayton, traveled to Myanmar a few years ago to study the country's traditional music, only to discover that most people were listening to pop. She writes about the phenomenon in her new book, Burma's Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors, Censors.
"A lot of Burmese people — and musicians especially — when they talk about what is a good song, what is a quality piece of work, what they say is, 'It's a song that sells a lot, a song that's commercially successful,' " MacLachlan says in an interview with NPR's Guy Raz. "That's how they judge artistic quality. So they know as well as everybody else that the best-selling music in the world comes out of the American and British pop-music industries. That's the music that they've very much taken to themselves, and it has become something that's really part of Burmese life since the early 1970s."
These bands do write original material, but the "copy songs" often feature different lyrics to subversively spread political messages.
"They sometimes write lyrics that are rather poetic, and they use different kinds of metaphors that can be interpreted as undermining the regime," MacLachlan says. "But they have to be very subtle because, of course, the music is censored and the censors immediately ban any kind of music that is overtly pro-democracy."
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