Monthly Archives: January 2012

Myanmar’s First Girl Band Pushes Limits of Censors, and Parents

Myanmar’s First Girl Band Pushes Limits of Censors, and Parents

Wai Hnin Khaing, top, of Me N Ma Girls, took a break during a video shoot in Yangon.

Published: January 4, 2012

YANGON, Myanmar — With their sensual choreography and provocative outfits, the five members of Myanmar’s first girl band are pushing the limits of artistic acceptability in this socially conservative country.

But when their parents call, asking why they are still not home at 10 p.m., the band members scurry back to their lives as deferential daughters.

“We are living two different lives,” said Lung Sitt Ja Moon, who is known onstage as Ah Moon and is the daughter of a Baptist minister. “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.” They are battling conservative parents, a censorship board and boyfriends who think it is outrageous that they go onstage in such skimpy outfits.

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is emerging after years of dictatorial military rule and isolation. There is talk that the government’s censorship board, which vets songs, articles and movies, will be abolished. As the country feels its way back into the Asian mainstream politically and culturally, the old Myanmar of government-sanctioned art and traditional, ankle-length sarongs is 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. They think she’s a bad girl,” said Ah Moon, whose father, the preacher, is still grappling with her career choice.

The members of Me N Ma Girls often arrive at their rehearsals dressed in traditional outfits before changing into denim shorts and tank tops — clothing that would raise eyebrows on the streets of Yangon.

They do not see themselves as rebels but are tapping into a trend by Myanmar’s younger generation, especially in urban areas, to embrace Western pop culture, albeit on Burmese terms.

Me N Ma Girls released their first album in December and have been raising their profile inside the country with a string of concerts in Yangon in recent weeks.

The band is a creation of Nicole May, an Australian dancer who came to Myanmar three years ago and handpicked five women from 120 candidates who responded to an ad on the radio and in newspapers.

In other countries, pop musicians are dogged by drug abuse, chased by paparazzi, embroiled in sex scandals.

The members of Me N Ma Girls, all of whom are in their early 20s, have a different set of problems: The power regularly goes out in one of their practice venues, and the roof leaks during the rainy season. The censors express various objections — the band was barred from using colored wigs last year. But then, “tipping” the censors helps the process along.

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

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

Me N Ma Girls is a rare mix of Western management and Burmese musicians, says Heather MacLachlan, author of the recently published book “Burma’s Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors, Censors.”

The notion of an all-girl band is still novel in Myanmar, where the music scene is dominated by men, said Ms. MacLachlan, who is a professor of music at the University of Dayton in Ohio. (One stumbling block for female artists: The notion of unmarried women traveling on musical tours with male band members is taboo, Ms. MacLachlan said.)

Me N Ma Girls sings about love and heartbreak and boy-meets-girl scenarios that might be benign in other pop cultures but rankle in a society where children live with their parents until they are married.

In the video for a song called “Festival,” band members 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,” Ms. MacLachlan said in an e-mail message. She was referring to female decorum in Myanmar.

Ms. May, who is a graphic designer by profession, chose the band members using criteria atypical for the doll-like girl bands common across Asia. Ms. May said she wanted attitude and charisma.

“I wanted five girls who had energy and magnetic attraction,” Ms. May said.

All five of the members of Me N Ma Girls have college degrees, in the fields of chemistry, zoology, mathematics, Russian and computer science. The band members, while not overly cerebral, are outspoken and confident.

The band was first known the Tiger Girls, but the choice of band members created a rift between Ms. May and her Burmese co-manager, Moe Kyaw, who initially financed the Tiger Girls and who was looking for a more South Korean look: light-skinned with the willowy bodies of store-window mannequins.

“I was skeptical,” Mr. Moe Kyaw 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.”

Mr. 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.

But he changed his mind. A year ago, Mr. Moe Kyaw and Ms. May parted ways. The girls followed Ms. May and changed their name to Me N Ma Girls.

Growing name recognition in the music industry in Myanmar — the girls have been featured in magazine spreads and profiles in the Burmese media — has yet to translate to financial success.

Lalrin Kimi, who goes by the stage name Kimmy, grew up in a mountain village near the border with India, an area that regularly suffers from famine and plagues of rice-eating rats. Kimmy now lives with her siblings in Yangon. She is still strapped for cash — she recently did not have enough money for bus fare — and makes her living singing in bars and restaurants.

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

Although just starting out, the girls say they want to make it big abroad.

“I want this band to be famous and globally recognized. I want this band to hit Hollywood!” said Su Pyae Mhu Eain, a band member who studied zoology, specifically fish and shrimp, for her bachelor’s degree. Her stage name is Cha Cha.

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

For four of the girls, it was the first time outside impoverished Myanmar, an experience that appears to have marked them. They marveled at the mass transit system in Bangkok, were floored by the selection in the shopping malls and basked in the anonymity of a big city.

“I felt freedom there,” said Kimmy. “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 at a sleazy set of bars known as Nana Plaza.

“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, the zoology major. She ran to the ladies’ room and vomited.)

The girls are planning a return to Bangkok early this year, where they will perform with other bands from Myanmar for the large expatriate community in Thailand.

In the meantime, they want to make it through rehearsals without too many parental interruptions.

Htike Htike Aung, a band member who also designs the album covers and other artwork, 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!”

Ms. Htike Htike Aung returned home and found her mother waiting for her with a home-cooked meal.

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