Yuko Maskay meets up with Aung La to discuss rock, romance and most important of all, keeping it real and original.
In 2002, with a guitar and a spunky, no-nonsense attitude, a 17-year-old embarked on the streets of Yangon on Kyaudmyaung Street, known for its underground musicians looking to get their start. He sang there, day in and day out, his vocals and lyrical dexterity attracting a crowd eager to get a glimpse of this talented and bold rock vocalist.
And it paid off.
That year, Aung La, now 29, was approached by a local band who was looking for a vocalist. “I was excited. I’ve wanted to be a musician since I was little,” he says.
Born and raised in Yangon, Aung La is the lead vocalist of Reason, a Myanmar rock band that formed 7 years ago. Reason is mostly well-known for its melodic rock, but this year, they have introduced a more driving, rhythmic sound.
He got his professional start earlier in 2003 with his first band, NC-13, which split up due to disagreements over the band’s future. He maintains that the band didn’t want to go mainstream, yet he wanted to reach a larger crowd.
That may come as a surprise. In person, Aung La is quiet and reserved, and comes off as an introvert. “I still get stage fright, but once I sing, I forget everything,” he says. You’d never guess that from his stage presence with his powerful vocals and an extraordinary ability to rouse the crowd.
Perhaps it’s to be expected since music runs in his family. His mother was a pop singer in the 70s and his dad a recording engineer who taught him how to play the guitar. An only child, he found solace in music.
“Music is in my blood. When I am lonely, rock music is my friend. In my little room, I can explore inside my mind,” says Aung La. And after 10th grade, he decided to focus on a music career, abandoning all notions of a higher education, which wasn’t his strong suit.
But like most music careers, it wasn’t easy. Money was hard to come by and it was and is still difficult to make it in an industry that prefers profit over authenticity. Aung La says he has been fortunate because of his wife, Moe Nge, whom he met on Friendster, a now defunct online social networking site, six years ago while she was in Australia. Married for less than a year, she has been his biggest supporter. “Without her I would be nowhere,” says Aung La.
And his songs reflect that. One of his most popular English songs, My Home Paradise, is dedicated to Moe Nge. With a catchy melody, the lyrics are quite romantic and go something like this: There’s a lot that I can’t do, but I wanna be with you…Maybe you could rule my heart…I’m gonna make you my own paradise to take you home.
Then there’s Taungbantal (Begging You), his most popular song to date, which was No. 1 for one year in 2012 on various radio shows, about a guy begging for forgiveness for cheating on his girlfriend. This boyishly charming rock star isn’t afraid to admit that the song is dedicated to his wife, although he reiterates that he didn’t really cheat on her. “I almost cheated,” he says, giggling, “and she forgave me.” Reason went on to receive three music awards in 2012 for this song—Most Popular Male Singer, Most Famous Band and Most Progressive Online Song.
There’s also his other inspiration, the American rock band Incubus, who he says shares a “common ground” with him. “The group has gone through a lot, but they are still standing,” he says, pointing to his gauged earlobes, impersonating Brandon Boyd, the lead singer of Incubus.
He can relate. He is a caretaker, both financially and mentally, to his father who had a stroke 10 years ago at the age of 47. “He was too young,” say Aung La, his face suddenly looking melancholy. He says that most of the money that he makes from the band goes to his father’s care. “It’s very hard,” he adds, his voice breaking down.
What adds to the struggle is that it is very difficult for musicians to make profits in Myanmar where piracy and copyright infringement are so common. Aung La says that many bands here make profits during concerts by singing popular foreign songs in Myanmar and sometimes even change the lyrics.
“It’s already popular in the world, so, of course, it will be popular in Myanmar,” he comments, adding that he understands that he can’t expect to make much return from his music, but he does it because he loves it so much. He hopes that this will change but he doesn’t see it happening anytime soon since even the Myanmar Music Association, the only nation-wide music organization, allows it.
This means that Reason has a loyal following of fans who appreciate them for not selling out. Aung La knows that if he chose to sing foreign cover songs, he could make more money and perhaps become widely known commercially, but he refuses to do so. He also makes sure he never sings without all his band members, although this may seem like a given.
“A lot of event organizers want you to sing without your original band. They don’t want to spend a lot of money for the whole band so they only choose certain people from the band to sing copyrighted songs,” explains Aung La.
That is one of the reasons how the very popular band S.I.R. or Skull in Ribcage was conceived. Consisting of four independent rock bands—Reason, Big Boy, Idiots and Wanted—they support each other in their musical endeavors, ensuring that they keep their integrity. Well-known among Myanmar youth for their hard metal style of rock, you will find many fans with the tattoo, “S.I.R. Rebirth,” symbolizing their allegiance to the band.
“We are against piracy and stealing copyright. We are original,” says Aung La, adding that he wants to be remembered by his fans as a hard worker who was able to “shake the fan’s hearts.”
Reason likes to keep evolving with the times. When he started out, Aung La wasn’t married and garnered more female fans who loved his soft style of rock, but he is now venturing out to hard metal. “When I was started, many parents didn’t want their children to listen to heavy metal so I also played softer music for my fans. But now things are changing and parents are okay,” he says.
So, unlike his 2010 first album Mar Ti Kar (Content), which is mostly about love and heartbreak, his second album, Pin Lal Hte Ka Myit Mar (Rivers of the Sea), launched in April of this year, is purely hard metal and he sings more about the realities of life. But he doesn’t expect his second album to become a commercial hit; he finds it simply rewarding that he can compose and play music for the sake of it. His wish is that more people will realize the power of music to “change our lives.”
Thus, he sees globalization as a positive move for Myanmar and its music industry. He enjoys international tours, with the most memorable one being in 2012 at the Middlesex Theater in London with a sound system he had “never heard before”. He says it was also rewarding because it was for a good cause—a charity concert for Myanmar orphanage. He hopes his band will get more international recognition and tap into both Myanmar and foreign audiences abroad. “I think it would be good for our country to open up more. I see this as a good thing,” he says.
Reason has big plans for 2015—a concert on 21 February at the national stadium and a production of a “musical video”, the likes of Moulin Rouge, with a script that combines both theatrical performance and original sound.
“No one has ever produced a musical video in Myanmar. I want to do it because it’s different,” says Aung La, who has starred in two Myanmar movies, Baung (Frame) in 2012 where he plays the main character and Achit Ye Ta Goe Myar Power of Love in 2013 where he plays the villain, although he says he is not that interested in acting.
This versatile rock star doesn’t seem to be slowing down. From his first concert at a small nightclub in Yangon where he recalls an audience of 10-15 people to now attracting over 3,000 to his concerts, his fan base is growing every year.
When asked why his fans love him so much, he says he has “no idea,” but then pauses and adds, “It’s because of my music, of course.”
This article was first published on MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine InDepth, January 2015 issue