Charlie Michio Turner & Gwan Ho Tong
The same raw energy that brought together the four-piece band
No U-Turn in 2002 continues to drive them forward irrespective of current trends.
Like most of the world, ‘punk’ was a phase for many in Myanmar, according to Eaiddhi, the guitarist of the punk rock band No U-Turn. He recalls old friends who donned massive red mohawks with elaborate tongue piercings until the era ended and they started corporate jobs with nuclear families.
Though no one from No U-Turn uses the term ‘sell out’, or whatever the Burmese equivalent may be. Surprised as they were to see some of their fellow punks go straight-laced, they see it as another reassurance that they are exactly where they should be. “We have regular jobs, but we know we’re not meant for normal lives”, says Eaiddhi before handing over a copy of their new album Human War. The cover shows the lead singer, Ye Ngwe Soe, with a blonde wig, a black handlebar moustache and a bottle of Jägermeister.
“Many punk bands come up and then leave quickly. For some people punk music is just a trend. If the trend changes, those people change too. Not many musicians stick to one genre,” said Eaiddhi. “If I were to give advice to young musicians who want to start up a band, I would tell them to just continue playing no matter what. It is very important to keep playing and not to quit.”
It was indeed a different world for punk-rock bands when No U-Turn came together in 2002. While decades of repression offered plenty of material for counter culture bands, the time period also pushed any musician with a flair of individuality or non-conformity into the label ‘underground music’, regardless of their aspirations. The category of ‘underground music’ spans multiple genres and has always lacked a concrete definition since it was popularized in the 1970’s.
Ye Ngwe Soe sees no confusion of terms, however, stating that it refers to any music that is “not in the mainstream”. This definition worked perfectly when the government controlled which songs were fit for public consumption, but now excludes groups like Side Effect and Y.A.K. who have ascended from local underground cult heroes to prominent figures in the Myanmar music scene. Is ‘underground’ a gritty aesthetic with a controversial message, or simply a starting point that some bands can grow out of?
Whatever the definition may be, No U-Turn has no intention of changing with the times. The four-member band welcomes new fans but are committed to representing underground music on a grassroots level. While they support the recent democratic measure the group is less interested in political messages and more focused on lyrics that motivate youths to take control of their lives. “I always put a message in my songs to give power to young people,” says Ye Ngwe Soe, “You have to take things into your own hands and do it.”
Ye Ngwe Soe believes in what he calls a D.I.Y. approach to music, meaning that he or Eaiddhi, the guitarist, write all of their songs. A major distinction between mainstream and underground music in Myanmar is originality, with many popular songs simply Burmese translations of western hits. “A lot of mainstream Burmese musicians tend to use the melodies and beats of foreign artists”, says Eaiddhi. “We make sure to mention if we got outside help for music arrangements”.
After all, there is little reason to plagiarize music when you are not interested in the fame or money that comes from hit single. Members of No U-Turn have identified with hardcore punk culture from a young age which includes shunning the world of commercialized music. Eaiddhi first dipped his toes into the alternative waters with Nirvana and Blur. He “knew it was something [he] wanted to be a part of” once he watched the film SLC Punk! He later began to see the same raw energy that pulled him towards punk life in other types of music that bucked mainstream trends. Eventually he started Jam It!, an events organization that features underground acts around Myanmar.
Jam It! has put on several shows over the past three years, many with diverse line ups ranging from hip-hop to thrash metal. As the country’s media landscape opens up, however, individual genres are beginning to build their own identities, no longer needing a broad collation to attract an audience. The events company Youk $hi, for example, recently drew near a thousand people before Thingyan with an exclusively hip-hop line up.
The punk community in Myanmar may change itself as young people have more access to new music and new audiences than ever before. Myanmar punk scene has largely stuck with the sound and look synonymous with the genre during the 1990s, yet bands like Side Effect have found success by playing indie rock, something closer to what is current in the western world. The members of No U-Turn are hardly anxious about new trends Myanmar music, they’re excited to see change, they’re just not sure if they will.