Rangoon Rhythm: Bouhinga

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Bouhinga are recording in Myanm/art, a white-walled, high-ceiled art gallery in downtown Yangon. Outside, heavy rain is falling, and dirty water is bubbling up from the sewers. Occasionally, the music is interrupted by a car horn, dogs barking, or the wail of a street hawker, ambient noises par for the course in this part of the city.

Inside, the gallery walls are hung with paintings from Aung Myat Htay’s expressionist art exhibition Consciousness of Realities. The exhibition is a series of double-exposed paintings and visual misdirects, animal forms intermingling with monk’s robes and golden tablets, a schizophrenic blend of traditional iconography and the interpolated present.

In front of me are four young men in white shirts and dress shoes, perched on plastic chairs before an impressive grand piano. Bouhinga is Pyae Phyo, Bryan, Rico and Soe – the singer, main songwriter and de facto spokesman.

As I sit down with the band to begin the interview, it’s hard to miss the relevance of the artwork bedecking the walls – work that examines the conflicted, shifting mores of Burmese identity, the rapid cultural metamorphosis that the nation is currently undergoing. What is Myanmar today – the land of nostalgia and golden pagodas, the land of military rule and big business making money, or the land of a young generation poised to take their turn on the artistic global stage?

Soe and Pyae Phyo met in Yangon in 2018. Educated in London, the two of them wanted to pursue making music in Yangon together. Pyae Phyo introduced Soe to Rico, and Rico and Soe began making music together. As time went by, the pair decided they wanted to integrate other forms of art into their group, so Pyae Phyo joined the group, followed by Bryan.

The Bouhinga four are near-inseparable – if I meet one of them in a downtown bar, it’s inevitable the others are on their way, and their interests – expressionist films, art, editing, and ambient music are unusual enough to mark them out from the crowd. 

Bouhinga is a portmanteau of mohinga, the traditional Burmese breakfast soup, and bougie, an informal abbreviation of the bourgeois. Bougie as a concept would have had little meaning here twenty years ago, but times are a-changing. Myanmar is undergoing waves of foreign gentrification, and wealth is starting to trickle down to the Burmese middle class.

The auditory side of Bouhinga

The story of the name is told to me as follows: on a night out, the group were laying into the topic of Yangon Zay market, where salmon Mohinga is sold at absurd prices to slack-jawed foreigners day-drunk on sparkling wine. 

Something about the overpriced commodification of the humble mohinga stuck in the band’s craw. “Mohinga is a food for common people, cheap, practical, a labourer’s meal – to make it bougie is pretentious, absurd and almost insulting” explains Pyae Phyo – and so the name was born.

A casual visitor to Yangon might notice the harsh juxtaposition of street poverty and luxury dining experiences, foreigners and rich locals averting their eyes from destitute soup-sellers on their way to gorge on foreign food and get soused on imported beer.

There’s something in the self-aware name of these middle-class Burmese boys that touches on this strange tension, and although it began as a throwaway joke, it has remained, even as the music and group have evolved.

On the day I met them, the group had just finished a recording of two of their songs in the Myanam/art space in the Urban Asia Centre. Playing live, the challenge was to recreate the dreamy spaced-out sound of the studio recordings using only a piano, guitar and the sound of Soe’s ethereal voice – evocative, soulful, and more than a little reminiscent of Thom Yorke.

As the group’s main songwriter, Soe is also the face of the band in interviews. “The end product is usually significantly different to the original idea” he admits. Asked how he would describe their music, he hesitates. “Some of it is dreamy… some of it is melancholic… all of it is sad… so far, at least.”

Although the original concept of Bouhinga was as a musical partnership, the group plans to incorporate more multi-media influences in future. The videos for their first two singles are both striking and do a good job of reflecting the alienated soundscapes of the music itself, and the band’s photoshoots show a strongly curated level of attention to detail. Rico, Bryan and Pyae Phyo have all contributed to the visual design, with Pyae Phyo focusing on art direction and Bryan on editing and photography.

The group have released three songs to date. The first, Somnia / Sunshine No Longer Wakes Us, is sung in English over strummed acoustic guitar, heavily compressed drums crashing in the background. Soe’s heavily abstracted English lyrics give the song a psychedelic appeal, reinforced by the music video. 

The second, Chay Tan (Footsteps), continues the melancholy feeling, this time sung in Burmese over sped-up footage of Yangon’s bustling streets and markets. The latest effort, Bionic Feel, is the catchiest of the three, keeping the focus on Soe’s plaintive voice, the repetitive, strained vocals meshing with the lyrics to create an immersive slice of melancholic psych.

Of the songs so far, two are in English, and one in Burmese. Soe insists that the general themes are the same – (isolation, depression and loneliness, naturally) although overall, he prefers writing in English.

The members of the band, many who have spent time abroad, are hesitant to cast judgment on Myanmar’s modern-day music scene. Soe humbly explains that as a recent arrival, he feels that he does not yet know enough to discuss it. 

In Two Minds: BOUHINGA’s Soe and Rico. Photography by Pyae Phyo Thant Nyo

However, they do admit that they see themselves as separate from today’s scene, and that seems accurate – Bouhinga’s vapor-wave dreamy noise-pop is a far cry from the pounding EDM and trap sounds currently making waves in Yangon’s underground. As Rico puts it “we just have four people and four brains put together… we do whatever comes to our mind, we don’t worry too much about what else is going on.”

What’s next for Bouhinga? Live shows, perhaps, but weirdly enough, the group suggests that a comedy sketch show is something they’ve considered, perhaps the Burmese answer to Odd Future’s Loiter Squad.  In any case, one thing is clear – artistic freedom and choice are the main priority.

Any message for the youth of Myanmar?, I ask, putting down the recording equipment. “Just do what you want,” says Pyae Phyo, with a smile. 

Type Bouhinga into Facebook, Youtube, Spotify or Bandcamp to hear the group’s music today.

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