Anyone who has attended school or been to a cinema in Myanmar will doubtless be familiar with the stirring opening bars of the country’s national anthem, Kabar Ma Kyei or “Till the End of the World”.
But what few people know is that the song was based on an earlier nationalist tune which was hurriedly adapted by a group of foreigners and Burmese people in advance of Myanmar’s first independence day on 4 January, 1948.
According to U Khin Zaw or “K”, the first director of the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS), the national anthem Kabar Ma Kyei was based on the “Dobama Song” or “Dobama Thakin” which was sung at Burman nationalist rallies in the 1930s.
In 1930, the political activist and translator Thakin U Ba Thaung asked his friend, the composer YMB Saya Tin, to compose a tune for some patriotic lyrics he had written.
The result was the “Dobama Song”, a rousing song in praise of the Burman ethnic group which was first performed at Rangoon University’s Thaton Hall on 19 July 1930 during the Student Strike against colonial rule.
The song very quickly became the official anthem of the Dobama Asi-ayone or the “We Burmans Association” — the group to which Ba Thaung and other leaders such as Aung San and U Nu then belonged.
During World War 2, the “Dobama Song” was used as the national anthem under the Japanese occupation of Myanmar from 1942 to 1945.
But after the War, the interim government headed by Aung San’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League Party (AFPFL) decided the country needed a new national anthem to express its high political aspirations and put it on par with the rest of the world.
As a result, a National Anthem Committee was formed in 1947 to select a new song.
Members of the Myanmar Musical Federation headed by Daw Saw Mya Aye Kyi composed three possible tunes, but all three were rejected, and, in the end, the committee decided that the “Dobama Song”’s popularity had been tried and tested, and that the song should not be abandoned as the national anthem.
So the composer Dagon Saya Tin and others set about adapting the chorus part of the “Dobama Song” into a new song: Kabar Ma Kyei.
Unlike its predecessor, however, Parliament asked that the new version make no explicit mention of the Burman ethnic group.
Instead, it would only mention Myanmar — the country and the land — a decision which was made in order to promote unionist spirit and to avoid offending the ethnic minorities.
The new song was finally ready, but it lacked multi-part harmonies (the original “Dobama Song” had been sung in unison) and a full score for the marching band.
So, in advance of the independence ceremony, “K” asked the musician Stella Ba Gyaw to write a piano score which was then sent to the British bandmaster of the H.M.S. Birmingham, a Royal Navy ship docked in Rangoon harbor, who adapted it into a full score.
John Jenkins of the British council and Commander Charles Brandler of the U.S. Navy band then chipped in and composed arrangements for the organ and for full navy band, respectively.
The music and lyrics were finished just in time to be played during the hand-over from the British to the Burmese authorities on the morning of 4 January, 1948.
According to “K”, it was a momentous occasion. At 3 a.m. that morning he rose to prepare the live radio broadcast of the proceedings.
The flag-raising ceremony was set to take place at 4:20 a.m. (an auspicious time) and “K” hurried to the BBS studio in Golden Valley and then down to the Secretariat to prepare the microphones.
An unseasonable light rain was falling and it was cold.
In the building’s courtyard, the British Governor Hubert Rance and President of the new Union of Burma, Sao Shwe Thaik, had assembled, along with a crowd of representatives and on-lookers.
The marine band of the H.M.S. Birmingham struck up the tune and the new national anthem was played for the first time to the nation.
As the British flag was lowered and the new flag of the Union of Burma raised, both British and Burmese had tears in their eyes, but not necessarily for the same reasons.
“K” would later call this “the happiest and busiest day of my life” and would never forget returning home that morning to hear the newspaper boy singing Kabar Ma Kyei, Myanmar Pye… at the top of his voice as he rode his bicycle crazily back and forth throughout Golden Valley.
Since 1947, the song has been played in two parts, the first being a Myanmar style section and the second a Western style waltz.
In the 1970s, the military regime considered changing the national anthem, but there was public outcry, and the generals eventually decided against it.
Kabar Ma Kyei was subsequently rated second best national anthem at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
The newspaper boy, then, was right to be happy — after all, a new nation, and a new hit single, had just been born.