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Zaw Win Htut: Rock of Ages

Words by Sam D Foot.

To all Burmese, Zaw Win Htut is a perennial renegade hero who needs no introduction. A behemoth of rock whose musical legacy spans almost four decades, he has indelibly influenced the fashions and emotions of generations of Myanmar’s people. Myanmore visited his excellent new F&B venture – the rock and roll styled 1964 Gastro Pub – in an attempt to fathom how one survives over thirty-five years of headbanging in The Golden Land.

When in Yangon, by far my largest pleasure is gained from rocking out to the anthems I encounter as I go about my day-to-day: fabulous guitar wails and questioningly sweet vocals emit from taxis and trucks, from phone shops and grocery stores, and from booze-halls the town over. When greeted by the opening bars of Min Shi Tae Myo, A Mae Lite A Ka, or Way Twar Lal, I am triggered – a Pavlovian urge to strut and spit out lyrics incomprehensible to any language becomes me, and all is good in the world. I know you expats feel the same.

To this, we owe gratitude to one man: Zaw Win Htut. It is no exaggeration to say that without ZWH – and his band, Emperor – Myanmar would be an entirely different, altogether less musky, less edgy, and less melodic place.

ROCK OF AGES

Zaw Win Htut is Myanmar’s great musical centrifuge, the most influential singer in a country of fifty-five million people. Of unquestionable musical pedigree, he was born into music, spent a life in music, and has provided the soundtrack to the lives of generations of Burmese.

His grandfather, the composer Shwe Daing Nyunt, is a national treasure who, before his untimely death at the age of thirty-three, notated a number of lingering Burmese anthems – not least Only The Army Can Save The Country, a patriotic ditty that you may have heard this recent Armed Forces Day. ZWH’s mother, Tin Aye, or simply “Hta,” is also a golden girl of classical Myanmar music. Various other relatives, including his brother, Emperor guitarist Zaw Myo Htut, and son, the bluesman, Ito, are prominent musicians in Yangon.

A grounding in folksy, courtly, and martial music could not have prepared anyone for the rock and roll attitude that Zaw Win Htut unleashed upon an unsuspecting Myanmar in the 80’s. How did his illustrious musical forebears feel when he came out rocking? “Well, my father was a medical doctor who loved all kinds of music. In 1973 he spent a year in the UK and returned with arms full of vinyl – Deep Purple, Alice Cooper – all that good stuff.” To a boy growing up in 1970’s Mandalay this must have felt like being given access to the secret source.

Zaw Win Htut at 1964 Gastro Pub (Photo: Zwe Wint Htet).

“I spent twelve years in Mandalay. At the time, nobody had heard anything like this. Slowly, as we lived on the Irrawaddy, sailors coming from abroad would bring us cassette tapes. Still, none of my friends at school listened to rock music – just me, my brother, and my father. Down south, in Yangon, the rock movement had already started with Min Min Latt (the father of rapper Anegga, founder of Myanmar’s infamous original Hip Hop crew, Acid.) He set it all up and, later, in 1990, he produced my first music video, the first ever music video in Myanmar. This came before MTV, and was recorded on a VHS that we passed around.”

ZWH’s early learnings in music were received from his mother, the classicist training him in the burmese harp and xylophone (on which, he counters my scepticism by imparting this enlightening wisdom: “You think Myanmar classical music is all noise and improv? Try memorising those incredibly long patterns!”) However, after moving to Yangon in his early teens, he fast began imitating the first wave of Myanmar rock bands, most of whom were playing covers of songs heard over the BBC World Service.

In the early 80’s ZWH and his brother formed their first musical vehicle, Oasis, in the process laying claim to being perhaps the first of at least two sibling-led bands to coin the name. “We had a female lead singer, Phyu Thi, who is now very famous independently. She was stage-shy, so eventually we decided to change it up.” Oasis became Emperor.

In 1983, ZWH and his brother laid down their first album, Mercury Nya (Mercury Night) – produced by their medical doctor father. “I sang six tunes, and my brother sang six. There were only one or two studios and LPs were made on a tape reel recorder then offered to the shops. The shop would decide which songs to buy – sometimes only one track – then they’d copy it to sell on cassette.” Imitating Queen’s genius guitarist, Brian May, the brothers built their own guitars and effects.

Recording coincided with the era of censorship. “We had to show everything to the board and explain the lyrics to officials. Needless to say, we would usually have to remake the entire reel before it would be released!” What upset censors the most? “”Freedom” and general ideas around that theme, as they were all from military intelligence. Later on, we were forced to add nationalistic songs for the country. To be honest, they were fun to make. This has all changed now, it is a lot freer – true censorship only lasted twenty years.”

Zaw Win Htut at 1964 Gastro Pub (Photo: Zwe Wint Htet).

Coming out, in the 80’s, to a general public with little access to rock music was a gift to Emperor. Early albums abound with Burmese language reimaginings of classic songs by giants of the times; Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, AC/DC. At the height of the San Yu era, ZWH was living every contemporary Western boy’s air guitar dream: laying claim to others’ internationally proven stadium filling hits, and owning them in front of huge adoring crowds innocent of the songs’ provenance.

“One song that formed our style early on was Woman From Tokyo by Deep Purple. However, it was Rod Stewart and The Faces that inspired me the most. His voice is pretty similar to mine – at the time nobody in Myanmar accepted that kind of voice, so it was my only reference.” Comparisons with the Scottish hip-swinger are obvious: Myanmar rock’s elder statesman’s voice is macho and as gravelly-yet-slick as the country’s emerging mountain highways. His songs are universal in their accessibility and sentiment, and his lyrics are simple yet cutting and dashingly romantic.

ROCK REVOLUTIONARIES

Cast, in a rather reductionist analysis, by TIME Magazine as a stooge of the military, Zaw Win Htut’s musical peak occurred in a period dogged by censors. Whilst predictably playing up the moot point of the musician’s friendships with military officials, foreign critics downplay the remarkable fact that this music, and the spirit it evoked, was allowed at all – and the fact that hard rock music continues to profoundly influence Myanmar’s public psyche to this day. 

Zaw Win Htut at 1964 Gastro Pub (Photo: Zwe Wint Htet).

It is not only the huge Nazi-era symbols pasted onto the backs of many of the country’s Nissan Corollas that serve as reminders of this legacy (they are logos of Emperor’s only true rock rival, the unfortunately named but musically masterful, Iron Cross.) The tune that forty-something geezer is whistling in Win Star? If it isn’t by Lay Phyu or Myo Gyi it is almost guaranteed to be a ZWH. The reason that about fifty percent of U-lays-of-a-roguish-persuasion that you will encounter have receding dark hair to their shoulders? Also ZWH. 40 degrees celcius Myanmar’s per capita over-representation of leather clad bikers and shifty tattoo veiled akos? Certainly ZWH. Ni lays keeping you awake at one in the morning from the banks of Inya Lake with their guitars and their quarts of Grand Royal? Quite probably under the influence of ZWH.

Emperor emerged as masters of a long-lasting musical revolution in Myanmar. “We were the lead example of the rock revolution in Myanmar. That got the government’s interest up, and they monitored everything from our lyrics to our clothing.” Morphing with the Western styles and fashions of the times, Emperor single-handedly started Myanmar’s leather jacket craze. “David Coverdale [Whitesnake] and Robert Plant [Led Zeppelin] were the main influences. At the time, we could feel that it was a big deal – the 80’s was a golden age of rock music and bringing it all to Myanmar was a dream.” 

Perhaps the biggest scandal involved the length of the band’s hair: “We were, from time to time, forced to cut our hair,” observes ZWH, his impressive dark mane hanging resolutely past his shoulders. Indeed, from the 1970s onwards, patrols of scissor-endowed cops had been forcibly chopping the locks of Myanmar’s youths. In 1990, the government went so far as to ban all long-haired performers from taking the stage. But not ZWH. “I wouldn’t listen. My long hair represents my free spirit.”

LORDS OF ROCK

Emperor performing in Yangon (Photo: Zaw Win Htut Facebook).

Forty years in rock puts Emperor in the same, exclusive, longevity bracket as acts such as The Rolling Stones. How did the energetic fifty-six year old survive? “When we got famous, we didn’t know how to act – we never thought it would happen. Sometimes we look back at those mad tours and wonder how we passed through these things!” I interject: “People have the impression that Myanmar is a rather restrictive place for things like that, but I’ve never found it so.” The frontman instantly follows up on this leading question: “People from outside love to think that Myanmar is so restrictive, you are right. But in the case of [partying like a rockstar], it is just not true!”

“Later into our career, we did some reflection and got in check – what is important is that I never wanted to act like a star. From the start, I have just acted normal and hung out with normal people. If you ever start to think you are a star you will have a big problem,” claims the legend who, only thirty minutes earlier, had pulled up to his bar in a blacked-out Hummer. “How does it feel to walk down the street with every single person knowing who you are?” I ask. A wide grin emerges. “Well… I love that life!” he deservedly chortles. 

Indeed, as Zaw Win Htut speaks, you feel that this truly is a man who has led a fulfilling life, devoid of the self-inflicted dramas that plague his Western rockstar counterparts. Even his worst times seem to flow from his unstoppable knack for success. “I’d say the hardest stretches of time in the band have been driven by the high expectations placed on us by our friends and our fans. After we release an album, sometimes one song is singled out as a favourite that I really do not like! I keep getting requests to sing it, and it is hell on stage! In ‘94 I wrote an entire album for an artist from Mandalay who passed away. We recorded all the songs and I made a singing guide for him. The band member loved the final vocal cut – even though all the songs were written out of my key. It became the most successful album of my career – the shops couldn’t copy them fast enough! Then we had to do a whole tour – Iron Cross’s first major support tour – with me singing in this damn style. The two or three albums after weren’t as popular because we went back to what I felt comfortable with!”

ZWH attributes much of the longevity of Emperor to his brother, Zaw Myo Htut. “He can’t get away from me!,” he laughs, “I give him a lyric, and he comes back with a riff in the right style. Outside of music, we maintain our own lives. After we record we go back to our families, when we meet we drink but we don’t talk about music. We also have a lot of side projects – at this age, I would love to do projects like Ozzy Osbourne, getting people like Elton John to play for him. A Myanmar supergroup! That’s the next phase. I love to jam: I gather all the artists I like to my 9 Mile studio, or we jam at Gulliver’s by Inya Lake. All kinds of musicians get together – from rockers to violinists!”

Shwe Moe (Bass) & Zaw Myo Htut (Photo: Zaw Myo Htut Facebook).

How does the master feel about his musical legacy? “The music scene in Yangon is now more creative – a lot of bands write their own stuff. At Emperor or Iron Cross concerts we would play a lot of covers – a lot of Kiss songs in particular –  but the new bands are more original. It is a new musical revolution! These kids are sick and tired of the old bands and the music we have played for forty years – and have more freedom to learn and play.” He looks up, smiling: “One thing, however! The singers are not as good! They are less hardcore – they don’t learn from the history of music, from bands like the Beatles. They look after themselves better, but have less spirit.”

In a time in which the global music industry is going through huge changes, Myanmar is no different. “Physical sales are over. To make a living you play shows – mostly free shows – that are paid by the sponsor of the show. Streaming music can make you a bit of money if you make a real big hit – and because of this, we don’t see much experimentation. We need to introduce a more tasteful music style to Myanmar, as the music is now very mainstream. The whole world is looking for new original music, but a lot of people stick to the mainstream. Some guys are breaking the mould – the most notable are Idiots and Wanted. They are impressive, but they are playing for the girls! What is great is that, in Myanmar, it is still all self taught – they grab a guitar and rock.”

When asked, with all this in mind, “who is the biggest rockstar in Myanmar?” The response is instant, delivered with a knowing smile: “The Ozzy Osbourne of Myanmar is Playboy Than Naing. Yeah, he really is a badass!.. Still, I might add, at the age of 70!” Nods of respect all round.

ROCK ON LOCKDOWN

IPAs in hand, we are obliged to address the current global situation, a pandemic which already claims Iron Cross front man, Myo Gyi, amongst the infected. “We have currently cancelled all our tours because of the coronavirus. For good or ill, I think that the average Burmese person is not so worried about this virus. Myanmar people are tough. We drink river water! To be honest we are more likely to die from hepatitis… and liver problems from drinking! Says ZWH, tongue in cheek.

And how does a Myanmar megastar spend his lockdown? Aside from having three tracks laid down on a new album, running his eclectic radio station, FM Bagan, and an ever increasing number of grandchildren to see to, Emperor’s lead man indulges in that most beloved hobby of Burmese celebrities, painting. “I have painted since I was young. I love impressionism and, to relax, I copy Van Goghs and Monets. I also used to copy album covers – especially those of Iron Maiden and Dio. Painting for me is meditation – I don’t usually sell my works, I give them away to people I admire.” The rockstar shows me a remarkable sketch of Bagan, in ink and watercolours. Next, he reveals his version of the cover of the 1987 Iron Maiden classic, Run To The Hills – a tribute to his love of lurid, apocalyptic 1980’s album artwork, Eddie The Head included.

So… what are we drinking? “Well, I am at the age where I now only drink single malts – Ballantyne, Macallan. Come, look at the whiskey collection behind the bar…”

Here are some of his best songs of the decades so far.

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