It was the sight of saffron-robed monks whipping overexcited fans back into their seats at an outdoor gig in Bagan that first turned me on to one of the oddest hybrids in world contemporary music: the Burmese rap scene. The shaven-headed holy men had sticks and were in earnest. An unusual sight at a rap concert, perhaps, but as the gig was on the fringes of the Ananda Pagoda Festival, such crowd-control tactics were less out of place than they would have been in downtown Rangoon, where Burmese rap began.
The pioneer of this intriguing musical movement, Myo Kyawt Myaing, introduced rap to Burmese listeners in the early 1990s. A sound engineer who had spent time in Singapore, Myo brought mixing-board know-how back with him to Rangoon. Dismissed at first as a passing craze, rap gradually took a firm hold and is now, along with Burmese hip-hop, a major trend in the country. Take one of the overcrowded buses from Rangoon to Mandalay and, by the end of the ride, you will be very well acquainted with the genre, as the overhead video screens play little else.
Thirty-five-year-old Myo has since been joined by artists such as the former male model Sai Sai and the boy band Examplez. The rappers do not recite their lyrics to original tunes, but to remakes of such celebrated American rappers as Dr Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and even those feared creators of gangsta rap, NWA (Niggaz With Attitude). The Myanmar crew sport copycat gear, too: oversized shorts, loose-fitting hooded sweatshirts, bandannas, baseball caps flipped backwards - all kit conveniently made in nearby China and now just as cheap in Rangoon as the quainter traditional longhi.
Their duplication of the US house style does not extend to lyrics, however:
My name is Myo Kyawt Myaing
I'm from Seven-Mile
My father is U Kyawt Myaing and he is a pilot
I have a lot of temporary girlfriends that I used to hang out with
As everybody knows . . .
Myo is playfully referential (Eminem famously came from Eight Mile) but hardly controversial. Nor is Sai Sai, who told the Irrawaddy, Burma's independent magazine-in-exile: "I don't write political lyrics. I prefer to write about love and life." Other lyrics encourage listeners to avoid playing the lottery, or to confront the challenges of growing up.
None of this is surprising in a country where all songs have to be submitted to the fierce censorship of the Press Scrutiny Board. "We cannot sing words like 'human rights' or 'democracy' in our songs," complains one anonymous Rangoon tunesmith. "We cannot even sing 'dark' or 'tiny room'." Attempts to bury covert political messages in lyrics have also failed. Some Burmese pop singers have even been forced to include a minimum of four "constructive" songs on their albums, written for them by military propagandists.
In such a climate, the only answer for Burmese rappers who want to get political is to get out and use the internet. A virtual rap group called Myanmar Future Generations creates its work abroad in secrecy and releases it through its website (www.mm-fg.net). "We are not politicians," they say, "but we want our country's next generation to know that our motherland is suffering." Tunes such as "Inequality" or "Reunion Song" would never have made it past the censors at home. Their latest offering, "Angel of Peace", featuring video clips of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was released in May.