Myoma band members on a vehicle greet water festival revelers in Mandalay in 2018. / The Irrawaddy
Just four years before its centenary, the longest surviving music band in Myanmar, Myoma Music Band, has found itself losing its reputation as the most prestigious band in the country.
The music band came under fire after it entertained an exclusive audience led by Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on May 17 when the coup leader “graced” the opening of Yadanabon Hall in Mandalay with his presence.
At the event, the band performed its popular songs plus eight songs in honor of Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a coup in February and has killed over 800 people who called for the restoration of democracy over the past three months.
The band started in the 1920s in the former royal capital with a group of amateur musicians. It rose to fame partly due to its leader Myoma Nyein, one of the most distinguished musicians and composers in Myanmar’s history, as well as its patriotic songs during colonial rule.
It became synonymous with Thingyan, Myanmar’s traditional water festival, as the band had composed a good number of golden oldies which they perform during Thingyan in Mandalay. Every year during Thingyan, the band tours the city in their vehicle with members playing music and dancing on the vehicle.
Everywhere it went, the band was greeted with warm applause thanks to its classic traditional Burmese songs and theme songs as well as its philanthropy. When natural disasters struck like strong winds, fires or earthquakes, the band organized charity performances for victims.
It became a must hire band for social events like donation ceremonies and weddings, as well as pagoda festivals. It also took part in diplomatic events. It entertained when Chinese delegations led by Premier Zhou Enlai and Marshal Chen Yi visited Myanmar in the 1960s.
Mandalay residents and wider society view Myoma as an invaluable asset of Mandalay, so the band’s performance before military generals and their wives upset Mandalay residents.
“People might feel frustrated with our executive team, as it was emotional for people. But, musical perspectives will be different from political perspectives. So, we won’t respond [to public criticism],” said the secretary of Myoma Band.
In the past, artists who associated with the military regime also drew the ire of the people. Shortly after the military seized power in 1988, the regime aired a propaganda film on the state broadcaster. At this time, thousands of students had fled to the Myanmar-Thai border to rise in armed rebellion against the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the military regime led by General Saw Maung.
The film portrayed young students who ended up dying or facing a dire future after fleeing to the other side of the border. The film was repeatedly aired on the state broadcaster, and exclusively screened to political prisoners held in prisons across Myanmar including Insein Prison in Yangon.
The cast was honored by top brass General Khin Nyunt with a dinner, but slammed by the people. They had a hard life as artists afterwards, as they were barely hired from then on. Not only the cast, but also vocalist Sai Htee Saing, who sang the theme song for the film, saw his popularity decline significantly.
Similarly, famous actors who appeared in and sang propaganda films and songs under the SLORC and State Peace and Development Council won business concessions, cash and Academy Awards and so on, but lost the love of the people.
The May 17 event was reportedly organized by executives who have close ties to the military regime. Most of those who performed were graduates of Mandalay University of Arts and Culture with only a few home-grown musicians of Myoma participating in the event. Following the performance, one of the main singers of the band, Aung Kyaw Hein, wrote on his Facebook that he had resigned from Myoma.
Read more Myanmar stories from Thai PBS World.