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Rock Musician Struggles to Find Boundaries in Burma

Danielle Bernstein

As Burma's long time military dictatorship gradually opens, it is loosening censorship controls over media and the arts.  Musicians in Rangoon are excited by their newfound freedom, but remain unsure of the new limits.  The local punk music band Side Effect is dealing with the changes.

The musician who calls himself Darko C has been the leader of a struggling Rangoon rock band for seven years.  He says he is unsure about the new standards of Burma's censorship board, which vets all music albums before they are published.

"It's going to take some time to really change," said Darko.  "So now they have reduced the rules a bit, but there are some lame rules about censorship still."

Burma's ministry of information checks lyrics to see if they reflect what authorities call "traditional values."  In the past, censors have banned songs about politics, alcohol or kissing.  Darko says on his last album, censors cut an entire song that referred obliquely to prostitution.  He says the process can be unpredictable.

"To be honest I think it depends on their moods," noted Darko.  "They have their personalities, right? Different people doing this job so it depends on the person who is censoring your lyrics.  We pray, pray to the Buddha, oh please don't let them ruin my lyrics."

Darko and his wife, Emily, who is a performance artist, own a small tailor shop where they work during the week to pay their bills. But Darko hopes to become a full-time musician soon.

"If I already do this, take measurements of people, then I can do this, like this, play guitar," he added.  

Darko's band, Side Effect, plays live shows in front of crowds of young local fans at the popular open-air concert space in Kandawgyi Park.  Darko says the band does not have a political agenda, but still wants to challenge its audiences.

"Pushing the limits is good, not only to push the government or authority, but to push the people's beliefs and thoughts as well," Darko noted.  "So we need to push that limit."

As local artists, musicians and writers test their new creative limits, Darko says that it is a strange time in his country, but he enjoys it.

"This time of change, yeah it does affect me. We're not sure if we are really free really. I mean freedom to express. We're still not sure. Yea, we are kind of happy though. I don't know. It's really weird, this weird season. So yeah, let's see," said Darko.

Like many other artists in Burma, the members of Side Effect hope that as the country opens up, they can reach a wider audience. The band already has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and looks forward to the day it can bring its brand of Burmese rock to foreign fans.

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