MYANMAR: Khana Lay Miaa - Lay Phyu
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Lay Phyu is one of Myanmar's most famous rock stars - but how did he get to this position during the notoriously repressive military regime?
Until the recent process of democratic reforms, Myanmar was one of the most cut-off states from the rest of the world, with few foreign visitors allowed. A society mostly run by generals and the military, the state was repressive, often brutally so, and musicians had to have their lyrics cleared by a censorship department. Things have changed somewhat since 2011, but the memories of the past remain fresh, and it was under that repression that Lay Phyu, one of Myanmar’s most successful rock singers, made a name for himself. It also explains to an extent why his band is named Iron Cross, and why he has co-opted a lot of fascist imagery, like the Nazi eagle. Ever since his band achieved more mainstream success around the world, he and his band have always maintained that it had innocent origins, and they were unaware of the taboo around them. Considering how insular Myanmar was, I can believe him, though I can’t deny that it is not still jarring. This album is a solo release from Phyu, and not an Iron Cross one, however.
"He sounds like the genuine article, and considering how dangerous he was perceived to be by the Myanmar military regime just because of his resonance and ability to connect through all strata of society, this isn’t a surprise."
Phyu and Iron Cross helped form the foundations of Myanmar’s rock music scene in the early 1990s. While listening to the album, I began to wonder how rock music can thrive with such an oppressive and censorship-heavy state, and not only that, how can a hard rock musician rise to such stratospheric heights in their home country if they are not allowed to project an image of real rock and roll authenticity. The censorship was strict and rigid, and music acts were only allowed to sing love songs, with nothing in English, and no religious overtones. Rock thrives on rebelliousness, on sticking it to the man, or as Rage Against the Machine so eloquently put it: Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me. It therefore came as no surprise to discover that Lay Phyu has found himself in trouble with the authorities. In 1995, he released an album called Power 54, a reference to the opposition leader and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s address where she remained under house arrest. This somehow got past the authorities’ nose, and they only realised Phyu’s act of resistance once it had already gone to print. He was eventually forced to change it to simply Power, but he had been noticed as a potential troublemaker, and his immense celebrity in Myanmar means he can get away with it. According to an NPR article, he was ordered to cut his long hair, and complied by shaving it all off. Phyu’s celebrity and thrall over his fans earned him a ban on performing in 2006, with the ruling regime fearing his influence on all sectors of society. Despite even this, Phyu and Iron Cross toured outside Myanmar to the country’s diaspora in several Asian and Western countries, during which time they also raised money for various charities.
With that in mind, this album from 2010 is definitely an album where you can hear that raw emotion that the regime feared so much. I don’t know what he’s saying, but considering the censorship was still in place in 2010, he is likely singing love songs, but it’s the emotion and power of the music that counts. It does make me wonder if he is hiding within the album subversive lyrics that criticise the regime, but what's important here is the music on a primal level. The album veers from heavy metal songs to beautiful ballads, and is musically inspired by American bands like Metallica, Van Halen and Bon Jovi. There is little Asian influence in the music, but its remnants can be heard in Wuan Nay Hmatdan, though the album can broadly be characterised as metal. I like heavy metal on the odd occasion, but I only really like the relatively softer heavy metal of bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Rainbow, where at least the lead singers don’t resort to guttural screaming. Lay Phyu’s instrumentation on the metal songs is just on the right side of that for me, it’s musical enough and diverse in its sound enough for me to really appreciate it. He does occasionally lean into thrash metal and some heavy metal screaming, namely on the song Shiauh Shiauh, which I didn’t like very much, but this is personal preference.
The ballads, however, are genuinely beautiful and convincing, with probably the best of the bunch being Ma Yiyar Boo, a truly tender song, with the emotions of longing and hope really coming across well. His range, both musical and vocal, are particularly good, especially his voice, which hits some very low notes in Shiauh Shiauh, and some very high ones in Ma Yiyar Boo. Some of the slower songs, like the title track Khanah Lay Miaa, are musically similar to power ballads, but the key thing here is that whatever he’s singing, whether it’s metal, hard rock or a ballad, he sounds like the genuine article, and considering how dangerous he was perceived to be by the Myanmar military regime just because of his resonance and ability to connect through all strata of society, this isn’t a surprise. Knowing this, it really doesn’t matter what he’s singing, as the lyrics had to be censored anyway, rather we can purely focus on the sound and the emotion he’s trying to convey, and it’s that raw emotional power that makes this album as listenable and interesting as it is. It might not be a ground-breaking album on a musical or technical level, but it’s consistently good and of a high standard, and its cultural context makes it worth your consideration as well.