The brothers behind jackbenny – a cheery LA-based band with a message of love and diversity – tell us about the unexpected audiences they found around Myanmar.
by Benny Lipson and Jack Lipson
On another routine day in Los Angeles of sweating over the inevitably correct guitar tone for our next recording, we – identical twin brothers, Jack and Benny – discovered a small fallacy in the band we spearhead, jackbenny: though we overall seek to spread, through our meticulously crafted music about more-than-hetero-love, happiness and a love of unconditional diversity over the globe, we’ve in fact barely traveled outside North America into the ever-compartmentalizing world with which we wish to connect.
And though we pride ourselves on having explored many of the less-traversed crannies of the States, we figured we ought to rustle our comfort more dramatically and plop ourselves somewhere much farther away, in distance and in culture. One of our dearest friends from Los Angeles, Jake (aka Jacob Goldberg, an editor for this publication), has lived for over two years now in Yangon, a destination that appropriately aligned with our criteria. So to escape this unusually rainy and cold LA winter, we gulped…and booked a flight.
Even before we embarked in mid-February, fretting to organize the necessary visa paperwork signaled a trip unlike any we’d done before. After nearly 24 hours of air travel, a simple cab ride to our friend’s home remained the sole obstacle before the meat of our adventure. Contrary to the busy city scene he envisioned, the quiet, barren streets driving through Yangon at 1am queasily spooked Jack. But the young, handsome cabbie assuaged his discomfort.
He asked about our “violin”, and we soon realized he was referencing the ukulele (baritone ukulele, more specifically) that Benny brought on our journey. We explained that we make music together and would hopefully perform in Falam, a mountain town in Chin State, where the driver had never visited but said he would like to as he lamented the cloistering pace and population of Yangon…but where was everyone?
We’d merely to wake the next day to understand his qualms. But the activity and people coloring the city’s mix of colonial and newer buildings excited us as we ate inaugural mohingas on a tea shop patio.
We then set off to explore the obligatory Shwedagon. Benny likes to record silly videos singing with his uke in unexpected locales as we travel, so he was slightly disheartened to have to check his instrument at the pagoda’s visitor counter. Nonetheless, we delighted to instead listen to the steady, unified chanting emanating from the different satellite temples.
Later that day, we drank on 19th Street and danced at 7th Joint, but, more memorably, we returned to Jake’s place to inadvertently meet Damien and Harry, two Aussies soon leaving the city after an archaeology assignment through their university. Turns out they played in the music scene Down Under, and of course, we didn’t hesitate to share a couple songs we wrote. They loved the material, and we regaled through the morning, continuously filling our glasses with whiskey.
Benny never before dreamed to befriend people so global, and the encounter reaffirmed fast his enthusiasm to travel.
This feeling only persisted and intensified as we soon boarded a private bus to the deserted capital Naypyidaw to celebrate the birthday of Jake’s friend Adela at the ritzy Kempinski Hotel.
Though we could have easily optioned to clock more sleep, we preferred to regularly rotate seats on the six-hour ride, meeting more Aussies, Brits, Swedes and fellow Americans, learning of our diverse histories that coalesced in this moment.
At the hotel, Jack swiftly unloaded his luggage and raced to play the grand piano decorating the main lobby, and the employees loved the impromptu serenading. Benny continued mingling poolside, and naturally he withdrew his uke to sing again throughout the wee hours. Whereas seemingly everyone back home in LA performs and/or writes music, our new Yangon friends insisted that they don’t rub with enough musical/artistic travelers, and thus particularly enjoyed the night’s live soundtrack.
New friends Ben and Cat proposed a barbecue on their rooftop the following week, which would be our final night in Myanmar. They invited us to perform our songs – a private concert – and we happily agreed. More on that later.
Onward, we scarfed a quick continental breakfast at the Kempinski before another five-hour bus to Mandalay, followed by a short flight to Kalay, a sizable town in northwest Sagaing Region.
There we met Jake (who flew separately) and OJ, Syi and Chino: three hip-hop-loving brothers who would serve as our guides over the next five days as we gallivanted around neighboring Chin State, which they assured us was only a nominal car ride away.
We strapped our luggage onto the roof of a van and set off for Falam…nearly six hours on a rugged, mostly-dirt road winding turbulently up and down the hills. Much of the road was still being built. We finally arrived at our modest hotel in Falam, replete with travelers from around Myanmar and India eager to experience a three-day festival coinciding with Chin National Day, which celebrates the culture and history of the Chin ethnic group.
Crucially, as you’ll soon see, the festival was emceed by OJ, Syi and Chino’s uncle, John.
At the festival grounds, we watched traditional dances, competitive pillow flights and the ever-perplexing ritual in which a woman in Chin garb reached into two bags, one on each arm, to reveal live chickens, which she tossed into a raucous crowd, all while several men hoisted her upon a cabana-like structure.
We spent the day chatting with the Chin festival-goers, unanimously surprised that anyone outside the community would bother to engulf themselves in their world.
After a sumptuous Burmese meal, we rode motorbikes a few miles outside Falam to Rel Sing Village, where our guides’ grandparents live. The family reunion there got wind that the two of us make music together, and they requested that we sing a number.
Obliging was, of course, the least we could provide for Pupu and Pipi – endearing Chin words for “grandpa” and “grandma” – and the entirety of the family beamed as we performed an original, “On the Go.”
The one-song presentation served also as a makeshift audition to join the evening roster at the Chin National Day festival, and OJ confirmed our “standby” status for the following night’s lineup.
The next morning, we hiked around the village and to the local garden, then squished into the rear of a pickup back to Falam, and quickly bucket-showered before descending to the mountainside festival ground, where we hoped we would be invited to play to a spirited crowd completely new to us and our material!
At the concert’s mainstage, the boisterous festival-goers sang and danced to Chin and Burmese pop-rock hits, and invited us to vivaciously cheer and jump along, too. We were hooked, nearly salivating at the chance to play our music on that very stage. Emcee John, however, informed us that the festival’s schedule was packed too tight, and we’d have to gamble for the following night – the final night of the celebration.
We slept long and deep that night, and the next morning, we managed a quick excursion to the Var Bridge across the Manipura River, though all the while we itched for John’s verdict regarding our impending performance.
On the rickety ride returning to the hotel, OJ, now affectionately our interim band manager, secured a slot for jackbenny to perform “one or two songs” that evening. We jubilated at the opportunity and continued to devise our set; we practiced “How are you” and “Thank you” in the local Chin language and perfected our music choices.
As we ambled into the festival grounds for the final time, fireworks boomed, vivifying the clear night sky and invigorating our excitement to sing. John ushered us to where we’d weasel into the evening’s itinerary, but he determined that there was only time for a single song. We paced behind the stage until John began to introduce us: a band who sojourned all the way from Los Angeles, California, to participate in their festival.
We set the mics as quickly as possible, and Benny began to strum his uke. We’d never performed our material for an audience nearly as large as the one before us, and not more than a few moments of our parallel harmonies in “The Tremor Trembling Through” passed before the crowd erupted in cheering!
Grinning unabashedly throughout, we finished the number, and the people of Falam saluted with more applause. We then ran off to meet our hosts’ family at the festival restaurant where we giggled and celebrated the occasion.
Early in the morning, we scaled the bumpy road back down to Kalay. On the way, we passed a truck full of onions that had rolled down the side of the mountain. Luckily, no one was hurt.
In Kalay we waited, at first patiently and then anxiously, to fly back to Yangon for our last night in Myanmar, where we would present our songs at the rooftop barbecue as scheduled the previous week.
The plane at last took off, we cabbed back to Jake’s, threw our dusty clothes in the wash, and headed to Ben and Cat’s. The frankfurters and veggie skewers were just rolling out as we arrived, and though we had plenty on which to catch up with the gathered Yangon residents – locals and immigrants – they soon demanded the music they were promised.
From the 9th-floor rooftop, you couldn’t hear one bit of the noisy chatter and courteous horn-honking in the city below, paving the aural space for our melodies and lyrics to shine against the stars. Our new friends received each song, interspersed with anecdotes that inspired the writing or performance of each tune, more and more zealously. They egged us to an eventual three encores (!), and we basked in the moonlight and strong camaraderie throughout the remainder of the morning. We couldn’t have concluded our Burmese adventure more wholesomely.
So often in LA we become entangled in the putative business agenda of music-making, in effect obscuring why we chose this artistic trek in the first place. We forget that to genuinely affect one person, touch their heart or stir them to think in a new manner is the under-lauded yet most satiating magic of art, and the intimacy of jackbenny’s Yangon rooftop show afforded just that. And we’ll gladly travel halfway round the earth just to remind ourselves again.