About a year ago, freelance musician and producer Jason Moen decided to travel in Asia for a few months, with Myanmar at the top of the list of destinations.
He wasn’t going merely for vacation.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moen had long traveled in Cuba, Brazil and Spain, studying the local music and recording some of his own in the process.
This trip would be similar. He brought his equipment in case any opportunities to collaborate arose.
Like many travellers curious about Yangon’s cultural side, he had the good fortune to run into Aung Soe Min, the owner of several art galleries under the Pansodan brand name.
Thingyan, Myanmar’s water festival, was around the corner, and the timing, the shared interests (Aung Soe Min is also a singer and a poet, among other talents), it all caught fire.
Luckily for Moen, Aung Soe Min had always been interested in trying to blend traditional musical forms with some other style to create a whole new sound.
He had tried a few times before but it hadn’t panned out. So they agreed to work together.
“Since Thingyan 2015 was only a couple of months away we started by doing a remix of one of his songs with dancing as the focus,” Moen recalled in an email. “The similarities between Thingyan and Carnival [in Brazil] were striking… and then the project just grew from there. “
Aung Soe Min worried about the dwindling presence of Myanmar’s rich musical traditions, but more than that, he worried about a lack of choices for listeners.
“I’m always afraid they will like one music style because there are no options, so I just want more options,” he said in a recent interview. “I want the new generation to make their own style, their own music.”
He also wanted to make a collective form of music that revived older practices of public dance.
“If people are not at ease with dancing to contemporary music, then dancing will become less and less used in social life, that’s why I am so afraid, and that’s why I want to make a little more danceable music,” he said.
The result is definitely a little more danceable.
Originally called Thingyan Si Wa, to coincide with April’s water festival – when hitting the streets and dancing is, if not expected, definitely condoned – the tracks are like nothing you have ever heard.
Lively, catchy as hell, international but very Myanmar, they live up to Moen’s and Aung Soe Min’s descriptions of a hybrid and entirely new sound.
“I was amazed to see the rift that has occurred in Myanmar between the folkloric music and pop music scenes (for many historic reasons),” Moen said, alluding to the gaps between Myanmar and rest of the world that widened during five decades of military rule.
“Aung Soe Min and I are creating songs influenced by both ancient and contemporary streams. Basically, many traditional Myanmar instruments and melodies are used in our productions, with Burmese lyrics referencing older poetic styles.”
But the rhythms are from Latin America, Moen added. There’s samba, cumbia, merengue, as well as funk, house and electronic dance music, or EDM.
Take “Maung Pann Mhwe,” a kind of call and response folk poetry set to thumping electronic rhythms that would not be out of place in a street festival or nightclub on another continent.
There’s “Way Lay Wa La Thingyan,” an EDM fusion with a Carnival vibe that makes you want to get up and dance, wherever you are.
In “Ashay,” a slow, drippy, trip-hop beat anchors a mash-up of Burmese instrumentalism and quick lyrical takes.
A handful of other tracks are available on the Si Wa soundcloud page. They make up the core of what will be a larger and ongoing project that will start with a fuller album building on the Thingyan songs called “Zitmyit Si Wa.”
“The biggest challenge ahead is to create a band to perform our songs live… and then take it on the road,” Moen said.