Before I moved to Myanmar, I didn’t know who Westlife was. That’s not because I don’t have opinions on boy bands—I’m a Backstreet Boys boy all the way. I even have a vague memory of debating with my fellow 11-year-olds in the playground of our Southern California Jewish elementary school over which late-90s male vocal ensemble was the “coolest.” I know for a fact that Westlife was never submitted as a contender.
But over the last four years, after multiple instances of believing I had found a perfect work café in Yangon, only to be subjected to an incessant loop of “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun,” I’ve been forced to wonder: How has this Irish boy band, whose reticent dance moves and unironic ballads failed to catch on in the United States two decades ago, effortlessly succeeded at producing some of the most enduringly popular songs in Myanmar?
— Lakshna (@lakshna_lk) March 8, 2014
— Diane (@dianedotmarie) February 23, 2014
Music and English
In my initial search for answers, I posed the question to people who lived in Myanmar in the 90s and 00s, during the height of Westlife’s fame. But rather than turning up answers, my question only caused the curiosity to spread. It seems that Westlife’s popularity in Myanmar is analogous to paying for six months of rent at once or valuing banknotes based on how flat they are—it’s only strange to foreigners.
“I never really wondered [about Westlife’s popularity] because that was around the time I started paying attention to music,” said Yangon native Yan Nyein Aung, who remembers playing one of the boy band’s albums in his family’s car “constantly” when he was growing up.
“My perspective on music was a blank slate. I didn’t really have any opinions. I just took it for granted,” he told Coconuts.
But with his curiosity piqued by the question, Yan began his own search for answers. Earlier this month, he posted an informal poll on Facebook, asking his Myanmar friends: “When was the first time you heard Westlife in Myanmar, and where?”
The post garnered dozens of responses, many of which confirmed the same two points: First, Westlife was one of the only foreign acts to which Myanmar children were exposed in the late 90s. Second, the band’s music was taught to them in school.
Saya U Ba Oo, a senior advisor for the music department at Yangon’s ILBC school, elaborated on the second point.
“For us, as music educators, the most important goal was to teach both music and English,” he told Coconuts. “It was difficult to get what we needed to teach songs, but it was easy to get Westlife CDs, tapes, and DVDs 20 years ago.
He added:“The English is spoken clearly, the music is accessible, the melodies are attractive, and Westlife is uncontroversial.”
While the music teacher’s recollections explain why many people in their 20s today are familiar with Westlife, they do not fully explain how Westlife first entered the Myanmar market and then dominated it for years. One convincing explanation comes from Dr. Jane M. Ferguson, an anthropologist at the Australian National University. Ferguson theorizes that Westlife fandom in Myanmar is an outgrowth of the country’s unique political history.
“When the Burmese Socialist Program Party prohibited many foreign imports, local recording studios took to making Burmese ‘copy’ versions of international popular songs,” she told Coconuts. “The songs maintain [their original] instrumentation and melodies but replace foreign-language lyrics with Burmese lyrics written by famous Burmese poets and performed by popular Burmese musicians.”
For local musicians who wanted to play something other than traditional music, these covers, known locally as copy thachin (copy music), became a way to circumvent a government that saw foreign music as promoting “un-Burmese sounds, un-Burmese expressions, and un-Burmese stage manners.”
Two of Westlife’s most popular songs, Ferguson explained, capitalized on fame that predated the band’s existence, as well as later fame as copy thachin. “I Have a Dream,” which was originally recorded by ABBA in 1975, was the inspiration for “Eit Met Soe Lay” (“Sing a Dream”) by Irene Zin Ma Myint. “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You,” originally recorded by George Benson in 1985, was the inspiration for “M’pyaung Leh Naing Deh Achit” (“Love that Can’t be Changed”) by Tu Tu.
Ferguson said: “Both of these [songs] have been popular in Myanmar since the 1980s, so I would look at these as unintentionally laying foundations for establishing Westlife’s success in Myanmar: their songs were already hits in the Burmese language.”
Burmese is not the only language in which Westlife’s music has been copied. Mandarin and Cantonese covers have also made the band popular across China. This, too, has had an effect on Myanmar, as most of Myanmar’s karaoke systems are imported from China. According to Stephanie KoKo, COO of the Yangon-based Legacy Music Network Company, these systems have expansive and enduring Westlife selections.
“As far as I know, most KTV owners buy their karaoke systems from places like Taiwan, where packages of songs are pre-installed. This is why we always get the same songs at every karaoke, and they are never updated,” she told Coconuts.
The circumstances that conspired to allow Westlife’s fame to endure in Myanmar while it dissipated elsewhere appear to have expired. The copy thachin industry is in decline, and music from around the world is now available in the palms of millions of Myanmar hands. However, according to Ferguson, this does not mean that music trends in Myanmar will cease having stories to tell.
“Burmese musicians, songwriters, and poets have always been innovating, selectively borrowing from local and international themes and styles, and making their own creations,” she said. “How those songs are judged, well, that’s up to the audiences.”
Additional reporting by Nay Paing.