Monday, January 7, 2013

Walking free with Jason Mraz (The Nation)

Walking free with Jason Mraz
Onravee Tangmeesang
Special to The Nation
Yangon December 22, 2012 1:00 am 

American musician Jason Mraz was visibly moved as he took the stage last Sunday in Yangon, greeting the crowds as the first international artist to perform in an open-air concert in Myanmar and opening a new chapter in the country's music scene. He also mixed music with anti-trafficking messages, encouraging both locals and musicians to take a stand on human right issues.

More than 50,000 fans, both local and foreign, packed into People's Square and Park located on the west side of Myanmar's magnificent landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Most were young and like their peers elsewhere in the world, dressed casually in jeans. The women wore make up and the guys sported fashionable hair cuts.

The concert was organised by MTV Exit ((End Exploitation and Trafficking) in cooperation with US and Australian government aid agencies and the anti-slavery organisation Walk Free.

"I had a direct experience working with survivors of human trafficking in Ghana. There was no way I couldn't be part of this," Mraz said at the press conference before the show.

Walk Free used Saturday's concert to launch a campaign calling on major corporations to make a "zero-tolerance-for-slavery pledge" by the end of March.

For many of the Myanmar people, participating in this groundbreaking concert was their first experience of attending a show by a world-class songwriter and singer, especially one from America, as Myanmar was under US sanctions for decades. Most were too young to have attended the performances at small and select venues by jazz artists Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Charlie Byrd, all of whom visited the country under US government sponsorship in the 1970s.

"When I heard that 'MTV Exit Live in Myanmar' was bringing in an international artist to come and perform in our country, I was like 'Okay, this is a joke!' It was that hard to believe," said Su Larb Yadanar, who won a gift bag.

Mraz performed many of his best known songs but the highlights were almost certainly "Lucky", on which he duetted with local singer "Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein" and the finale, the smash hit "I'm Yours".

Even though the majority of the crowd couldn't sing along, they thoroughly enjoyed the concert and shouted his name long after he left the stage. Thai rocker Slot Machine also had them up and dancing, proving that language really doesn't matter when the music is good.

Local artists too used the concert to speak out about trafficking and slavery, issues that affect all parts of Myanmar.

R Zarni, one of Myanmar's popular singers, launched a song and a short documentary about human trafficking called "Traps of Life" at the show.

Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein added she had met with several human trafficking survivors and would love to have the opportunity to sing a song about human trafficking.

Between sets, the organisers showed videos and gave presentations on how human trafficking can be prevented and a hotline number to call to report cases.

Student Yae Yint Ko Ko, 19, said the concert had driven the message home.

"I had no idea of the scale of the problem until I saw the videos [about human trafficking] at the concert. I feel sympathy for the victims. I will warn my friends and family about human trafficking. I definitely feel motivated from Sunday's concert," he said, adding that he hoped more international artists would perform in Myanmar.

But while the country is gradually opening up, several restrictions remain in place, with Mraz having to submit a list of the songs he planned to perform to government well in advance of the show.

Moreover, the country has no proper venue that would work for an international-scale concert.

Three weeks before the MTV Exit gig, several local indie rock/punk bands put together an underground concert in a Yangon park for some 200 fans. Among those playing was Side Effect, the first underground Myanmar band to perform in Europe. Side Effect had been invited to play in Hamburg, Berlin and Gera, Germany and their lead singer, Darko C, reports they were treated as "rock stars."

The last time The Nation talked to Side Effect in June, they hoped to have a proper stage concert in their home country as well as get to perform abroad. At least, one of those dreams come true.

Now that Mraz has performed in Myanmar, perhaps the spotlight will now shine on the country's own music scene.

"It would be great to see our people enjoying the same music that Berliners enjoyed," Darko says.

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