Burma Rave


The Guitars of the Golden Triangle compilation is achingly gorgeous and energetically ratty at the same time. The title grabs your attention but is misleading, since this is voice-and-song music even more than it’s guitar music. The album was compiled by the Sublime Frequencies label from tracks recorded throughout the ’70s in Shan state, a remote and reputedly lawless region in northeast Myanmar. Although the music draws on American rock, none of the artists seem to have heard much recorded later than 1970: no power chords, little sustain, a bit of wah-wah, the occasional fuzz tone, some exploratory guitar work reminiscent of San Francisco bands like Big Brother and the Great Society. (Could these musicians have heard obscure bands like the Great Society? Well, the first track is a cover of Hoyt Axton’s neo-rockabilly “Lightning Bar Blues,” and I don’t remember Hoyt Axton being a household name either.) Early-’60s pop is as strong a source as later psychedelia, and early and late ’60s intermix in a way they didn’t in the U.S. Saing Saing Maw, who’s got seven tracks here, sings in a casual style reminiscent of Ricky Nelson; like Nelson, he has an intense band and a guitarist slinging ice pellets at us. He also—I’m serious—seems to have heard the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard”, hence chords are played with a similar push.

A singer named Lashio Thein Aung adopted the nickname “Jimmy Jack” and was sometimes called “the Burmese Texan.” You could imagine him doing offhand versions of themes to TV and movie westerns like Rawhide and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A track by Khun Khang Kay Maung reminds me—in its melody but not its rhythm—of plaintive reggae by the likes of Keith & Tex and Desmond Dekker, though I have no idea if the resemblance is a coincidence.

Now, having told you all that, I recommend that you disregard what I just said. The feel of this music is entirely Asian, with vocals that rise to a ringing high pitch, and sad little descents—or singing that stays gentle while the guitars scale heights and plunge. And while ’60s rock was the invention of inspired kids, this music sounds like adults making their way. Not that it’s sedate or negligible—in fact, it’s amazing from start to finish and is of a quality that can match any rock made anywhere. One performer here, Khun Paw Yann, ranks with the best and most impassioned singers I’ve heard in my life. He’s got a wail—not always a sad one, and he doesn’t overdo it into wetness; he’ll go soft while his guitarist runs bittersweet little ringlets around him. This leaves a haunting afterglow.

Compiler Alan Bishop could find no information about Khun Paw Yann other than that his surname identifies his ethnic group as the Pa’o: “Why no one else from outside the Burmese community has spoken about this music for the past 35 years is unbelievable.”