There’s a good reason we haven’t heard much from Myanmar (formerly Burma), where Western journalism is frowned upon, even forbidden. For six decades, a totalitarian system was in place. When a cyclone hit the region in 2008, the military regime refused Western aid, trotting out a few healthy citizens as “examples” of its efficacy while tens of thousands were dying off camera. When the military ceded control to the “people”, the nation became an ethnic war zone, and over 30,000 Rohingya Muslims were massacred. Despite paper claims of progress, this is not a nice place to visit. (For more, see the film Burma: A Human Tragedy and Emma Larkin’s brilliant two-part travelogue, Finding George Orwell in Burma and Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma.)
Vienna’s Peter Kutin was one of the first sound artists to visit the nation after certain restrictions had been lifted. He visited rain forests and refugee camps, recorded gongs and bells, and reflected on the gap between expectation and fulfillment, public statement and reality. After presenting the piece on Austrian national radio, he radically altered the project, calling on the aid of percussionist Berndt Thurner and turntablist dieb13. Given the original recordings, Thurner added a unifying layer of traditional Burmese instrumentation, ranging from metallophone to Kye zee (gong). The result is a remarkably fluid sound collage, 37 minutes of music, field recording and local (untranslated) conversation.
Why is this recording important? Obviously, it’s a glimpse inside an internationally hidden culture. But it’s also a reminder of the beauty of Burma: the children playing, giggling, laughing in the streets; the resonant worship, laden with reverberation; the traditional music, connecting past with present; the rain that brings refreshment, rather than fear. In one sense, this is the lost nation; in another, it the recovered nation, the populace worth saving, the glorious remnant, the story behind the story. Many people report on the tragedy, the oppression, the strife, but in so doing communicate only the vastness of the problem. Confronted with unending sorrow, those who might intervene instead feel overwhelmed. Kutin speaks of tragedy in his liner notes, yet saves the beauty for his recording. Those who hear it may take a deep breath, say a deep prayer, and do what they can to help. (Richard Allen)