Sunday, November 28, 2010

My journey in Myanmar and Laos, preserved gems in Asia

My five weeks in Myanmar and Laos, two countries where people are still genuinely smiling. An initiatic journey where I mixed discovery and music creation.

Day 1 Kuala Lumpur – Yangon (Tuesday, October 26th 2010)

I land in Yangon. Immigration, luggage, customs, all in a few minutes. My guide is waiting for me. The car must be a hundred years old or so, but it works. Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is a very widespread city, with large road and plenty of parks and lakes. It’s quite green. But it’s like we are still in the fifties. No high rise buildings, no super highways.

First stop at the travel agent, to get the hotel vouchers, the plane tickets, and pay the balance of my journey with pristine fresh dollars (the “other” money used in the country). I meet the owner, Hervé, a friendly French guy who is into music. He gives me the CD he has released, called “World Music From Myanmar”, just one long track he produced with many local musicians. The track evolves in different directions, in a lounge style, including amazing percussions, beautiful voices, crispy oboe, and an array of instruments that I’ve never heard before. I was thinking that a full Buddha Bar CD could be created from this material.

I arrive at my hotel, the famous Governor’s residence. It really used to be the governor’s residence during last century during the British colonization era. It has kept its colonial charm, with its canopies, ponds, huge rooms with teck floor, traditional objects, quiet bar, huge lounge, ceiling fans, French meets Asian restaurant,… Supposedly the most charming hotel in Myanmar (and one of the most expensive too).

Visit of the reclining Buddha. Huge, but it’s like in an aviation hall.

Then the famous Shwedagon. That’s impressive. I spend around three hours walking around the various pagodas and monuments. Every day of the week (there are 8 in fact, the Wednesday one being split into morning and evening) has its own statue to be revered. I learn that I was born a Monday, so I stop by the place devoted to me, which is the Tiger. To bring me luck, I have to take a cup, and fill it with water that I have to pour on the Buddha statue as many times as years that I lived (yes, my arm starts to feel the years after raising it many times), then once on the tiger statue itself.

It’s amazing to see all these people coming here just to walk, pray, pay homage to the Buddha, place offerings, all in a peaceful and easy going manner. I record the sound of beautiful bells. I have to hit the bell 3 times, the ringing never seems to end echoing. The place I spend the most time is a group of people, mainly women, chanting while and old man is doing offerings with candles and incense sticks. I record them, thinking that it would probably nicely sit in some of my future compositions.

The sunset on the pagodas of Shwedagon, and on its main stupa covered with 7 tons of gold, is magic. I feel almost sad to leave the place. Have I met holiness? Let’s say that I may start( to feel the inspiration gaining me.

Day 2 Yangon (Wednesday, October 27th 2010)

No internet again today. Not only for me, the whole Yangon is out of internet today.

Morning in the city center with its colorful market. Then Scott market, with its hundreds of stalls selling anything from gems to fabrics.

In the afternoon, I stop by Ko Doo’s Art Music Academy. I will spend the whole afternoon there.

Ko Doo is a multi-talented musician, running one of the two only music schools in Yangon. As I enter the room, a musician is tuning a Burmese harp. Then he shows the basic techniques of the harp and asks each of the four students there to try. It is their first time. Once done, Ko Doo asks the four students to sit at their table, and put me in the middle, as the students have many questions to ask me (what’s your name, where do you come from, what instruments do you play, are you married, do you use computer to create your music, etc.). After that, Ko Doo gives them some theory on rhythm and asks each of them to improvise a melody, on their preferred instrument (one on the piano, three on the guitar), based on the rhythm patter just rehearsed. He comments extensively on the way the students should give life to their interpretation, not just pluck notes.

After the students are gone, Ko Doo explains a bit more about his musical life, and shows me several videos of his past creations. The first one is a video interview of him explaining how he came to fusion music, and how he probably is the person perpetuating the traditional Burmese instruments by blending them with modern instruments. He shows some examples of him and his students playing famous tunes like the Pink Panther using traditional local instruments. The interview is titles “East meets West” (it reminds me of my own motto: Eastern Tradition meets western Groove”, doesn’t it?).

He shows me another video where he and many students interpret Michael Jackson’s Heal The World, rearranged by Ko Too, during a local radio Anniversary show, with traditional percussions (including the amazing circle drums), modern instruments (drums, electric guitar), many singers, and rows of children joining the stage waving glow sticks. Goose bumps.

I’m quite amazed to see how the music comes to me during this journey that I’ve just started.

Day 3 Yangon – Mandalay (Thursday, October 28th 2010)

Wake up at 4 am because I could only get a seat in the 6:30 flight to Mandalay. Inhuman.

The roads around Mandalay are not only for cars, but more for cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, goats, buffalos, trucks, and I might have forgotten a few. Surprisingly, even though people drive on the right side of the road, most of the cars in Mandalay have their steering wheel on the right side too.

First stop in a village market. Stands are rare, most of the time the women sell their vegetables, eggs, poultry, dried fish,… directly on a nat on the
floor. Very colorful. I continue amongst the ruins of the multiple Palate pagodas, spread amongst monasteries and the villages. Cows are sleeping in front of the pagodas. The life in the village has probably not changed much since the 19th century. I see these jacquard machines that I thought had disappeared from the surface of earth in many houses where ladies create beautiful fabrics in a symphony of hitting noises.

I visit the Mahamuni temple with its Buddha which is becoming thicker by the years as the devotees place gold leaves on him. It seems that several tons of gold have been placed on him. I go to a fabric where they show how they make the gold leaves that are to be applied on the sacred statues. It is by hitting them repeatedly so that become thinner and wider. The resulting leave is around one micron thick.

I visit the Shwenandaw temple all in teck. And the Snake temple at Paleik, in fact it has 3 snakes. I touch one, it is supposed to bring me luck. At 11 am, attendants take the snakes and pour them in a basin to bathe them. They seem to like it. One of the snakes looks at me with its white eyes, he is so cute! The people around the basing put money in a small pot after having touched the snake; that is also supposed to bring them luck. I have the feeling that the frontier between devotion, belief and superstition is blurred.

Lunch in a local restaurant: I take a chicken curry. The young waiters (it looks like that in most local restaurants waiters are 15 years old) put an array of plates on the table, containing beans soup, tomato chutney, fried vegetables, chilly, clear soup, fried peanuts, two pieces of chicken in a nice gravy, and a full plate of white rice that is being refilled until I say stop. Tasty.

Another visit at the World’s biggest book, so called because each of its 729 marble pages is contained in a small pagoda, which makes rows and rows of them. Many boys and girls are selling their postcards and various objects. I buy a flat bell to a girl, I like its sound, quite pure. Placing my mouth near it after having hit it, and opening and closing my lips quickly make the resonance of the sound vibrate in a kind of wah wah effect which I like.

Last visit at Mandalay hill. Beautiful view around. Rice fields, the Irrawady river, the fields still shining from the recent floods, the huge jail just besides the university, the multiple golden pagodas spread all over the place, and the sunset on top of it. I record the sound of a bell, when I hear chants. A group of monks perform three rouncs around the temple while praying and chanting. Of course I record their chants.

One of the noticeable features of the people is that many women, girls and boys have what looks like a white patch on each cheek. It is a paste made from sandal wood, which they apply on their face to keep it pretty. A sort of beauty cream. Also, many men wear the traditional sarong instead of pants.

Day 4 Mandalay (Friday, October 29th 2010)

Still no internet. I could not get internet since I arrived in Myanmar. I wonder how many emails and messages I’ll find when I get back to internet.

Today it’s raining. I hope we won’t do too much siteseeing.

Straight to the boat, which has been chartered just for me. It could have handled twenty tourists. I land opposite the impressive Irrawaddy river, at a village called Mingun, the rain has stopped. The huge Mingun paya is like a big birthday cake, which could have been the largest in the world (pagoda, not birthday cake) if it had been finished, some 200 years ago. It has been damaged by an earthquake in the middle of the 19th century, so it’s full of dangerous cracks. Anyway, I manage to jump over them, but I realize that I’m not that flexible as some places on top of the monument have to be escalated. The view from the top is wonderful: monasteries, temples, pagodas, palm trees, hills, the Irrawaddy river, villages, it’s really breathtaking.

I continue to the Mingun bell, the largest bell of Myanmar, and said to be the largest uncracked bell in the world, weighing 90 tons. I cannot resist recording its deep sound, from outside, and from below. Then short visit to the white pagoda, so white that my camera has some difficulty adjusting.

On the way back, I eat fresh mandarins on the boat. I just realize that there is a new passenger walking around me and making little noises: a beautiful multi-colored coq.

Afternoon visit to the marble factories. Hundreds of white buddhas of all sizes and in all states of completion are displayed by the shops. I’m the only tourist. I can see how they manually carve and polish the statues. Next stop at the bronze factory. More buddhas of course. I spend some time in the warehouse testing the sound of various gongs and flat bells. I really love these sounds, they are all so pure.

Gosh I have a sunburn on my head and neck!

Evening: I go to the famous Moustache Brothers show. This funny daily show is openly anti-government, but is kind of tolerated by the government, provided it is held in English, no more than eight people attend, and cannot be played outside their house. Two of the brothers have done extensive jail terms, the elder, Par Par Lay, having spent 7 years, with handcuffs, for having made some jokes during the Independence Day. They is an extract about them in the film “About a Boy” with Hugh Grant.

I can’t see them, but what they call the KGB is outside somewhere in the street watching me and the other tourists attending the show. I say hello to Par Par Lay on behalf of Ko Doo, as they know each other. What makes the show interesting for me is not necessarily the jokes about the government, which is nothing new to me, but the showcase of traditional costumes and traditional dances that have a tendency to disappear.

As my driver could not keep the car at night, he drives me back by motorcycle. Nice change.

Day 5 Mandalay (Saturday, October 30th 2010)

First attempt on internet. After 10 minutes of waiting, I reach the Facebook page, greeted by a message telling me that I’m not connecting from a familiar place and I’m prompted with many so-called security questions. As it takes about 10 mn to get to the new page, I give up.

Morning visit to the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery, home to more than 1500 monks, most of them novices (meaning less than 20 years old, many of them still being young children). They are everywhere, walking, praying, talking, washing, reading, sleeping… 10:30 am: bell. All the monks in their safran robe, and the nuns in their pink robes, align in two rows with their bowl in their hands. That’s two rows of hundreds and hundreds of monks. Second bell. They all start walking towards the place where they will be given food. It’s well organized, as the endless procession of monks does not halt even once. Then each of them enters the refectory. They eat in silence.

Sagaing hill, one of the former capitals of Myanmar, is host to hundreds of monasteries and even more pagodas. It’s a very quiet place, on which I visit a few more temples and admire the view on the Irrawady river.

I take a small boat to Inwa, another former capital of which remains a few pagodas, temples and a leaning tower, the bricks and wood having been dismantled by former kings when they moved their capital somewhere else. I do the three hour journey by horse cart. The most impressive is the teck monastery, where about fifty children are learning their mantras under the eye of an impassible monk. The younger child is probably not more than four years old, and he is sleeping.

Then, sunset at the beautiful and popular 1.5 km long U Bein's wooden Bridge.

In the evening I go to the famous Mandalay Marionettes (puppets) show, where I introduce myself to Ma Ma Naing, the founder, an elegant middle aged lady. The troup is trying to preserve the old art of puppet show, with live instruments including the astonishing circle drum, where the player is sitting in the middle of 23 small drums placed in circle around him. The oboe is by far the noisiest of these instruments, and non trained ears can find it creepy. Good show with a sense of humour.

Day 6 Mandalay – Pagan (Sunday, October 31st 2010)

New attempt on internet. Miracle it works somewhat. I can check my bank account. I cannot check my emails because Yahoo mail is banned. I manage to reinstate my facebook account, and after 20 mn I eventually reach my page. So happy, I start to write my first message in 6 days to the whole world when… the electricity goes off. I give up, and I head to the swimming pool.

On the way to Mandalay airport, I stop by Ma Ma Naing’s Marionette place, as she holds her “Happy Sunday”, a kind of karaoke where she and whoever from her friends drop by can sing along the keyboardist (a bit different from the “Happy Sundays” party of last Sunday when I was spinning strong electro-house music to an excited crowd). She brings me a huge plate of noodles full of different pieces of chicken, meat balls, tofu, small vegetables, and things I cannot name. The plate is so huge that I cannot finish it. Two monks are here. Some people come, and take the microphone. Among them a man who seems to be a famous local writer. He gives me one of his books, which I might find difficult to read, as it is in Burmese.

I make a small donation for a friend of the group who has to pay for his heart operation. Soon after, a big sign board is placed behind me, and I have to stand up and give an envelope (my donation) to Ma Ma Naing, while the people in the attendance take flash pictures of us. I guess I just became a local celebrity.

Why is the airport so far from Mandalay? One hour!

I arrive in Nyaung U airport, which is the airport near Bagan (or Pagan). Nobody is waiting for me, short moment of panic (not really, let’s say discomfort). I call the travel agent, it’s Sunday, hopefuly someone is there and manages to send me someone.

The hotel is nice, with its individual bungalows, but it’s quite noisy outside, I can hear some music on loudspeakers. It is in fact a Buddhist festival. I walk towards the noise, it takes about ten minutes in the dark (public lighting is quite rare in Myanmar). The closer I get, the more people I see converging to the place, whether by foot, bicycle, motorcycle (usually 3 or 4 people on it) and a truck.

It is really like a fair, with stalls selling food, toys or balloons, on the side of a pagoda decorated with Christmas tree-like lamps, and before reaching a large stage in front of which around one thousand people are sitting waiting for the show. So I wait for the show, while some traditional (and loud) music is being played, followed by good old rock and roll which makes a few teenagers dance a bit. I must be the only foreigner here. A young man engages the conversation (hello, where do you come from, what’s your name – I should have the answers ready on a tape) and, while he is chewing his betel which makes his inner lips and teeth red like many Burmese people, recommends me while I’m in Bagan to make a trip by boat, it seems to be a must. The show starts. Singer, dancers which look like the puppets of yesterday, more singers, more bad singers, after some time I decide to go back to the hotel.

Day 7 Pagan (Monday, November 1st 2010)

Horse cart to Nyaung-U. The plains on each side of the road are full of pagodas. Small, large, tall, tiny, in good shape, in bad shape, they are everywhere, it’s absolutely amazing, even more amazing than Angkor temples in Cambodia (even though not comparable).

In Nyaung-U, I walk in a lively and typical market. A bit too many tourists there.

Then visit of a few million pagodas (there are more than 4000 around!), most of them from which I cannot remember the name. Every time, there are a lot of children, women and men trying to sell you some locally hand made objects. I must say that they are usually quite pretty, including paintings, bells, or lacquerware. Then, I admire a stunning sunset from the top of a pagoda.

I just realize that this is the first day of my journey which does not contain any new music experience.

Day 8 Pagan (Tuesday, November 2nd 2010)

Pagodas, pagodas, more pagodas.

One of them, an 11th century old one supposed to be the one with the thickest walls, strikes me by its similarity with Roman or Pre-Gothic churches in Europe (also 11th or 12th century) with similar arch shape.

I walk in a traditional village, with larges alleys, clean wooden houses, goats and cows around, children at school with their green longyi (people in Myanmar usually don’t wear pants, they wear the longyi, a long piece of fabric that they fix around their waist, it looks like a skirt. In fact, due to the usual high temperatures that can be experienced in these regions, I guess that the longyi is more comfortable than the Western pants.

Late afternoon, I head up to the riverside to take a boat to admire the sunset. The Irrawaddy river is incredibly wide, wider than a lake, 1 to 3 km wide. While I’m sipping some Chinese tea and eating extremely sweet tamarind flakes, I discover the life on the riverside. People bathing, fishing, washing their laundry, picking water, children running, there is a vibrant life there. The boat makes a half turn and now heads back to Bagan facing the sun. When the sun gets low enough and starts to wear an orange color, the captain stops the engine. I spend probably one hour there looking at the sun going down majestically, transforming the sky and the river in a symphony of colors like the whole panorama is on fire.

Day 9 Pagan (Wednesday, November 3rd 2010)

I’m reading the Singapore Straight Times which they have at my hotel. An insert in the front page sends me to page A32 featuring an article on the coming elections in Myanmar. The page A32 is missing…

My first fully free day. I switch on my laptop, connect my keyboard, plug some earphones, fire my music composition software, and start to throw in some ideas. Mmmm, my first attempts don’t seem to get anywhere. I place some recordings of the monks who were chanting a few days ago at Mandalay Hill, and I try to place a kick drum and some string pads to see where it goes. I’m not convinced so far. I drink a bit of Myanmar Rum to lighten my mood.

It does not work. So I start a new project. I throw in some bells that I recorded a few days ago, an evolving one note pad, a few soft rhythms, a deep bass line, and I attempt to sing a melody on top of it (just a test voice, I intend to find a beautiful female voice later on when I’m back in Kuala Lumpur). It seems to work, a kind of alchemy occurs. Is it the rum?

I’m a bit angry as the expensive double espresso I’ve ordered in my so-called luxury hotel came as a bad filtered coffee.

Day 10 Pagan (Thursday, November 4th 2010)

I throw new musical ideas for new tracks. Don’t know yet where this will lead me.

Another failed attempt to connect to internet (10days without internet!).

Day 11 Pagan (Friday, November 5th 2010)

I continue putting some musical ideas together. A couple of tracks start to take shape.

Day 12 Pagan - Inle (Saturday, November 6th 2010)

Flight to Heho. Yes, that’s the name of a city, which holds the closest airport to Inle Lake. Only Western (including some noisy Italians) and Chinese tourists in the plane.

First long drive to Kakku. We stop en route in Taungyyi, the capital of the Shan state, to pay the Pao conservation fee and get a Pao guide, as we are in the Pao area. Paos and Chans have had a long history of clashes, but they seem to have found a common interest in getting along to be stronger when having to negotiate with the government. A small road leads to Kakku. The road is in bad shape, so we have to pay a toll, the money collected there is being used by the private contractor to do the road repair works (the government does not carry these works, they “license” private companies to perform them). I see some repair works going on, the workers are mainly women.

The life along the road is amazing: garlic, rice and corn crops; women shaking baskets to separate the garlic from the petals under the wind; overloaded trucks (often overloaded with people standing on the back platform or sitting on the roof); farmers cropping; children playing; lots of middle aged to elderly people coming out from a gathering with their traditional colorful clothes; cows, buffalos driven by six year old child; snake crossing the road.

Kakku is one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen, and is not on the main tourist map (there are a few tourists, very few indeed, just my noisy Italians from the plane). It is composed of 2478 stupas (no, I did not count them) geometrically laid out in a small area. They are smaller than in Bagan, slimmer, and much more concentrated. They are all peaked with an umbrella on the top. It is a delicately crafted hat placed on the top of each stupa (not sure of the difference between a stupa and a pagoda). The whole site it’s amazing. It looks like Disneyland with hundreds of Sleeping Beauty castles, except that they are a few century old. I spend quite some time walking in the various alleys, a perfect site for a hide and seek game!

On the way back, I just solve in my head a progression chords with which I was not totally satisfied in one of the tracks I’m working on.

Quickly passing through Taunggyi vibrant market.

Stop at the beautiful Shwenyaung Monastery in teck. Children are playing with kites in the courtyard. Monks are passing by. A kitten is sunbathing.

Day 13 Inle (Sunday, November 7th 2010)

The sun rises on misty Inle lake. I observe it rising above the lake behind lush vegetation from my balcony, I can barely distinguish the mountains behind the lake. It’s quite cold here (I mean compared to the other places I just come from) as we are at 800 meters altitude. Hopefully I brought a jacket.

I fly on a forest. In fact, the vegetation is so dense under the water that it looks like my long boat is flying above it.. First encounter with a fisherman. He is standing at the back end of his boat, his tight leg set around the row, and he paddles with his leg, his arms remaining free for the fishing net. I don’t know if there are any other places in the world where fishermen use this technique.

Next is the famous floating gardens, composed of rows and rows of vegetables (tomatoes from here are quite famous), the farmers going between the rows by boat.

We cross a village. All the houses are built on pilotis, and have access to the canals (their only access way). They are in wood, often nicely decorated with colorful windows and pots of flowers in the front. People are going in, out, on their boats, off their boats, cleaning, washing, bathing, playing, it’s a city on water.

I visit a few hand-craft factories: lotus weaving (more expensive than silk), paper umbrellas, metal (the master takes the blade from the fire while a young man pumps to blow air in the fire and three robust guys hit on the red piece of metal with hammers in a symphony of hits to make it take the required shape, which seems to be a big knife.

The most stunning people are the long neck ladies, also nicknamed Giraffe women. They are from the Paduang tribe, from Kayah state (we are in Shan state). There are four of them, two old ladies and two young ones, quite pretty. Their brass neck rings, which they wear since childhood, have elongated their neck in an elegant manner. The backside is that they cannot take their rings off, as their elongated neck would not be able to bear the weight of their head. The two young ones sing a traditional song that I record.

I visit the quiet Nga Hpe Kyaung, better known as the jumping cat monastery. When the tourists make a good donation, the young monks make the cats leap through hoops. Not sure if the cats like it, but the rest of the time they seems to be sleeping all over the place in the coolness of the monastery.

This was the day of the national elections here in Myanmar.

Day 14 Inle (Monday, November 8th 2010)

I’m not in a very good mood. The monastery next door has just stopped playing loud music in its and distorted loudspeakers. It’s 6 am.

Inle Lake again, but this time I go further South, beyond the lake. I stop at the Taung Toe market and pagoda. It’s a very traditional countryside market, but with too many tourists. I climb up to the pagoda. I buy a candle to offer the Buddha. The old man who sells me the candle makes some incantations before handing me the burning candle.

We stop just before the only bridge to a check point, the soldier there looks bored and vaguely examines my travel route.

After almost three hours of river drive, stop at the Takhaung Mwetaw pagoda and village. The pagoda holds many stupas, some just being an inform bunch of bricks, some having been pretty well restored. In fact, there are several crews of masons restoring several parts of the place.

We cross a village (I say ‘we’ because a locale female guide in traditional costume accompanies me during this trip) and end up in a rice wine factory. After having seen how they do it, I cannot resist testing and tasting the 40º and the 60º distillated alcohol, yep.

After lunch, we cross the lake we just entered and we land at Samkar, host of several pagodas in quite an abandoned state (a bit Indiana Jones). I stop by a kindergarden where a few dozens of four or five year old kids quickly surround me. I guess that I am the attraction.

Back to my resort, I realize that I have a serious sunburn on my cheeks, ears and neck.

I’m listening and watching on my laptop the videos and concert of a local rock singer, MyoGyi (pronounce Mio-Jee), from a CDR given to me by one of the waiters (his name is Leslie), pretty good, the singer is good, his videos are quite OK (not over the top, but OK), but his live show is awesome: his band is excellent (the drummer, the bassist, the guitarist, the keyboardist are fantastic), and the crowd… the crowd… seeing all these young Burmese people jumping in rhythm and singing along is energizing.

Day 15 Inle (Tuesday, November 9th 2010)

OMG, I have internet, yeah! I frantically spend the next one and a half hours processing my almost 800 pending mails and replying to a few important ones. Then the connection suddenly stops…

OK, back to music now.

Day 16 Inle (Wednesday, November 10th 2010)

A new bright sunny day starts…

Just after breakfast, the staff of the restaurant invites me to join them to a nearby wedding. I’m the only foreigner, and I am warmly welcomed by all the people there. I pay my respects to the newly wed couple, then I sit among a group of old ladies (one of them is 84 years old and just walked more than one mile to come to the wedding party, she does not look weak at all). I chat a bit with them (translated by Leslie), then my companions and me go to the food place. Many tables are occupied by people coming to the wedding. Families go in and out. We eat white rice into which we drop pieces of pork, spoons of green tomato salad, and a light sauce. It’s only 10:15 am, and my huge breakfast was only half an hour ago!

No new music ideas today, only developing the existing ones, trying to give shape to some arrangements.

At the resort restaurant, there is a big group of noisy Russians and another group of ever complaining Italians. As I’m quite gentle, the manager takes his revenge against the other unfriendly groups by offering me two glasses of French Moulin-à-Vent red wine on top of the one I ordered. I guess I’ll sleep quite well tonight...

Day 17 Inle (Thursday, November 11th 2010)

Going to the market at the nearby village, buying plenty of DVD-R’s of local artists, at just below US$ 1 the 3 discs (!), just to have a feel of the local production. Beside MyoGyi (see day 14 above), most of the rest is quite ordinary pop, a bit cheap or old-fashioned. There is a hip-hop scene here, but I did not buy any as I’m not into that style.

Day 18 Inle - Yangon (Friday, November 12th 2010)

Once again the hotel staff invite me to join them. Today is the once-in-a-year offerings day for the nearby monastery. My new friends are just outside the hotel gate, in front of a two meter high display on which all the offerings from the staff are hung. It goes from rice to banknotes, from powder coffee to salt, from washing powder to spices, even toilet paper. Five of the guys are playing loud percussions. Of course I record them, and they even play them one by one so that I can record them individually.

The display is built on two horizontal parallel sticks, which allows four people to lift it and put it on their shoulders. Then start the noisy journey to the monastery. They are playing percussions, shouting, singing, even jumping, it’s obviously a happy moment. We arrive in the monastery where a few hundred of people are, walking, chatting, children playing, monks going here and there,… There are some other groups with their display of offerings. “ours” is the tallest. Our group joins another group of teenagers with percussions. and the percussions become even louder. They leave the offerings besides the other ones. We then cross a small bridge near the temple and end up in a big hall. Food again. We sit on the floors while we are being served a big plate of rice with some pork and other ingredients. It’s not yet 11 am… I’m surprised to see a lot of kids playing with toy gun machines. Even a novice monk, probably not more than 8 years old, is playing with such a toy.

Then we go to the temple. Many families are there, in front of the Buddha, sitting in groups of mainly women. They are chatting and eating. All these people are well dressed in their traditional colorful costumes, many women having a colored sort of folded towel on their head, and most of the men wearing their longyi (local version of the sarong).

I climb the stairs of another hall, there the monks are eating. Several circles of monks in their safran robe are eating silently. Some of the circles are made of novices (kids), some of adults (“confirmed” monks).

Flight back to Yangon.

On the way to my hotel in Yangon, I stop by Gulliver, the travel agency, where I have a chat with the owner-manager Hervé (who serves me an aperitif in the form of a local white wine, quite good in fact) and his brother currently visiting him. We talk travel and music. Local traditional music has been transferred from generation to generation by oral teaching, there does not seem to be a written language for music here. It seems that on the way it has lost some of its characteristics, which makes it quite cacophonic nowadays. And as this country is not open to outside, the evolution is somewhat closed.

Day 19 Yangon (Saturday, November 13th 2010)

9 am. I call Ko Doo. Obviously he was still sleeping. He will explain me later that he was doing a song the previous night, and did not want to stop until he finished it, which was 2 am.

I make a short visit to the port. A few containers lay there. A few ships in the water. One old crane to handle the containers. Not really an active port.

Nearby, I visit the Botataung pagoda, which holds some holy relics, some pieces of Buddha’s hair.

With my driver we head up to Ko Doo’s home. He jumps in our car and we go to the place of another musician, but his wife is there. The walls of the stairs leading to his apartment (don’t expect to find lifts in normal buildings there) are more than dirty, obviously never been repainted since the building has been built. I guess all the similar buildings around have the same fate.

We go to another place where this musician rehearses and stores his musical equipment. His name is Kyout Sein, and he is a percussionist, in fact one of the best circle drums player in town. The storage room is a kind of dark garage where objects and percussion instruments are piling up. I see a lot of curved rails on which are welded small horizontal gongs of various sizes. Once assembled in circle, hitting them with a small wodden hammer gives a sound between small bells and steel drums. I religiously record all of them one by one.

A bit further down the garage, there is an internal room, a kind of studio. Not big, but sound proofed and with a computer and listening environment. A recording studio in fact. A young and very skinny sound engineer sits behind the computer. He is quite familiar with the music software (they are for sale in town at 500 kyats each, less than half a dollar, needless to say that they are not genuine software). Kyout Sein and Ko Doo move some small wodden panels nicely decorated. Then they assemble them until they form a circle of about 5 feet diameter and 2 feet high with a small opening in the back so that the player can go in. Kyout Sein brings 21 small drums of various sizes, and installs them one by one. He start by the left with the biggest one. Each drum is being suspended by a nylon rope that Koaut Sein fixes on the frame so that the drum remains suspended but does not hall. He places one by one from left to right in decreasing order of size.

Next step is tuning the drums. They are supposed to be in pentatonic scale, which is probably the most widespread scale in Asia, from China to Indonesia. He takes a big chunk of a black gum, tears off a small portion and starts to spead it in the center of one of the drums. He regularly hits the drum whose sound changes a bit as he mould the gum until the tone is as he likes. He repeats this for each of the 21 drums, which now have their disc of dark gum glued in the middle of the skin drum. This gum is easily removable and can be re-used many times.

The whole process of installation and tuning would have lasted almost two hours.

Time for lunch. We cross the street (no traffic light and no crossing zebras, I survive) and we eat at a local restaurant, the “Broadway”. Despite the name, I realize that I have not seen a single Western face for hours. We are six of us, eating chicken and sweet and sour fish with rice, while watching the life in the street: the nons dressed in pink who come get some food, the people going here and there,… We watch several trucks loaded with huge trunks of wood. Ko Doo is a bit angry to see that these old trees are being cut, to be sent most probably to China, and that we are not preserving our earth by cutting all these forests.

Afternoon, we go back to the “studio”. I decide to take one of the tracks I’ve been working on in the past few days, still under construction, and see what we can come up with. First I ask Kyout Sein to listen to it. He listens with grat attention. The second time, he listens while hitting a few of his drums to get the tone. Ko doo gives him some ideas of what he could do. The young sound engineer, explains me that his Cubase software had to be removed because of a virus. While he is testing different things on his computer (we need to listen to my track while record Kyout Sein playing on his circle drums), I bounce my track on my iPod and give it to Kyout Sein. I have installed my recorder on a tripod, besides the studio microphone which is supposed to take the sound onto their computer. We make some recording tests on my small digital recorder, it’s quite satisfactory. When I see my driver and the engineer go outside to buy a new recording software, I tell myself that I’d better use my own way, what Ko Doo calls our plan B. So I ask Kyout Sein to improvise on his drums while listening to my track. Take 1, good. Take 2, better. I bounce back the two takes in my laptop, and after synchronizing them with my track, we listen to them. It’s pretty nice. Ko Doo and Kyout Sein tell me that I can do whatever edit I want (take some of the take 1, some of the take 2, repeat, cut, delete, move,…) until I feel happy with the result. That will be my work in the coming weeks, and I’ll have of course to send it back to them once completed. Waooo, my first true world fusion recording! Something I’d always wanted to do, like musicians like 1 Giant Leap or Daniel Masson are often doing.

Would have just it been only for this day, my trip to Myanmar would have been worth it. And I’ve lived and experienced so much more in just a bit less than 3 weeks!

Ko Doo and I have to leave a bit early as we are invited to Ko Doo’s cousin wedding. It takes place in a nice and wide restaurant, and the dinner is made in Chinese style. Many round tables, food dishes being served one after the other, slide show of the couple’s past life, emcee, dramatic entrance of the couple is the room…

We make it short. Ko Doo and me jump in an antique taxi and head up to the Sky Bistro on the 20th floor of the Sakura Tower (one of the two tallest buildings of Yangon, which would be very ordinary buildings in KL) where Hervé organizes a small concert with some of his friends (rock, blues, even a couple of songs from French Bretagne – listening to Brittany songs in Myanmar must be quite rare!). I drink a bit too many whisky cokes. More than half of the attendance is made of expatriates, the other half being local friends of families. Nice ambience. Beautiful view on Yangon by night and especially on the Sule pagoda and on Shwedagon, all illuminated of their golden robe contrasting on the darkness of the rest of the city.

Day 20 Yangon - Bangkok (Sunday, November 14th 2010)

I would have taken more than 1,750 pictures during this journey in Myanmar. I’ve started order them, it’s a bit tedious, but I’m happy to see that some of the pictures are awesome.

Bangkok. I stay in the Baiyoke Sky hotel, the tallest building of Thailand. The hotel is busier than a train station,I don’t like.

Dinner with Marc. I eat too many delicious tapas with some nice sangria.

Day 21 Bangkok – Luang Prabang (Monday, November 15th 2010)

Another plane. Again with Bangkok Airways, which is a boutique airline (as they say) deserving only beautiful cities in South-East Asia. I’ve been using this airline a few times in the past 15 years.

Passing the immigration to leave Thailand is a nightmare. 45 mn of queuing in an overheated hall. In the past few months, Thai immigration has become terrible, and immigration officers have lost their smile.

I land in Luang Prabang, Laos. I fell in love with this small city a few years ago when I visited it with Pathana, and I thought at that time that it would be a wonderful inspirational place to create music. Well, now here I am, that’s another dream come true.

The small town has evolved. It retains its charm: the houses are cozy, the alleys quiet, the people smiling, the temples beautiful, the monks everywhere. But it has evolved. There are many more guest houses, most of the time quite pretty, more restaurants, bars, and more tourists. Hopefully tourists are not harassed like in some other tourist spots, even though I’ve been proposed some girls (!) and some smoke… It’s obvious that the place is going to develop more. What will save it is that the city center is under UNESCO world heritage, hence no bizarre construction can take place here, no high rise hotel, each development is controlled by UNESCO. That’s a good point, as this will preserve the charm of the town.

Day 22 Luang Prabang (Tuesday, November 16th 2010)

Another bright sunny day.

Day walk in Luang Prabang. So peaceful, so quiet, so laidback. It’s really a beautiful town.

I enter a monastery courtyard. Shadowed trees, colorful temples, young monks going here and there in their orange robe and protecting themselves with an umbrella, children monks sitting in their classroom. A monk is studying, sitting on a bench below a big tree, one book in his hands (“Siddharta”), another on the table (an English-Thai dictionary). He invites me to sit down, and we have a long chat together. His English is quite good. He talks about football (Anelka, Zidane), but more surprisingly about Napoleon III, Bismarck, the Commune when the Prussians were blocking Paris in the 19th century, the second world war,… his general knowledge is quite wide. He is only 18 and has not finished high school yet.

Along the majestic Mekong river, I watch a group of Laotian people playing the petanque, a French game with small heavy metal balls that each contestant has to through the closest possible to the “cochonet”, a smaller wooden ball not much bigger than a ping-pong ball. Probably a heritage from the French colonial era. I also come across some French bakeries with their yummy croissants and baguettes.

I’m not very inspired for the music today. So I work on the production and arrangements of some tracks I’m currently developing, no new brilliant idea.

Aaarrrrgh my laptop just crashed!

Day 23 Luang Prabang (Wednesday, November 17th 2010)

Today, I work on three “Eastern” tracks. Ah, the ideas come much better than yesterday. Good.

What puzzles me is that in every café, every craft shop, every guest house, every restaurant, every bar, customers are foreigners, never Laotians. With an average salary of US$ 50 a month, most of them cannot afford to go in these places with Western prices.

I go to the happening Hive bar, where they show a very nice ethnic fashion show in their garden, showcasing traditional costumes of their main ethnic groups. Then I move next door to the Lao Lao Garden to have a cocktail (several terraced gardens in fact). I almost cried of despair when they played Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, yes!

When the place closes at 11:30 pm, one of the staff takes me on his motorcycle and brings me to the Dao Fa disco. Ahh, at last a majority of locals! The sound system is bad, the music goes from Shakira to local pop, quite similar to Thai pop, the ambience is quite fun. It closes at 12:30 am. In fact there is a curfew in Laos, where people have to be in their home by midnight, but it does not seem to be strongly enforced.

Day 24 Luang Prabang – Muang La (Thursday, November 18th 2010)

The road is long from Luang Prabang to Muang La, in Northern Laos, not very far from the Chinese border. And it’s not good either. Some portions of the road see their asphalt disappear, to reappear a few meters away.

I’m probably in one of the most remote places on earth. It’s quiet. The resort contains a natural hot water source. It put my finger in it, and I immediately take it out. It’s burning! In fact the water emerges at 60°C.

In the evening, I am invited to the Baci ceremony, to celebrate my arrival in the local community. This ceremony is performed every time something important is happening in the life of someone in the village. I arrive in a wooden house, where several elder men and women sit on the floor in circle. In the middle, a table, with a small construction on it, made of flowers, bamboo, incense sticks, with lit candles on the top. I sit on the right of the shaman, an elderly wise man who starts to tell incantations in Pali, the sanscrit old language used for Buddhist ceremonies. Each of the men and women around the table hold a thin cotton rope hanging from the top of the altar between the joined palms of their hands. So do I. The first series of incantations is to chase the bad things away from me. Then we drink two shots of lao lao, the local rice wine (48 degrees…). Second series of incantations, this time to welcome all the good things for me: peace, harmony, good job, good money, happiness,… Two more shots of lao lao. All the men and women around me tie small cotton ropes around my wrists. I must have now around twenty of them around each wrist, and I have to keep them at least 3 days. I am blessed, and the 32 souls of my body are supposed to be reconnected by now.

Then they bring the food. Sticky rice (to be eaten by taking a small portion with the right hand and rolling it between the fingers – better if lightly dipped in a spicy tomato sauce), minced pork mixed with banana leaves, clear soup with bamboo and mushrooms, and, to finish, pineapple. I’m full. Then they bring the lao hay, a jar full of fermented rice swimming in water, with 3 hollow bamboo sticks which act as straws. I sip some of it. Reasonably strong, and quite sweet. The men also sip with me. Then the women. As the level goes down, someone refills with water, as many times as required. It’s still quite strong. Then the women accompany me sipping the drink. I’ve been told that when it’s enough diluted, they also invite children to drink, and they give the remains to the pigs (which they eat later on…). When I feel good enough, I thank my guests and I go back… to sleep.

Day 25 Muang La (Friday, November 19th 2010)

The weather is a bit cloudy. As we are in a hills area, the temperature is cool, enough for me to wear a light jacket in the morning.

Good day for my music.

Day 26 Muang La (Saturday, November 20th 2010)

Today, I have to do some comparison between my tracks-in-progress and commercial tracks in similar styles, to see if my production is up to par with what is out there.

It looks like there are some days on and some days off. I’m not really in a creative mood today, much less than yesterday. Late afternoon, I have enough, so I go for a traditional Laotian massage

Day 27 Muang La (Sunday, November 21st 2010)

Good day for the music, I’m working today on an electro-house piece, the ideas seem to come.

In the evening, I watch a local dance and orchestra performance. They are not professional, and they come from the nearby village. The orchestra is composed of 4 players, the instruments being a sort of mandolin, a drum, two bowed instruments (one is very similar to the Chinese erhu), and a sort of long pan flute whose sound is closer to the bagpipes than to the flute. The dancers are a whole bunch of ladies, most of them quite mature, who perform traditional Laotian dances, wearing different dresses from several ethnic groups around here. Some of the dances are dedicated to the country, some represent the work at the rice fields or some other common activities. Of course my digital recorder is running.

Day 28 Muang La (Monday, November 22nd 2010)

I take a 4 wheel drive car to visit some very remote villages. As soon as we leave the main road, the adventure starts, as the bridge crossing the river has been broken one year ago by torrential waters, and the works for a replacement bridge have barely started. So we take the ferry (non motorized, it’s just a wooden raft with a rope tightened between the two banks). I wonder how the driver manages to drive the car from the ground to the raft, but the car manages to escape a dip in the river.

The dusty track goes higher and higher in the hills. We are now in the clouds. Suddenly, we are above the clouds, and the view is superb. Green hills everywhere emerge from a sea of white clouds. We stop at a first village of barely 30 houses. The street is shared by a few people, buffalos, dogs, pigs, chicken, goats… There is a TV parabole.

The second village, of the Akha tribe, is much bigger. Here the people don’t like to be taken in picture. I turn my camera towards a group of children, they run away in all directions. The Akha people are not smiley. In fact, the track leading to their village is barely 4 years old, and it is likely that they never saw a foreigner before that.

With my guide, we take a walk in the following village, also an Akha village. A group of curious children follow us all the way, but they disappear as soon as I attempt to turn my camera towards them. I pass the hospital, with its two houses. I only see ducks and chicken there. And a loudspeaker fed by a set of photovoltaic cells. The few other electric cables of the village come from a dynamo in the river which seems to be quite far.

A group of men is erecting a new wooden house. Without me asking for anything, one of them asks me to take a picture of him. I take it, and I show it, he seems quite happy.

A young man sitting in front of his house starts to speak to my guide, who cannot understand, as the man speeks his Akha dialect, and does not speak Lao. Eventually, my guide understands that the man wants to sell us some cucumbers.

We stop en route for a healthy picnic, then we head to a Hmong village. That’s another tribe, with their own language. Hmong people are much more open than Akhas. They don’t run away when I take pictures, and the kids don’t follow me when I walk. They just continue playing. I stop by a primary school, a small wooden house where the teacher attempts to teach something on the blackboard to the children. I watch through the window (of course the children look at me), and I am surprised to see that the children make their work on the same notebooks that I used when I was a kid. I cannot understand what is written on the notebook of the child just behind the window, as their alphabet is very different from ours, but I’m happy to see that she has a big 9 mark (out of 10) on her latest assignment.

We continue walking in the village. A group of kids are playing. The game consists of throwing from a distance a sandal as close as possible to a stone. Some kids throw the sandal strongly in order to dislodge another sandal so that theirs gets closer.

I am invited to enter a house for a while. A very old woman full of wrinkles is sitting there. She speaks with my guide (Hmong people are lower in altitude than Akhas, so they have had much more contact with the civilization). I can see the drying corn hanging from the ceiling, the stocks of rice, the large pumpkins, the fire ready for cooking…

I am just thinking that because of people like me, these people are probably going to lose their authenticity little by little…

Day 29 Muang La – Luang Prabang (Tuesday, November 23rd 2010)

The road from Muang La to Muang Khua is quite scenic, along the river.

In Muang Khua, I board my private boat for a 5 hour spectacular journey on the Nam Ou river.

The first part is pleasant. Stop on a beach for a picnic. Beef, pork, fish, soup, condiment, vegetables, white sticky rice, black sticky rice, bananas…

As we move forward, the landscape becomes more and more dramatic, with deeper and deeper valleys.

On the way, I visit a traditional village. Well maintained, wooden houses, children playing here and there, everybody saying “Sabaidee” (welcome), lots of fabrics hanging on the side of some houses, ladies weaving, very nice.
I suspect that the whole village has been told to be nice with the tourists…

As I continue my journey, the landscape becomes even more dramatic, I feel like being in Lord Of The Rings. The various degrees of grey on the mountains, with the descending light from the sun, are breathtaking.

The first bridge I see, after five hours of journey, is Nong Khiau, where I regretfully disembark. Anyway, the road from there to Luang Prabang is again quite scenic.

Day 30 Luang Prabang (Wednesday, November 24th 2010)

Last day in Luang Prabang. I feel that the end of my great journey is close.

Day 31 Luang Prabang - Bangkok (Thursday, November 25th 2010)

Transit in Bangkok one night.

Day 32 Bangkok – Kuala Lumpur (Friday, November 26th 2010)

I would not say that I’ve been terribly prolific in terms of music creation and production during this one month journey, but I’ve achieved a few things:

  • discovered a new country,
  • discovered a lot of amazing places and great people,
  • expanded my knowledge of South-East Asia,
  • worked with some talented musicians,
  • discovered new sounds and new instruments,
  • recorded and sampled new sounds,
  • created five new pieces (even though they need some additional production and fine-tuning),
  • thrown some ideas for more tracks,
  • had a break from my previous life to kick start my sabbatical period.

A great journey...

DjayPee (Jean-Pierre)

More pictures of my trip on facebook at:

More of my music on and on

No comments: