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Myanmar Music Scene: Iron Cross

Ask any Myanmar resident who is the most famous band in their country and they will undoubtedly reply ‘Iron Cross’. Although unknown beyond borders, the band is popular with locals of all ages and their logo can be found on everything from hats to motorbikes to phone covers. Over the years I had learned many of their songs and enjoyed the classic rock vibe, so it was with great excitement that I purchased my ticket to see them live in concert on a recent Thursday evening.

The band was founded in the late 1980s by Saw Bwe Hum, a guitarist from the Karen State region of Myanmar. The band wrote songs influenced by western rock bands such as The Rolling Stones and also played cover songs that they translated in to Burmese language. As time went on, famous vocalists joined with Iron Cross bringing new styles and an edge to the music. Singer Lay Phyu, for example, was influenced by harder rock bands such as Metallica and Motorhead so the Iron Cross band began to perform a larger variety of songs.

When I first visited Myanmar I remember seeing a strange cross-like logo all over the country. I even saw it tattoo’d on a few men and finally asked what it meant. The reply was given with a big smile ‘It’s Iron Cross, Myanmar’s best band’. Curious I asked him to find a CD of their music and he walked me to a street market where I saw that every stall with CDs had at least a dozen Iron Cross albums for sale. He selected a couple for me and I handed over the money (a meager 40 cents per CD). It was not until many weeks later that I was able to listen to the albums and realized I had been hearing their music throughout my stay in Myanmar!

Since moving to Myanmar I have become more interested in the local music scene. There are lots of bands in the genres of rock, pop, hip hop and even metal. But ‘IC’, as they are often known, continues to be the leading band. They are also one of the most prolific with their live shows- perhaps because they have so many vocalists or perhaps they simply love being on stage. Regardless I was excited to see them live!

I met with friends- a mix of Mandalay residents and international expats- before the show and was not surprised to see my local friends wearing band t-shirts. Even though they had seen the band a couple years ago they were overly excited about this show. The doors opened at 7.00 but we figured, like most concerts, the band would start late so we sat and had a beer then headed to the venue around 7.30. As we got closer we realised we were wrong- the show had started right on time!

The venue was busy but not full, perhaps due to it being a rainy Thursday night or the higher than normal ticket price (15 USD instead of the normal concert price of 3-8 USD). Around 1500 people were estimated to be there and what struck me immediately was how seemingly EVERY person knew EVERY word to EVERY song. I cannot recall having attended another concert where the fans were so familiar with the band’s music. It brought a smile to my face to see so many people- of all ages- singing along.

The show lasted around 3 hours and there was never a break longer than a few minutes between songs. Lay Phyu and the other vocalists- Myo Gyi, Y Wine and Ah Nge– rotated every 30 minutes or so but the percussionist, keyboard player and lead guitarists never moved! For being in their 50s and older, I was well impressed by the stamina of everyone on stage. They played a mix of songs-  their top radio hits were mixed with new songs and the occasional cover. My western friends were ecstatic to hear Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ and Cat Steven’s ‘Wild World’ covered in Burmese!

Of course as much fun as there was on stage, the audience proved to be equally entertaining. Or to rephrase it, we – as foreigners- caused a lot of entertainment. Hardly a song passed that we were not asked for a photo, quizzed about where we were from or invited to dance. As cans and bottles were not allowed inside, many fans had beer and other drinks in plastic bags which they then would drink through straws! It was great fun to see everyone being so relaxed and free despite being the middle of the week.

While Iron Cross was not one of the most talented bands I have ever seen live they certainly put on an amazing show. Combined with the passion of the fans, it was an unforgettable experience and I would certainly go see them again. If you are interested in Myanmar’s music scene ask your travel advisor or guide to check for any live shows during your visit. Alternatively browse the many CD shops in downtown Yangon to pick up some Iron Cross CDs to take home!

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