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Music as a Form of Protest: Exploring Music as Protest and Solidarity in Myanmar
During the fall of the 2020-2021 school year, SSFS faculty member Keith Adams and his music class explored music performance as a form of protest and solidarity by hearing the story of Lin Sun Oo, a musician and the co-founder of Tagu Films, who used his music to protest against the Burma Socialist Programme Party in 1988 as a part of the 8888 Uprising. In February 2021, a military coup took place in Myanmar, which has resulted in the death of over 700 innocent civilians.
 
This week, from April 13-16, when Myanmar typically celebrates Thingyan, students have returned to the discussions to reflect on Myanmar’s current political atrocities. The SSFS Upper School Handbell class invites you to listen to their performance of “Thingyan Moe” at a time when this holiday -- known this year as “Revolutionary Thingyan”-- is being used for non-violent protests against the military coup. If you would like to find out more about the Civil Disobedience Movement, and what you can do to help, please visit www.mutualaidmyanmar.org.

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To engage students in a unique teaching landscape during the 2021-2022 school year, SSFS Middle and Upper School Music teacher Keith Adams created a series of videos called Listen Up. “When we were planning for virtual, I knew that there were things I couldn’t do. We needed to emphasize other areas of my class. I had an idea of having special guest artists because that’s something, honestly, we don’t do enough of in person anyways.” This vision inspired Keith to create Listen Up, a video series in which Keith would interview musicians from different backgrounds.

“If you hear a piece of music from a country [or culture], or you see a video or a live performance, how do you process what you’re watching? How can you learn more avenues for doing that?” By creating these videos, Keith felt that the musicians could explain their personal experiences to provide students an opportunity to learn more about the relationship between culture and music, understand different styles for music composition through a historical lens, and connect students to new perspectives. Some of the topics included “The Future of Hip Hop,” the “Problematic ‘White Male Genius’ Narrative,” and “Music and Protest in Myanmar.”

The third Listen Up video, created in the summer of 2020, was a conversation between Keith and his college roommate, Lin Sun Oo. Lin is a musician and the co-founder of Tagu Films, a film studio focused on making documentaries, short films, and music videos in Myanmar.

During the interview, Lin shared his experience growing up in Myanmar under a one-party state. From 1964 to 1988, the Burma Socialist Programme Party was the sole party in Myanmar. The censorship bureau had a significant impact on the filmmaking industry and had strict regulations regarding the movies Lin’s grandfather and mother could make. “The censorship bureau was at its height. That means the censorship bureau determined everything from the length of the skirt you wear, to what you can say and what you cannot say in the dialogues. Hardly any incentive was there for me to become a filmmaker. In fact, I actually did not want to become a filmmaker, I wanted to be a rock star.”

In 1988, a series of protests occurred that later became known as the 8888 Uprising. This uprising was started by students and spread throughout the country. Lin, who was in a metal band at the time, used his music to protest. Many musicians needed to submit their lyrics to the censorship bureau, but Lin’s band never did. “There was a cohort of hip-hop artists who had actually been arrested. I think they were charged with blasphemy and imprisoned for a couple of years for singing about subversive things.”

Speaking at TedxInyaLake in 2016, Lin talked about the impact of the political landscape in Myanmar and how this affected his family, who continue to be actively involved in the film industry, and his future hopes for Myanmar. “I was witnessing changes that were happening, friends doing things that were unbelievably risky, or things we considered risky in the past. If my grandfather could overcome General Ne Win’s nationalization policies and go on to make a career for himself, if my mother could break the gender barrier and become a filmmaker, and if I could jump into the unknown, I believe that Myanmar moving forward should be one of passion, finding the things you love and showing it the way you want it to be.”

In addition to the video, Keith shared information with his classes about the history of Myanmar’s music, noting that many of its influences came from the countries directly surrounding it. Many percussion elements came from India, and China influenced string and woodwind elements. Myanmar has its unique musical features, including the “Burmese” drum, a percussion instrument used as a keyboard with a similar role to the grand piano.

Reflections from Our Students

After watching the video, students were offered an opportunity to share what they had learned and ask questions of Lin. Below are some of their responses and questions:

  • “Music, as part of art, media, and creative expression, can send protesting messages and have been censored by governments before.” Jamie A, 9th grade.
  • “I learned that during this time of oppression, rock and hip-hop helped people express themselves.” Abay A., 6th Grade
  • “They have the Burmese drum, which is percussion but is used more like a keyboard. The conductor also plays the woodwind. How did he get away with not submitting the lyrics?” Sebastian, 10th Grade
  • “I learned that Myanmar music doesn’t have too many influences because the country has a bunch of mountains around it. I also learned that Myanmar was in a revolution kind of recently. I wonder how scary it was doing kind of illegal things in Myanmar during that time.” - Ian O., 7th Grade

 

Combining Lin’s experience with music as a form of protest with historical context and music composition led Keith to select a score for his fall semester Upper School Handbell class called Thingyan Moe, composed by Zaw Myo Htut in 1985.

Thingyan Moe, a classic film in Myanmar, takes place during Thingyan - a significant annual festival in Myanmar that marks the start of the New Year. Traditionally, Thingyan is celebrated with prayers, ritual cleaning in temples, and a water festival. People go out into the streets, spraying water; there is music, with celebration and prayer. The celebration is for Thagya Min, a Burmese deity.

This year's Thingyan is the second year in a row where the festivities are not being celebrated. Last year, celebrations halted due to the COVID pandemic. This year, festivities are being used for protests against the military coup that occurred in February 2021. Since February 1, the Myanmar military government has killed over 700 innocent civilians, and cut internet access for most of the population. They have blacklisted and arrested most entertainers, celebrities, and hundreds of protesters with no documentation on their conditions or plans for release. The Civil Disobedience Movement, the name of the majority of citizens leading non-violent protests, are calling the holiday “Revolutionary Thingyan.”

With many of Keith’s students returning to the handbell class for the spring semester, he was able to reopen this conversation about the music in the context of current events. The discussions included a reflection on Myanmar’s current political atrocities. As a part of the discussion, students were also able to draw comparisons to the U.S.’s political tensions and the failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

The Upper School Handbell students invite you to hear their performance of “Thingyan Moe” during a time when traditionally Myanmar would be celebrating.


 

About Keith & Lin

Keith  Adams teaches 6th and 7/8th grade Music, as well as Upper School Handbells and Orchestra. He has been teaching at SSFS for nearly six years. 

Lin Sun Oo is the co-founder of Tagu Films. you can find out more about him and films he has worked on at the sources below:

 

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