Myanmar's Bob Marley seeks freedom in reggae

With dreadlocks, denim and the Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold, singer Saw Phoe Kwar's homage to reggae legend Bob Marley is hard to miss as his band "One Love" strikes up in a Yangon bar.

But the 42-year-old says comparisons with his late Jamaican hero should only go so far.

"In Myanmar a lot of people call me Bob... I like that! But Bob Marley had more freedom in Jamaica to express himself with his music. Here in Myanmar I can't do it like that. I'm more limited," he explains.

Musicians in the military-ruled nation must submit all their song lyrics to a tough board of censors who ban anything they deem to be anti-regime or at odds with the Buddhist country's values.

Saw Phoe Kwar has come up against their diktats repeatedly since producing his debut solo album ten years ago, in which three of the songs he wrote were judged taboo.

"(The lyrics) said we need to talk about things and express ourselves and act truly for the future, for the next generation. That's why the songs were banned," he says.

His attempt at a second album met with a more bizarre response.

"The whole thing was cancelled because they didn't know what reggae was. When they realised reggae was not to do with politics they let it go, but they made me pay 5,000 kyat (five dollars) for every use of the word reggae".

Despite these restrictions, he thinks reggae offers a more liberating form of expression than the more popular genres of hip hop, rock and pop, which dominate Myanmar's youth music scene.

"I want to live my life freely and I saw freedom in reggae," he says. "When you compose a reggae song you don't need to use a lot of words but they are very meaningful words... We have more freedom than in other kinds of music."

The father-of-two, born in Yangon, owned his first Bob Marley tape at the age of 15, but it was during a job on a cargo ship in the early 90s with numerous reggae-mad West Indian colleagues that his passion took off.

He now concentrates on his music, choosing to sing "messages of peace" to his fans in Myanmar, but he takes care not to overstep the boundaries.

"I sing about Myanmar indirectly. If I sang directly I would not be here," he says with a laugh.

Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, is holding its first election in 20 years on November 7. Outside critics have dismissed the polls as a sham that will change little in the isolated nation, while few citizens seem optimistic.

Music obsessive Saw Phoe Kwar hasn't given much attention to the process.

"I just focus on my own role," he says. "I have to do my own thing."

Censors are not the only challenge for singers trying to make it in the country, particularly those working in lesser-known genres such as reggae, according to a Yangon-based events director who goes by the name of Ice Man.

"There are thousands of musicians waiting for their time to perform on stage. It can be 5,000 dollars to put on a concert," he says. "Not a lot of people are willing to put on events."

While the music scene is increasingly lively in the main city and former capital Yangon, about two thirds of the population live in rural areas and many are mired in poverty after decades of economic mismanagement by the junta.

"The country is thinking about eating, finding somewhere to live," 39-year-old Ice Man explains. "You go to entertainment if you have extra money. People cannot afford to go to concerts."

Those who do have the cash are more likely to chose rock over reggae, but Ice Man believes that is changing.

"I think reggae for Myanmar is coming soon, maybe in one year," he says. "Even Myanmar's best DJ didn't know about reggae, but now everyone is talking about it" - a trend he largely puts down to Saw Phoe Kwar.

"He will always be a legend for Myanmar," says Ice Man. "He introduced reggae."

The singer himself hopes this won't be his only legacy.

"I want to help close the gap between the people and the government. When the gap is closed, the other artists and I can compose more freely. I hope the gap will close in my lifetime," he says.

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