Einstein MC King Skunk embodies the new spirit of Burma
He barely drinks, he doesn’t do drugs, he still lives with his parents and he teaches children at his aunt’s home – but just two years ago, Einstein MC King Skunk would have been locked up for being a punk. Today, he’s the spikey embodiment of Burma’s heady freedoms
Sunday 16 March 2014
In the UK, the original punk revolution was a deliberately crude and ugly riposte to the flowery excesses of hippiedom. But the Burmese punk who rejoices in the name "Einstein MC King Skunk" enjoys mixing up those oil-and-water traditions.
He boasts the boilerplate punk mohican but has dyed it blond as it approaches his scalp, and also has blond, vaguely Hasidic ringlets hanging down in front of his ears. His lips and ears are studded with the usual punk stigmata and his leather jacket bristles like a porcupine, but John Lennon holds the patent for his granny- like shades, and he rides an old sit-up-and-beg bicycle painted in psychedelic tones. The clincher is the gorgeous pink flower that spills out of a brass vase fixed to the handlebars.
Rather than carp about incoherence, perhaps we can simply salute Einstein's originality. As in several other non-western countries where punk has taken root – Iraq, Indonesia – at the outset it was very much in thrall to the original Sex Pistols look. That was back in the days, no more than two or three years ago, when the Burmese bands had to practise in secret, and risked jail when they walked down the street.
I first clapped eyes on Burmese punks one year ago, in central Rangoon, when I saw four or five of them ambling down a main road. It was like a hallucination. I was accustomed to Burma's traditional human zoo, the monks in maroon and the nuns in pink, the women and the older men in longyi (sarongs), the younger ones in jeans. But as in most other Asian countries, one sees little in the way of visual eccentricity, and the default attitude of youth is respect and conformity. In that context, the impact of the punk look was explosive.
Punk began to emerge in Burma around the time of the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when huge processions of barefoot monks pounded city streets all over the country, in defiance of military rule. It was a watershed moment for the democracy movement and, despite the vicious way it was brought to an end, it lent courage to dissenters of every sort, the punks among them.
Nonetheless, they risked persecution until late 2011, when President Thein Sein began releasing political prisoners and retiring the machinery of surveillance and control that had sustained military rule for half a century. Today, Burma's punks no longer have to skulk. And they can let their originality rip. In the latest picture I have of him, posted on his Facebook page 23 hours before the time of writing this, Einstein's mohican appears to be made of platinum, while under a studded waistcoat bearing the words "Sid Vicious", he wears fetching leopard-print tights above his bovver boots, the left leg coloured black and the right leg red. This may be punk, but not as we know it.
There is a bacchanalian aspect to traditional life in Burma that resonates easily with the provocation and exhibitionism of punk: so-called "ladyboy" dancers who share traditional stages with almost life-size puppets; the mediums, known as nat kadaws, who become possessed by spirits at ghost ceremonies; the annual Thingyan water festival, when the whole country goes crazy for the best part of a week and everybody douses everybody else in water.
It was a Thingyan event that introduced Einstein to the world of punk.
There is a covered market in downtown Rangoon known in colonial days as Scott Market and now as Bogyoke Market (pronounced "bo-joke" and meaning "general", after General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi). It is unlike any other in the country, a magnet for local artists and craftsmen as well as tourists and money-changers, and located just across the road from Rangoon's only ladyboy colony. Every year, one day before the general water-pelting of Thingyan gets under way, ladyboys, foreign punks and other marginal types are in the custom of staging their own raucous, sopping-wet event in the market. And in 2008, when he was 15, a youth whose real name is Satt Mhu Shein and who lived nearby went to see what was going on. He saw his first punks. And he was never the same again.
I was warned that Einstein would be a tough nut to crack for an interview, but this does not prove to be the case: he has gentle manners and a blinding smile and is delighted to talk. I meet him at a rooftop beer hall in Rangoon's Mingalar Market, where two of the bands he has appeared in, Chaos in Burma and Hooligan Army, are to play on stage along with a dozen others, including Rebel Rant, Unknown Criminals and State of Ash, before a small but fanatical crowd, some of them foreigners. During a pause in the music, we slip away to a smelly but quiet corner of the roof and, in rough but fluent English, he tells me how he became what he is today.
"I was born in Rangoon in 1993, my father is an ex-seaman and my mother works in a supermarket, my brother is an engineer with a government job," he says. He did well at school: "I got high marks in Maths, Chemistry, Physics and Biology and after that I attended the University of Medicine here in Rangoon."
That was a couple of years after his first encounter with punks at Bogyoke Market's water festival. But at medical college, on his way to what was expected to be a lucrative and prestigious career as a doctor, he says he was shocked by the behaviour of some of his fellow students. "Many of them were rich, they came to university driving their own cars, while the poor ones like me did not get enough money from our parents to survive. The rich people were the sons of senior generals and they tried to pass the exams by bribing their professors, while the poor people with good grades dropped out."
At Bogyoke Market he had been fascinated by the punks. "I wanted to know who they were, why they dressed and behaved like this. I could speak English enough and the foreigners there gave me books about punk and I read all the books and I changed my life."
So when at medical college he encountered the corrupt behaviour of the young elite, he was primed and ready to drop out. After two years, that's what he did – and Satt Mhu Shein mutated into Einstein MC King Skunk. "At Middle School, all my friends called me Einstein, because I was smart. MC stands for 'Medical College', 'King' because I was the king of medical school."
Einstein has little of the angry nihilism of the stereotypical Western punk. He still lives with his parents, and survives by teaching schoolchildren at an informal crammer in his aunt's home. Asked to define his views, he says he despises punks who get rich selling punk accessories because they are capitalists. "I'm anti-religious, anti-education even though I have an education; I hate racism."
He played bass in his first band when he was 18; at today's gig he expects to be the vocalist with Hooligan Army, "but it's not sure, it depends how things turn out".
The time of general persecution of Burmese punks has passed, but this remains in many ways a highly conservative society, and Einstein's look is guaranteed to have an effect, which of course is at least half the point. In one of Daniele Tamagni's photographs, his blond mohican forms a visual counterpoint to the golden pagoda of Shwedagon, Burma's most famous and revered Buddhist monument. But at the time the picture was taken, the police failed to appreciate the composition. "They arrested me for having the picture taken there. But Buddha didn't say anything about hair, he didn't say anything about skin colour, so why arrest me?" Of course the indignation of straight society is the fuel that keeps punk going; if Burma moves too far in the direction of permissiveness, it's doubtful how long these colourful freaks will feel like maintaining their rebellious poses.
As for lifestyle, Einstein claims to be supremely clean. "I know the effects of drugs because I studied them at medical school," he says. "I don't take drugs and I tell other punks not to take them. I drink a little beer at parties. In my songs I attack the rich people. I also sing spontaneous lyrics of my own. One of my songs is half in Burmese and half in English, it's called 'Fuck Off'." Yet Einstein, one feels, wouldn't say "fuck off" to a goose. Burma's gentle punk is reinventing the genre.
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