Suu Kyi, dedicated follower of the Grateful Dead

Nobel laureate reveals surprising musical passion on eve of guest-directing UK arts festival

Nina Lakhani
Sunday 01 May 2011 00:00

Aung San Suu Kyi, lauded as the emblem of Burma's long hoped-for democratic reform, has revealed an unsuspected side. In the run-up to Brighton Festival she announced that she is a fan of reggae legend Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead, the Seventies rock band known for their blend of rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, country, improvisational jazz, psychedelia and long, improvised live performances.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winner was chosen to be artistic director of this year's festival, and during an interview in Rangoon with the festival's chief executive, Andrew Comben, talked about the power of the arts to communicate messages of freedom and human rights, as well as her more conventional passion for Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

The sister of her late husband Michael Aris and her brother-in-law were also heavily involved in planning the festival before her release from house arrest last November. The programme also features artists that reflect her passion for songs of resistance, including dub musician Lee "Scratch" Perry, who inspired Bob Marley, and protest music by John Cale and Asian Dub Foundation.

Ms Suu Kyi is the subject of a critically acclaimed play which will be performed at the festival with a new ending. The Lady of Burma, praised for its insights into Ms Suu Kyi's non-political persona, is part of a much wider celebration of her life and struggle. While clearly delighted to be guest-directing a festival for the first time, she expressed disbelief about being the focus of a play, and seems bewildered that she is so widely revered. Despite her inexorable political responsibilities, she has promised to watch as many of the festival's performances as possible online.

The playwright Richard Shannon, who wrote the original in 2006 after studying dozens of Ms Suu Kyi's letters and home videos, last night said: "She may not want to be seen as an icon, but people need a focus: they need to engage with a person to engage with an issue. The play tries to get behind the mask and tell the human story of a very warm, passionate person who has a great sense of humour."

A keen piano player, Ms Suu Ki has been playing Mozart since her release "just to make me happy" after years with an "unplayable" piano during her house arrest. But she laments her own abilities: "I've often wished in these last few years under detention that I were a composer because then I would be able to express what I felt through music, which is somehow so much more universal than words."

Ms Suu Kyi accepted the Freedom of the City from Brighton and Hove Council with an almost childlike joy: "Can I just go anywhere I like in the city? That will be fun, going along Brighton knocking on doors to find out whether they really will open for me or not!"

On the last day of the festival, on 29 May, hundreds of people across Brighton will recite passages from the UN Declaration of Human Rights and 2,500 lotus flowers will be released, including one origami flower made by Ms Suu Kyi.

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