Soaked in sweat, bare-chested “headbangers” danced for eight hours seemingly without stopping.
They were letting go at one of the few festivals where you could see people from all walks of life, young and old, mingling together. They were “moshing” to songs with a serious message concerning domestic human rights issues performed by musicians with various religious beliefs from across Myanmar.
Held on the riverside in Yangon, Voice of The Youth Music Festival is an experiment in freedom of expression held yearly in December in this largely conservative Buddhist country.
“You don’t usually see such a festival in Myanmar,” said Darko. C, the director of Turning Tables Myanmar, the local host of Voice of The Youth (VOY) Music Festival. “I want to provide them with a shortcut to express themselves freely.”
Featuring the voice of marginalized youth, the international non-profit organization has held music festivals or programmes in troubled countries including Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia, since 2009. Being their first venue in Asia, Myanmar has held this festival for five consecutive years.
Darko, the director, as well as the vocalist and guitarist from famed local indie band Side Effect, described VOY as a fruition of a dream that he had in 2015 to blend a divided society. “I have been focusing on giving platform and more freedom to the youth, as it was impossible when I was at their age.”
“All the conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims made me become a non-Buddhist,” said the worldly-known musician. “When I let go of Buddhism, I was set free.”
Having experienced strict censorship as a musician during the military regime, he ardently embraces anti-establishment ideation, and realized that it takes time for the country to transcend this censorship.
Back in the days of the former military regime, freedom of expression in the music industry was heavily repressed by the country’s strict protocol. Before 2012, all the songs had to be recorded in a studio and get governmental officials to approve them before being published. Resilient musicians were imprisoned, sometimes physically and mentally tortured, for promoting democracy.
While the censorship was abolished under President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian regime, musicians with prominent political messages still receive warnings from the Myanmar Music Association even today.
“Darkest memories have blackened the history so bad,” sang Blood of Century, a Yangon-based metal band at the festival. “And it’s not a history that should be forgotten.”
From dim underground clubs to the underside of some highway overpass, they have actively spread the message of “revolution” through music in any viable venues they can find in the city.
“I’m thrilled to attend Voice of Youth, we have civil wars and live in a fragmented society, but this is empowering,” said Myo Thu Swe, a 24-year-old civil engineer.
“Music is the most powerful means that glues people organically,” said Luis Gustavo Florez Cote, the programme manager of Turning Tables Myanmar. “And this year we are focusing more on peace.”
As someone who has been working on peacebuilding and humanitarian affairs for more than eight years, he found the unique power of music in the human rights field. “Different to other approaches of human rights, music is what speaks best to the youth, and it is the language that we use to better understand the youth and connect with them,” he added.
“You can see the whole universe as a song. And then we are resonating in each other with different frequencies,” said Darko.