Rocking for Change in Myanmar

Meet the frontman of Yangon-based indie band Side Effect — Swe Hlaing Htet, or Darko C.

Darko C performing on stage with his band Side Effect.

Darko, today your band Side Effect is one of the most popular acts in Myanmar. How did you end up making music in the first place?

I never thought I would become a musician. But from an early age, I dreamt of making a difference for the people of Myanmar. I wasn’t happy with my surroundings and the political situation, but I didn’t have a medium to express myself. Then I discovered punk rock and it became my way of speaking out about the issues I care about, showing the world through my eyes. Fast forward to today — 12 years after founding Side Effect — and we’ve performed in Germany, Denmark, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and even played at the SXSW music festival in Austin as the first Burmese band. Now I’m here in New York performing at UNDP’s Global Goals Gala.

Since its founding in 2004, Darko’s band Side Effect has rocked Germany, Denmark, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States.

Where do you draw your musical inspiration from?

Generally, my songs are inspired by the things happening around us. Everyday life in Yangon. Political shifts in Myanmar. Sometimes I draw inspiration from books, films, news and other music.

Despite performing with your band, you’re also the Country Director of Turning Tables Myanmar. Tell us more about your work there.

At Turning Tables our mission is to empower marginalized youth by providing them with the means to express their grievances, hopes and dreams in music and film. Since 2009, we work to build a creative environment for learning new skills and sharing experiences. It’s an opportunity to pursue a better tomorrow in some of the world’s most troubled places.

I believe that music and film are powerful tools to mobilize young people, provoke thoughts, and mirror current situations. It’s a way to express ourselves, push the limits on freedom of expression and break the social norms that are violating equality. As the Myanmar Country Director, I’m in charge of making this vision a reality in my country.

I help to establish music and video production facilities for people aged 20–30 years and organize a series of music production and film workshops by international instructors. These workshops are designed to train local instructors to teach and convey their skills to local youth on a weekly basis. Our musical training helps give a voice to young people in Myanmar. Here, they learn how to write lyrics, how to produce and engineer electronic music, and they also get vocal training. Our video training focuses on filming and editing music videos and short documentaries.

Young people from Myanmar participating in a Turning Tables music workshop.

Have you ever seen any of your programmes make a real difference to someone’s life?

Yes. Recently, we were working on a project called Voice Of The Youth. It brings talented young musicians from all over the country together to improve their skills and express their dreams and wishes for Myanmar. There was a girl from a small village called Maungmagan. Her conservative parents made her quit high school to work at her family’s tea shop from 5am to midnight, every day. She joined one of our training sessions in her village and due to her talent and beautiful voice she was selected to join the Voice Of The Youth bootcamp in Yangon. She was a sad girl when we met her. But during the bootcamp, we could see her change and her self-esteem improve. She dared to discuss controversial issues such as religious discrimination and conflicts when the rest were reluctant. She said there’s a big divide between different religious groups where she was born. Her Buddhist community taught her that people practicing other religions are wrong and therefore she never got to meet them. Making music with young people from all over the country changed her. During the discussion, she stood up and told other participants that many people in Myanmar believe in different religions, and that no one should ever be oppressed because of their beliefs. She is now so happy and knows that she has a voice. She went home with a plan to share her new experience and start doing things for her community better than a karaoke singer.

Darko C presenting at one of the local Voice Of The Youth workshops.

Darko C performed at UNDP’s inaugural Global Goals Gala, A Night For Change, in New York City on Monday 5 December.