A Sky Full of Stars and Hearts Full of Music

In the past months, the whole world has been impacted by a new virus COVID-19, altering much of what we were used to and redefining our behaviors as a global community. While Myanmar had lesser cases than many other parts of the world, in global solidarity, like many other countries in the world, people have also been socially distancing with some townships in lockdown and curfews. People have fallen ill, lost loved ones, jobs, and suffered a loss of morale. Borders around the world have closed to prevent countries from further spreading the virus. Travels have halted (and rightly so) and we still have yet to see the long-term implications of this virus. In many ways, this virus illuminates long known truths — that our world is interconnected. Regardless of the distance, the love and the hate we may have for another, one thing is certain, the virus affects every human life without exception.

Programs like Myanmar Music Festival (MMF) whose main mission is to bring people together in a spirit of cultural exchanges and building friendships through music, have also been deeply affected by this new reality. The pandemic obliges us to rethink the role of the arts in times of crisis, and reflect on things that we may have taken for granted in our 21st century. We can no longer so easily hop on a plane, a car, a boat, visit friends near and far, travel to new places and perform in front of large crowds for the time being — two important aspects that define artists’ lives.

Despite these challenges, Myanmar Music Festival sees the pandemic as an opportunity to contend with the reality of our interconnected yet unequal world. It is a time to reflect on our privilege and what we might have taken for granted. It is also the time to brainstorm creative ways to keep nurturing our engagement with one another across different parts of the world, and design programs that reach, bring together, and allow even larger participation, without sacrificing the well-being of our Earth. More than ever, nurturing understanding, openness toward other cultures and countries, closeness, empathy, and friendship will be essential to design a post-COVID world. What more than music to cultivate these attitudes and broaden our imaginations?

We do not have any definite answers yet on what we should and can do, however, we believe that the more we create, the more we will expand our imaginations and the realms of possibilities toward a more equitable post-COVID world. Kimball Gallagher, artistic director of MMF and executive director of 88 International, a US-based non-profit that supports and initiates music for social impact projects such as MMF around the world, says: “In fact, the distance is bringing us closer. By working from a distance we realize we are able to work anytime, and even more than before, and allows us to work on expanding our imagination all the time, rather than only during the period where we can physically be together.”

The Myanmar Music Festival choir began experimenting with the new trend of virtual choirs, and new ways of building participation and friendships, in a spirit of togetherness and collaboration. Led by our voice directors, Yiling Chaing and La Ung Jaw Htoi Ring (Harry), the past choir members from MMF2018 and MMF2019, comprising of our Myanmar national youth choir members from different states and region of the country and Malaysian students from UCSI, UiTM, Sunway, and ASWARA universities, worked on a piece “Kyae Sin Way Phyar” (Sky Full of Stars), a Burmese version of the originally called “Man Tian Xing Xing” (滿天星星), once performed on the program of MMF2019. The choir worked from a distance through Zoom practice sessions and was accompanied by MMF founding member and Taiwanese pianist Kaiyin Huang, UiTM’s violin faculty Pei Ann Yeoh, and Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MPYO) cellist Hen Lit Ming.

MMF Virtual Choir 2020 — ကြယ်စဉ်ဝေဖြာ

Our voice director, Yiling Chaing shares her experience conducting the choir from afar: “It is a global phenomenon where physical choir practice is not possible, virtual choir becoming the only alternative. The blooming of virtual choirs signifies that life isn’t complete without music-making. Through the power of music, it has enlightened the spirit of many countries in their fight with COVID-19. Despite the difficulties to meet, people strive to make art happen. The song is sung in Burmese, we let more interaction happen during the online choir training. I would say this is an exciting interactive learning style, assisted by a coach rather than an online lecture mode.” Our Kachin voice director from Myanmar, La Ung Jaw Htoi Ring (Harry) further observes the impact on the participants: “The participants were so happy and eager to do this. Having everyone on Zoom meetings was good. Even though we are all in different parts of the world, we felt like having a live choir rehearsal. Everyone is close to one another.”

A Zoom practice session with vocal directors, Yiling Chaing and La Ung Jaw Htoi Ring (Harry) and some MMF participants

Participants echoed similar feelings. Leo Lwin, a Myanmar participant shares: “Although the pandemic keeps us apart physically and brings each of us into isolation, we still can unite as one in harmony and our hearts are connected by music. Of course, the virtual choir organized by Myanmar Music Festival witnesses that we will never walk alone because we are surrounded by our loved ones and we have to be strong. This is not the end yet.” Stoffel Seah ZiXiang, a Malaysian student from UiTM shares his impression of learning a song in Burmese: “Learning a Burmese song (which was initially a Chinese song) enables me to learn some new Burmese words. It may sound really different in the beginning but after a few practice, I’m able to pronounce it properly, under Harry and other Burmese friends’ guidance. This is my very first time joining a virtual choir, and I can say that it was a new, rare, and great experience because we can still sing together without having to gather.”

Others such as Phone Myat Kyaw from Yangon and Kimberly Tsen from UCSI Malaysia talk about the process of recording their voice and being unsure about singing well until they saw the final video: “During the recording process, even though I could record myself multiple times, which is good, I could not feel the enjoyment of singing together side-by-side with my friends. All you hear is your own voice and it’s kind of empty and lonely, but when I saw the video ‘Wow!’ I was impressed! Our voices were one and it gave me goosebumps!” Finally, Htike Aung from Mon state, even though he liked the virtual choir project expresses what we have all been feeling, “I miss seeing my friends in person and the atmosphere of the in-person camp. I hope we can get together soon again.”

The original song in Chinese “Man Tian Xing Xing” (滿天星星) was written by Hiro G., a Taiwanese songwriter, in homage to aboriginal children from the Atayal tribe in Nanou village, Yilan County in Taiwan (see photos below), which Kaiyin Huang’s organization Kairos Arts supported for a year in Taiwan. She shares: “Toward the end of the project, in October 2018, we performed this song at a concert in Taipei, together with the children. The song depicts a clear sky full of stars that gives us hope and courage to pursue our dreams.”

Scenery of Nanou village, Yilan County in Taiwan
Photos of Nanou village, Yilan County in Taiwan, and the Atayal children.
The premier performance of the song “Man Tian Xing Xing” by Kairos Arts Artists with aboriginal children from Nanou village, Taiwan on October 13, 2018, in Taipei.

The song performed here by the MMF virtual choir was translated into Burmese by our artistic director, Kevin Kyaw, who tells us more about the process of translating: “I grew up in an environment where I learned to speak both languages at a native level, but translating a ‘song’ from one language to another was something I had never done. I was really excited when I heard about the video project, because Man Tian Xing Xing is a song full of positivity and hope, and more than ever, this is a time we need to spread this kind of message and give hope to each other. The main challenge in the translation, other than the process being something totally new for me, was to translate the text as closely as possible to the original in Chinese while adapting to the cultural context of Myanmar. I also had to keep in mind the singability and naturalness of the new Burmese lyrics and to let it convey as much emotion and meaning as possible along with the music. It is by no means perfect, but I am quite happy with how it worked out.”

About the translation, Kaiyin Huang says: “I think it is awesome that we translated the song in Burmese. Mainly, because we performed this song in Chinese once [in MMF2019] and I don’t think the message came through that well. The song itself has a hopeful, positive spirit, which we all need in times like this. I hope this will help to bring people together and stay connected.” As songwriter Hiro G. hears the Burmese version of his song, we conclude with his remarks: “You know, when we look up to the sky it doesn’t really matter where you are, which part of the world you are in. When we raise our heads, we all see the same sky.”

Myanmar Music Festival on June 16, 2019, at Yangon City Hall for the Celebration Concert

There is still so much we can do to engage with the world and people as we all stay at home. With MMF, we chose this time to reflect on the multiple ways we can make music and messages more relevant and available in different languages and broaden how the arts and artistic projects can be catalysts to keep people connected, hopeful, and open to learning from one another.

To view and listen to the MMF virtual choir song, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCEw8oNqiZU

Follow Myanmar Music Festival on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/myanmarmusicfestival/ and subscribe to our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6tQFyLZe6rkymWd552un4A

By Erina Iwasaki, MMF Associate Director

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