In Myanmar, musical plagiarism is not an occasional slipup, but a recognized genre known as “copy track.” After decades of cultural isolation, the Southeast Asian nation has given rise to popular local artists who remake Western music, -- which was largely unavailable under the former military regime -- with Burmese lyrics, and pass the songs off as originals. But now, as the country rehabilitates itself on the world stage, many musicians are shifting away from the old tradition.
Even on your first trip to the newly opened Myanmar, songs on the radio in the Southeast Asian nation could still sound oddly familiar – you’ll recognize tunes from Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Nickelback and many other popular Western artists, only they're sang in Burmese, Myanmar’s national language, the Global Post reported on Wednesday.
Since the 1960s, Myanmar’s ruling junta has made every effort to quarantine the nation, economically and culturally. All media, including films, books and music, had to receive censorship approval before circulation. Until the current reform government took over, Western music was only available in CDs or tapes smuggled into the nation.
The lack has spawned “copy tracks.” Original lyrics in Burmese are composed to popular Western tracks in every style, from Celine Dion to Evanescence, Bob Marley to N’Sync. In some cases, a plagiarizing artist is even credited with bringing a new musical form to Myanmar -- Acid, for example, is the group behind the nation’s recent hip-hop craze.
“Of course, it’s stealing. But the general public has no idea,” said Diramore, a 39-year-old pop singer, composer and associate professor at Myanmar’s National University of Arts and Culture, according to the Global Post.
Copyright is not exactly a top concern for Myanmar’s leaders, as they embark on economic and political reforms following the shift in power. The only relevant piece of legislation, the “Burma Copyright Act of 1911,” dates from British colonial era, and speaks of “cinematographs” and “engravings,” as television, CDs, DVDs and MP3s were not yet in existent when the law was made. The current administration also has little incentive to make changes in this sector.
“It is difficult to shore-up the political will to create legal protections because cheap products make consumers happy in the near term,” said Christian Lewis, a Myanmar expert for the Eurasia Group, a political and economic consulting firm, in an email interview with the International Business Times.
But as Myanmar begins to interact with other nations, copy tracks could project an image of creative bankruptcy, considering they require little musical talent to put together, and Myanmar’s creative industry could run into trouble abroad. A movie crew had to scramble to clear rights for a plagiarized Japanese song after a film was accepted to be shown at an international film festival in Singapore, according to the Global Post.
Those who copy are “trapped in Myanmar … because they’ll get sued if they ever leave,” said Wunna Kyaw, a 35-year-old commercial producer based in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial center. The commercial industry also frequently makes use of foreign hits as advertising jingles. For example, ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” is used to sell baby shoes.
For some, copying was not merely a scheme to get famous, but an introduction course to produce music that they would otherwise never have in the impoverished nation. Acid, which was founded in the late 1990s, studied CDs acquired through back channels. Their breakout single, “A Sate Ein Mat,” which translates to “Poison in Your Dreams,” was a copy of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain.”
“You have to understand,” said Yan Yan Chan, one of the group’s founding members. “There was no one here to teach us how to do this. No one in the country knew how to produce a hip-hop beat.”
The group has since found enormous popularity, and has begun to shift away from copying. They are confident now that they can do everything themselves. Even so, it is difficult to think of copy tracks as plagiarism.
“Growing up, all my favorite songs were copy tracks. I had no idea,” Yan Yan Chan said, according to the Global Post. “Now I do. But I still love them just the same.”
Watch the Burmese rendition of "We Are the World," a charity song composed in 1985 by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, here:
The original American music video: