An original Barry Lorberbaum watercolor depicting a Raw Music episode. The people in the middle are emanating music, the buildings at right are rocking and the ear at left is doing its best to take it all in. Plus a flying poodle at the top. For more from Raw Music's poet-in-residence Barry Lorberbaum check: www.barrylorberbaum.com
Spent the day recording 4-string guitars in a village 2 hours from Loikow. Many older Kayan women can strum a few tunes, but Daw Mary rocked complex melodies and a nice falsetto. She really liked watching playback on my phone too. /
JUST TOOK A 3 DAY MOTO JOURNEY / HELL RIDE THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS IN THE BACKGROUND. THE ROAD DID NOT EXIST, AND WE FOUND REFUGE IN OLD CHURCHES ESTABLISHED BY ITALIAN CATHOLIC MISSIONARIES EARLY LAST CENTURY. THIS WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE TRIP, STILL IN BUDDHIST TERRITORY.
Our Burma moto trip continues. At this point we're just stopping in villages and asking, through a series of increasingly desperate grunts and hand gestures, if anyone around plays music. Some limited success. A lot of sitting around watching people do their thing. A Karen village near the border with Bago region.
Don't know what you have to do to get on a Burmese wanted poster. I asked our friend, an Hindu Indian living in a village in the middle of the country, why these guys are on the board. He shrugged and said "Islam." There is a lot of diversity here, but that doesn't mean everyone gets along. At a rest stop along the Yangon-Mandalay highway. The moto trip continues...
#RawMusic motorcycle road trip continues. We've hit parts of the countryside in Myanmar where kids are terrified and adults perplexed by our presence. These guys were just curious. Somewhere near the border of Bago and Mon states. /
Ride On /
A homemade sound system somewhere north of Hpa-An in Kayin State, Burma
The pagoda attendant took a break from his somewhat incoherent explanation of militia-inspired religious art to play some music for us. An unexpected and beautiful moment.
We're still on the road, figuring this new life out. People have taken us in, despite some initial apprehension in most towns we've visited. Not a lot of foreigners in these parts, and no one's quite sure what to do with us.
We spent the night in a monastery watching downloaded youtube comedy videos with the monks and the kids that sleep in the monastery's main outdoor hall. At lights-out one of the teenagers living at the monastery brought us a blunt and the rest of the night I listened to the bugs and birds of the surrounding jungle with paranoaic fascination.
This morning we were up with the sun and filmed a father and daughter musical pair. The father played the Karen mandolin and his daughter sang the twisting, lilting melody in a soft high voice, extending her long neck in order to hit the notes. The best music I've heard on the trip.
Jacob's bike, Matilda, broke down on the outskirts of Thaton. A mysterious kid rolled up, fixed it in 30 seconds, and rode off. He returned again a couple minutes later to ask for a cigarette.
We'll just keep going.
Still in Hpa-an where we started. But this morning Mr John helped us buy a couple precision-engineered second (of third) hand Chinese mopeds. There are a lot of Mr. (Western names) offering to do pretty much anything for you for the right price. Mr John seemed more standup than Yangon's supremely sketchy Mr Tony, and we trust that these mopeds will carry us safely on our journey. The rest-hut attendant fills up my bike (the first vehicle I've ever owned).
Mopeds are banned in Yangon, but they're THE way to travel the rest of the country. Heading north from Hpa-an in embattled Kayin State. The Karen ethnic group have been fighting the central government for a federalized Myanmar for decades. We stopped for tea and heard stories of refugee camps, drugs, and the Beatles. Really good English among the older folk, many of whom studied with American Christian missionaries. It's a strange world.
Hey friends -- our video from Ukraine is live on NBCNews.com. This was a tough one -- the shooting, the editing, figuring out what to say. Let me know what you think.
We're still in Myanmar. About to catch a night bus to the countryside, where we'll ride off on second-hand Chinese mopeds in search of traditional music. Internet will be spotty but we'll try to upload some pics.
Aerosmith, One Direction, golden pagodas, naked babies, and outdated maps of Myanmar. Got the bases covered. /
A week in Yangon. On the first day we were impressed by the crumbling colonial architecture, the faces, the use of black mold as a design element, food, some festering, some delicious, lining the streets. Children from the villages working for their keep in shops and restaurants.
We stayed at one of my least favorite destinations in the world -- a backpacker hostel. Living with citizens of the country is illegal, and like most laws these days, no one is sure how closely this one is enforced. So I shared an attic with a Spanish girl sick from food poisoning and an Australian guy who was trying to sleep with her regardless. The conversations were all about the next stop or "how many days do you have left?" Everyone was ready with exact numbers. 38 days until Germany, they'd say with a desperate and wistful look.
Across the street, a Shiite mosque hung black flags with white swords. Inside, a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei looked down on the small marble room. The words "Live Like Ali, Die Like Hussein" were written in gold letters across the archway. Still, people smiled when we walked by. I wonder what they thought of our puffy, hungover western brethren bent over the benches outside the hostel every morning, waiting for Nescafe.
Sitting outdoors on low stools at street level watching noodle-gorged rats fight over garbage in the night heat, we were approached by a bright faced young guy. Quick movements and a huge smile. He apologized for interrupting and said he likes to speak with foreigners to improve his English. "We couldn't talk to you like this two years ago," he said, before laying out a list of German authors and philosophers he'd learned from a visitor from Cologne. "Have you really read Schopenhauer?" I asked. He looked at me like I was crazy. Which is how everyone should look at people who ask that question.
Ethnic conflict came up -- the persecution of Muslims by Buddhists in the west. "We're all human beings," he said, "You, me, her, it doesn't matter. But most people don't think this way."
We meet people like this on all our trips -- a massive worldview despite little travel, built up through lived experience, intuition, and whatever conversation and reading material they can accumulate. They always seem a little out of place where they live, and they're drawn to us. We look out of place too. He hadn't seen his family since coming to the big city for university. His nickname was EverythingsOK.
We spent two days riding the ferry back and forth between Yangon and Dalla, a village on the other side of the Yangon river. We're trying to make a video about the light, and the migration of people. The passengers manage to stampede on and off this creaking old boat with grace. It takes about 2 and a half minutes to empty the thing. No one falls, no one's basket is knocked over, people reach out a hand to help others board. Quail eggs and watermelon and bootleg DVDs sell fast. In the boat's cafe a kid no older than 8 with full sleeve tattoos brings tea and cigarettes in a Psy "Gangam Style" cartoon t-shirt. He's too shy to look you in the eye.
We finally managed to rent an apartment in Yangon's Chinatown. The Chinese proprietor brought along an old Burmese man to translate. He'd been a sailor, had the hand tattoos to prove it, and spoke enough bits of enough languages to communicate with most people on earth. He couldn't remember how many countries he'd visited. He didn't like Tampa, though, and he warned us against Indian food. His favorite city is Yangon.
We've met several musicians -- punks, rappers, guys in Smiths t-shirts, old men playing slide guitar. Incredible hospitality, and they've helped us piece together an understanding of Yangon's slowly building music scene and the relationship between class, ethnicity, tradition, and what you end up playing. But music here has been covered extensively, and we're leaving the city for the countryside where we're told traditional sounds still exists. The day after tomorrow it's off to the jungle.
Two days in the city. We're still trying to figure out where we've landed.
Bangkok is warm. People are smiling. No one wants to kill me on ethnic or religious grounds. A nice change from our last few Raw Music trips.
We are in town to get our visas and minds together before heading to Burma. We succeeded at one of these tasks. Our papers are in order and we fly tomorrow.
Jacob and I hadn't seen each other since dipping out of Ukraine by cover of night back in June. It was a rough trip, one we still haven't figured out. But the video is done and coming out on NBC News' website next week (we hope). And so it's on to Burma.
Bangkok is fine and wild and reminds me of Hong Kong with less rules. We toured the noodle carts and pharmacies but mostly kept close to home. This is a stopover, and my mind was on the Burma shoot.
Bangkok feels like so many other major cities I've seen. A new super highway from the airport. Towering shopping malls. A taxi driver who knows how to ask "Where you from" but never knows where you're going. Billboards of Wayne Rooney and Samsung. Snarled traffic and uneven sidewalks. Families wandering the streets late at night, neon lit, dodging motorcycles and drunk white people, sharing the city with cockroaches, smog, humidity, and cooking oil. "Handsome man!" they call from the massage parlors. The cops look tired and hot, hoping no one does anything to rouse them from their lethargy. The street dogs are fat and content.
The lasting impression is kindness. Jacob lives in Iraq. I live in Brooklyn. Where we come from, a smile from a stranger or an unsolicited offer of help is cause for concern. "What does this fucker want," you think, as you quickly break eye contact and keep pace. But here it seems like people mean it. Always a smile. It's disconcerting and beautiful and I don't really want to leave. But the flights are booked and in 5 hours we leave for Yangon.
During the Loy Krathong festival, thousands of people line the river in Bangkok to give thanks. They light candles and set them adrift on beds of flowers. And they buy small bags of writhing eels and catfish from this woman and let them free in the water. Her sign reminds you to "Do Merit, Let Free These." Save an eel. Continue life. The people we've met in Thailand have been impossibly kind. To Jacob (who lives in Iraq) and me (I live in Brooklyn, usually), this has been startling. But we're beginning to realize no one wants anything from us. They're just being nice. So like the little eels and other prickly forms of These, I feel Let Free.
The Raw Music team has arrived in Bangkok en route to Myanmar. The last 48 hours have been all night wandering and all day sleeping, which seems to be the way to see this city.