Post 58 / Hour 64: There is No Queen in Burma

By Dave Fox
Nyaung Shwe, Burma (Myanmar)

100hours-logo2“Did you see?” Peter asks me in the flawless English typical of the Dutch. “Iron Cross is playing here in two nights! Can you believe that?”

“I’ve seen the posters around town,” I say.

The posters have had me curious. A heavy metal concert in a small town in Burma is not what I was expecting.

“Who are they?” I ask Peter. “Why are they playing here?”

“You’ve never heard of Iron Cross?” Peter’s eyes widen in disbelief.

“No,” I say, a little embarrassed. I used to be pretty diverse in my knowledge of rock music, but I’m 44 now. In this moment, I feel old and out of the loop.

“Where are they from?” I ask.

“They’re the biggest heavy metal band in Burma!” Peter responds in a how could you be so ignorant? voice.

I’m not sure how it is that Peter is such an expert on Burmese heavy metal. Like me, he’s only been here a few days. But he’s gobsmacked by my lack of basic knowledge

“Are they big outside the country?” I ask.

“I don’t think so.”

“So how do you know so much about them?”

“Haven’t you noticed? Their signs are all over the place!”

We resume chatting with a couple of local students we met. We’re sharing a rickety table outside a little shop in Nyaung Shwe, a village on the shores of Inle Lake. The shop owner brings us new rounds of beer as needed.

One of the students is concerned. Iron Cross has built a bigger following recently as Burma has opened up to more artistic freedom. In a region where the per capita daily income is around one US dollar, the average local kid will never be able to afford tickets. Only the Burmese elite will be allowed inside the show. He fears teenage riot as the rest of the town’s youth find cheaper routes over the walls into the outdoor concert area.

For the next 20 minutes, our conversations weave through lots of topics – from politics to travel to science and education. But Peter is determined to steer the conversation back to his love for pop culture. He mumbles a sentence that makes no sense to me. Or our Burmese friends. We all stare at him.

“It’s from “Pulp Fiction,” Peter attempts to remind us.

One of the Burmese students, a guy in his 30s, looks confused.

“You know!” Peter barks at him. “‘Pulp Fiction!’ Quentin Tarantino! Haven’t you seen it?”

I keep my mouth shut. I’ve never seen “Pulp Fiction,” and when I admit that to friends in the West, more often than not, I’m oggled with pity, as if I’ve been trapped in a cave for the last two decades.

Kattina, tilts her head. She squints quizzically.

“You know they’ve been having some issues here, right?” she says to Peter. “I don’t think Quentin Tarantino has made it here yet.”

“But it’s one of the best movies ever made!” Peter protests.

We change the topic to soccer, and a Burmese equivalent, a cross between soccer and hackey sack. The ball for this game is woven from dried reeds plucked from local bogs.

One of the students asks if I play soccer.

“I did when I was young,” I say. ” I’m not much of a soccer player today. Kattina likes to play soccer though.”

The students are impressed. It’s not much of a women’s sport in Burma. Maybe we can kick a ball around in the afternoon tomorrow, they suggest.

That would be fun, we say, if we have any energy left. We’ve got a big bike ride planned.

Peter shifts his gaze up toward a treetop. “Bicycle! Biiiicycle! I want to ride my bicycle! I want to ride my biiiike! I want to ride my bicycle! I want to ride it where I liiiike!”

He belts out the lyrics to the classic rock song. The four of us stare back, baffled for two different reasons.

“You know that song by Queen?” Peter asks me.

“Yeah. I know the song.”

Our Burmese friends look bewildered.

“Do you know the song?” Peter asks them.

“No,” they both say with more politeness than is warranted.

“You’ve never heard of Queen?!” Peter gasps.

Our friends lower their eyes, like teenagers rejected from the cool clique.

In what, until just a few months ago, was one of the world’s most ruthless dictatorships, I’m guessing that listening to Queen could have gotten you shot if you didn’t have the right connections.

“Dude,” I say to Peter, choosing my words carefully so as not to offend our local pals. “You do realize were in Burma, right? They haven’t been, ummm, exposed to the same culture as us.”

Peter ignores me. “They’re one of the best bands in the history of rock ‘n roll, man!” He looks at the Burmese guys, trying to jog their memories. “You know! Freddie Mercury!”

It’s getting late. We have a big day in the morning. Kattina and I pay our bill and head to our guesthouse.

“Quentin Tarantino?” Kattina says as we wander along a dirt road lit only by my flashlight. “Was he serious?”

I no longer feel stupid having never heard of Iron Cross.

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Published on Monday, March 4, 2013

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