Gitameit is not just a private music school in downtown Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. It’s a music center where people gather to share their knowledge and passion for music. Their story began in 2003 when American pianist Kit Young traveled to Myanmar to study Burmese music. She noticed many of the local people were very interested in western music as well. During that time, foreign music was hard to come by in Myanmar, the country was still very isolated from the rest of the world. Kit Young decided to start a music school dedicated to all types of music. To her, music wasn’t a western or eastern thing, music was music. The school was named ‘Gitameit’, combining the words ‘gita’, meaning ‘music’ in Pali, and ‘meit’, the Burmese word for ‘friendship’.
Nay Win Htun, or Htun Htun, was one of the first students to study at Gitameit Music Center. He was born in Mogok, a city in central Myanmar, about 200 kilometers North of Mandalay, that is famous for its ruby mines and gem trade. These gems were the actual reason he came to Yangon. As a young man, Htun Htun wanted to start his own gem business, but his love of music was greater. He became one of Kit Young’s first students and quickly took on Gitameit’s management, a job he still performs with passion. As its manager, Htun Htun saw Gitameit grow from a small private school to a succesful music center and one of the most important music schools in Yangon.
Musical education is not commonplace in Myanmar. There are no music classes in schools and those who want to study music in Yangon only have a few options: the University of Culture, the State School of Fine Arts and Gitameit Music Center. Even with the new education system, put in place by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, music has no place in the curriculum. Because of this, many Burmese musicians only start learning music after finishing high school.
Since musical education is so difficult to come by, the most common way of studying music is through internet, certainly outside of Yangon. But that’s a very recent phenomenon. Internet has only been widely available since 2011, and 3G mobile data networks have only been introduced in 2015. In these past 6 years, YouTube has grown into the most common platform where young people discover music and learn to play it themselves. Pauk Si, one of the musicians we met while working on this series, taught himself to play guitar through videos on YouTube. You can watch his story here.
A lot of adolescents only start to play an instrument or learn to sing after their matriculation, around the age of 16, which in average is pretty late compared to other countries. And many Burmese don’t think much of music education. Nay Win Htun experienced this himself several times. A few years ago he had a chat with the parents of one of his students. They were still convinced their child should learn to sing without any lessons: “Just listen… and sing, that’s the way.” It is still the idea of lots of Burmese parents.
The situation is changing though. Htun Htun told us that Burmese youngster are finally starting to create their own music, something that is more important than it might seem. As a corollary to the lack of musical education, there is the phenomenon of ‘copy songs’ in Myanmar. Since the 1950’s there has been no copyright law in Myanmar regarding music made outside the country. And that’s a real problem, because the pop industry is dominated by western instrumentals filled up with Burmese lyrics. Maybe you should check out these three Myanmarese ‘Laura Branigans’ with their version of ‘Self Control’. When we were at Gitameit, we could hear a Burmese version of Robbie Williams from the construction site next to the old building. And, it wasn’t ‘The Road to Mandalay’!
This change in music production marks a change in Burmese music. Htun Htun mentioned that young people aren’t only influenced by Western or other foreign music. They want to know more about traditional Burmese music, focussing on instruments like Burmese piano and saung… By combining all these influences, young Burmese musicains are creating a completely new and unique style of music. If anything, that’s what Gitameit Music Center wants to encourage.
The music center itself is growing as well. Next to the old building, a new, bigger building is rising. During our time in Yangon it was still unfinished, but the new building is now finished. Photographs showed the opening was very crowded and there is a lot of activity going on. Gitameit isn’t just a music school, it’s a community where Burmese get the opportunity to experience music and live their passion.
You can always check out their website.
During our visit, we were invited to the concert of Gitameit students together with pupils from the State School of Fines Arts. We took photographer Marie Bouly with us, she took these magnificent pics of the concert: