1960s-1980s: Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar (Burma) Vol. 1

Another look into the black mirror of the past by the extra-geographers at Sublime Frequencies. This is a limited vinyl edition of a SF compilation CD from 2004 that was itself a reissue of an LP put out by SF’s Alan Bishop on the Majora label in 1994 that in turn compiled an assortment of Burmese music released between the 1960s and the 1980s.

Let’s briefly go through that timeline again, the other way round. A number of musicians in Burma/Myanmar (the choice of name greatly depends on political affiliation) enter recording studios to lay down tracks in a variety of styles for local, national, or — at the most — regional distribution on records and later cassettes. During the 1980s and 1990s, Alan Bishop — intrepid traveler, punk ethnographer, Sun City Girls member — collects said recordings and, taken aback by their wonder and wishing to spread the vibe, compiles them on to an obscure LP for local, national, and maybe even international distribution. A decade later, having established Sublime Frequencies in the image of classic ethnic labels like Folkways and Ocora, Bishop and his labelmates release the music to an audience that, through the subsequent distribution of these magical artifacts via cyberspace, cannot help but be global. Even so, wonders of this kind do not store well as MP3s and so a decision is made to reimpress them in wax; to make the collection a desirable object once again. Thus these strange and wonderful sounds spin their spell into a new decade.

Apart from some notes by Bishop about how clever the Burmese musicians must be to take Western instruments and assimilate them, no information is given about the selections or the artists (an old SF trick, though one they seem to have evolved from on more recent releases). Perhaps for many outside the geographical area from which this music originates, this won’t matter; perhaps they’ll consider it enough to wander the strange sonic corridors of this faraway music, to hear it as a siren call to another time and place, another set of possibilities. Perhaps it’s possible to just shift realities, to wake up in this foreign land and be thrilled at not knowing what’s going on. The danger of that, as some critics have already noted, is that this music becomes marketed as exotica — the “magic music of faraway places” as Bert Kaempfert used to call it (even though Bert’s music always sounded as though it came from exactly the same place every time).

Except we’re rarely lost or disoriented these days, are we? In the contemporary iteration of the technoculture we are never far from some locative device, some online guidance system, able to plug back into the matrix to get our cultural fix, to fix our shortcomings, recharge our data bank, or top up our cultural capital. Bishop’s collection alerts me to Mar Mar Aye, I listen to the yearning “Beautiful Town”, then hit Google and YouTube to find out more.

Now the cover and maybe even the name of Princess Nicotine start to make sense. Here is Mar Mar Aye in 1987 or 1988, when she was still allowed to live, record, and broadcast in Burma, before settling in the US as a political exile. Other YouTube hits show songs dedicated to the Burmese monks who protested in 2007 in the face of military repression. Somehow, knowing this makes the heartfelt longing of “Beautiful Town” all the more poignant, though there’s still obviously much to learn about Mar Mar Aye and others on this compilation, such as “the incomparable Tonte Theintan” (as Bishop puts it).

Is it enough to just “listen and be amazed” as Bishop asks us to do? Certainly, Theintan’s “Lover of Winter and Snow” is under-the-skin moving, and Bo Hein’s scratchy, funky takes on tradition can’t be denied. But don’t we still need/want a back story of some sort?

If selection is one obvious element at play in the strange tale of endurance that is Princess Nicotine (why the endless repressing of these nine particular recordings?), so too is transformation. One of the magic properties of phonography is this ability for sound to outlast the many vessels within which it is temporarily contained. The phonograph may have been designed to capture sound forever but it is sound itself which endures rather than the phonographic medium. Like a relay race with sound as baton. Or like a single life with sound as soul and breath: what seemed most transient is what endures. The Burmese monks must understand that better than many of us. Here’s to them.


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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