On a rainy, lazy afternoon Chit San Maung welcomes me to his studio at Insein Road. I walk up a long flight of stairs into a doorway that leads to a narrow snake-like staircase until I reach a tiny room with a mixing board and a wall from which was hanging about 50 guitars of all colors and shapes.
“I collected them for many years,” Chit says, his eyes lighting up. As a lead guitarist of Iron Cross—also called IC—one of the most popular Myanmar bands spanning two decades, Chit is considered the best guitarist in all of Myanmar. He started playing at the tender age of four and moved to Yangon from his village of Hinthada, northwest of Yangon on the Irrawaddy River, to study guitar when he was only thirteen.
Now 43, he learned from the best—famous guitar player Saw Bwe Hmu, and co-founder and former band leader of Iron Cross, who died in 1993. “He was my mentor and idol,” says Chit.
He met Saw when he was studying guitar at the Myanmar Young Crusaders, a Christian organisation started by his father-in-law that provides guitar lessons and other charitable services. Saw was undergoing drug rehabilitation there.
“He loved me like his son,” says Chit, and when he was only fifteen, with Swe’s persuasion, he started playing guitar professionally in different bands. Together they also played weekly at the Myanmar Young Crusaders, performing with Christian gospel choirs, similar to how many Western musicians like Elvis Presley and BB King got their start. They originally named the band Holy Cross, but decided to change it because the name didn’t appeal to the mainstream audience.
Consisting of four permanent members in bass, guitar, drums and keyboard, there are four singers who alternate during concerts. Like Western rock bands from the 80s and early 90s, they wear long hair, casual t-shirts and jeans with bandana and black leather jackets. The lead singer, Lay Phyu, is a well-known lyricist and boasts a husky, high-pitched vocals reminding me of Creed, Metallica, Aerosmith and the likes, and next to him, Chit plays the guitar like a top-notch pro, his fingers making twists and turns, sometimes in positions that I have never seen before.
Locals tell me they love Iron Cross because of their undeniable skills, incomparable to any other Myanmar band. Iron Cross got their start playing cover songs of Western rock bands like Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi and Metallica by changing the lyrics to Burmese, which doesn’t seem to bother the locals. Chit says he prefers original songs, but they play cover songs sometimes because concert managers require them to. However, over the years, Lay Phyu has been instrumental in creating original songs, allowing the band to become less dependent on cover songs.
Chit tells me his favorite Iron Cross song is A Phay (Father), written by Maung Maung Zaw Latt, a famous songwriter. Song by Lay Phyu, it is about a son yearning for his father who passed away. The melody, like most rock songs starts out melancholic then progresses to a high tempo. In some of their live concerts, pictures of Burmese revolutionary Aung San and his family are depicted in a large projections behind the band.
The lyrics are deep: “I’m totally grown up and on my own, but I still need your advice. I wish I was brave to face all the problems in this cruel world.” The crowd sings along and it’s obvious that the intention is to arouse some kind of sentiment, but when I ask Chit about that, he says that they’re all about the music and not politics.
Perhaps their fans adore them because they dare to defy the norm. What makes them unique is that their four singers have remained consistent and intact. They don’t perform with any other bands, unlike most Myanmar singers who jump from one band to another to make ends meet. Their manager was the one who convinced them to stick together and play in one band even though it may be difficult financially.
“We wanted to be different and unique. We didn’t really care about the money,” says Chit. It took the band only two to three months after debuting to become a phenomenon. Chit adds that they are open to new and upcoming singers performing with their band, and in the past, they have performed with other musicians other than the loyal four.
In a profession where one-hit wonders are common, I ask Chit why Iron Cross, besides their obvious talent, managed to retain their popularity. Perhaps the band, like many rock/heavy metal genre with rage and rebellion at their core, appeals to the frustrated Burmese youth? He says that maybe the band “touches their soul,” but from their heyday, their sole purpose was total devotion to their music, and maybe their fans can see that. They haven’t been without controversy, though.
In the past, Iron Cross came under scrutiny, mainly from the international community, because of the band’s iron cross symbol with its eagle and medals that often represent Nazism. When I ask Chit if he knew that the iron cross was associated with Nazism, he says that they had no idea that it was a social taboo or that it would be offensive.
In the early 1990s, a solo album by Lay Phyu called Power 54 stirred up the government when they realised that 54 is opposition leaders Aung San Suu Kyi’s street address. Iron Cross has denied this fact in the media and Chit laughs it off, “It was all a misunderstand(ing),” claiming that it stood for the 54 songs they have played so far. There is no denying that Lay Phyu has been under the government’s radar and it is public knowledge that in the past, he has been banned from performing and recording, but perhaps that is one of the reasons for the band’s continued popularity.
Iron Cross’s influence is far reaching with an international following among the Burmese diaspora. Thus far, they have toured to the US—New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles—Europe, Japan, and South Korea, performing for charities and fundraisers.
Most recently in January of this year, they traveled to Singapore to perform for the Burmese there. Chit says they always get a warm welcome abroad and it’s a privilege to be able to perform for them. The most memorable event was flying to Japan in 2008 and performing with bands from every ASEAN country. “It was fun meeting different people and hearing different languages,” he says.
They know how to draw a crowd. In 2008, Iron Cross performed in front of an audience of 50,000 – the largest number ever by a Myanmar band – for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s history, raising $100,000 for the cause. Just this past January, they fundraised for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Education Foundation with a crowd of 10,000.
In 2010, they celebrated their 20th anniversary with a live concert at the Thuwana Indoor Stadium in Yangon with a performance by the notorious IC singers Lay Phyu, Ah Nge, Myo Gyi and Wyne Wine. They have also recently released an album with a compilation of their greatest hits of the last two decades.
As a veteran musician who has survived the many changes of Myanmar, I ask Chit if he has any advice for aspiring musicians. “It’s not enough to have talent. It’s important to study the music theoretically if you want to be recognized internationally,” he says, stressing that all their band members self-studied the theory of music.
Their next project is a one-man performance every month or so by each Iron Cross singer. Just last week, Lay Phyu performed solo. On September 21, Ah Nge is slated to perform at the Myanmar Event Park, then few months after that Myo Gyi and then Wyne Wine.
As the interview comes to a close, I notice up on the wall a pink guitar with a Hello Kitty print. When I ask him if it is his, he laughs and says that it’s his fifteen-year-old daughter’s, who is an avid guitar player.
Would he want his children—he has three teenagers—to follow his path? “They can do whatever they want to,” he says, perhaps something he learned from his parents who encouraged him to pursue his passion, then adds, “as long as they do their best.”
Originally published in InDepth on July 8, 2015.