Chatting With a Legendary Song Writer: Interview With Salai Thuah Aung
May 29, 2005- Coming from a very musical family, Salai Thuah Awng’s passion and love for music is no surprise. He hailed from Lumbang village, Falam Township, Chin State. With his beloved wife, Mai Sui Hniang, he is currently residing in Maryland, U.SA. Unlike other famous copied song writers in Burma, Salai Thuah Awng is a truly original artist. A legendary composer and lyricist, who catches the ears of his fans with his own style of music, Salai Thuah Aung says “If I were to be remembered in history, I want to be remembered simply as a song writer who wrote his own music.” It is so visible from his words how he is unhappy with the notion of music and song copying. We congratulate him on receiving Salai Sun Ceu music award recently.
Chinland Guardian: :Thank you so much for giving us your time. I am sure that Chinland Guardian readers would love to know more about you as you are one of the most gifted composer/singer among the Chins. Can you tell us more about yourself?
Salai Thuah Awng: : First of all, thank you for contacting me. It’s my pleasure to be interviewed. Thank you for your complements, and I appreciate your recognition. I’m a music composer who happen to work in a computer field to put food on the table. I was born in Lumbang in nineteen fifty eight.
Chinland Guardian: : To recall your experiences, are you very passionate about music? What motivate you to write songs?
Salai Thuah Awng: I guess you can say that I was very passionate about music. What would my life be without music! Music was the window from which I explored the outside world. My late father (Saya Kulhci) was in his own way a passionate musician. He was fond of Chin traditional music. He taught us — the best he knew how — how to play many Chin musical instrument. If my memory serves me correctly, he composed a few songs too. He sang to us all the time. He made up different words when he sang hymns. I believe that some how inspired me to write lyrics. Some of my brothers also compose songs. So, I guess it comes in the gene as far as the motivation to write songs is concerned.
One other factor is that when I was very little, we used to have a choir practice at our house. I did not participate because of my age but I was around. As you know in those days, people used tonic solfa to learn a new song. As time went by, do re mi fa sipped into my system. I learned how to sing in do re mi fa without putting any effort, and before long I found myself making my own beautiful tunes.
Chinland Guardian: : Indeed, we can say that you came from a very musical family. When did you start writing songs in Burmese? What was your first song that won you recognition of song writing credit and stardom nationally?
Salai Thuah Awng: : Actually, I wrote my first complete song in Burmese. I don’t know exactly when but I would like to think that I was about 10 years old or may be younger when I wrote that. I still remember vividly about recording my very first song with my brothers using my father’s tape recorder. My brothers recorded theirs too. It’s a shame we no longer have a copy of that tape. I’ve been writing music ever since. It’s funny to find out that later on some radio stations were playing some of the music I wrote in English. No, actually those were not my songs but they sounded quite similar to what I wrote a few years earlier. It may be a coincident but it’s a pleasant experience in life nonetheless.
I believe the song “Myaing nan san pan ta pwiynt” was destined to be the star from the very beginning, may be because of its seemingly big word contents. Truth is, I was utilizing what I learned from my 10th grade high school reading book. J It doesn’t hurt to use knowledge gained at schools, you know.
Chinland Guardian: : Wow! It’s amazing and I am proud of you to come to know that you started writing song at your age of 10. Anyway, how long did you wait before your songs got released or made its debut?
Salai Thuah Awng: : It’s difficult to say. Most of the songs were freshly composed before heading to the recording studio. Some of them were a few months old. Some times we had to compose while we’re in the middle of recording sessions. Some of the songs didn’t make it because I would have written better sounding ones.
Chinland Guardian: : How many songs did you compose or write already? How many songs did you compose or write already? Out of all your hits, which one is your favorite and why so?
Salai Thuah Awng: : As far as tunes, it may be closer to a hundred. But as far as integrating them with lyrics to make a complete song, well, may be in the fifties. But, it’s sad to say that if you don’t record your songs you tend to forget them over time. I have forgotten many of my great songs because I didn’t write them down or altogether lost the paper I wrote them on, or got simply lazy to put the tune on the lyrics sheet.
It’s really hard to say what my favourite ones is. I have several. In fact, when I wrote them, I fell in love with them all. It’s weird but true. When you really are working intensely on a brand new song, you tend to forget the world around you and get involved romantically with that song. It’s hard to explain.
Chinland Guardian: : Thanks for explaining it. From your _expression, it is understandable what your feeling would have been. Coming back to our conversation, was there any point in time when you ever thougth about making songwritings as your career?
Salai Thuah Awng: : Absolutely. I’ve been thinking about it every day of my life. Music style is evolvin’ and time is a changin’, yet my dream of becomin’ a successful song writer in my life time stays with me.
Chinland Guardian: : Given the fact that your songs were very popular in Burma, how comfortable are you with writing songs in Burmese which is not your mother tongue? It’s not to say that you don’t write songs in Chin.
Salai Thuah Awng: : Thanks for the compliment. As previously stated, the first song I wrote was in Burmese. I was very comfortable with the language. My siblings and I read a lot of Burmese magazines and novels. I may not be able to speak as the Burman do, but the language was a part of my system. So, writing songs in Burmese came naturally. I must admit that I should have composed songs in my mother tongue. But if I had followed that path my audience would have been a lot smaller to none existence. My music (tunes) were foreign to many people at the time, you know.
Chinland Guardian: : Absolutely, what you just said is very true and your focus is a valid one. What’s your favourite type of music and your favourite musician or performer among the Chin and Burma as a whole?
Salai Thuah Awng: : I have a wide range of musical taste. I like pop, Jazz, rock, classical music, orchestral music, you name it. Burmese radio music, even Burmese traditional classical music too. I like Chin traditional music. I can play many of our Chin traditional music instrument. I can appreciate them. However, I use to hate our chin songs that are written in country beat. I guess it’s more like I got fed up with ’em. I was out to change them.
Salai Sun Ceu is the greatest Chin musician I know. I’m not saying that there aren’t others great musicians because there were/are many, but he’s my contemporary and I like his versatility and style. By the way, it’s an honor to receive Salai Sun Ceu Music award recently.
Sai Kham Laik is a great music composer. I truly admire him. But I’d like to point out that we do have a better music composer (lyricist) among us. His name is John Tin Zam. Some called him Chin Kham laik, but it’s only because Sai Kham Laik came out a bit earlier than him. John and I co-wrote many of our songs. I can’t think of any other role models from Burma at the moment that stand out as my favorites.
You didn’t ask me but my favorite music group of all (in the world) was “The Carpenters”. They were my mentors. They inspired my imagination. They greatly influenced my music writing style. Their music arrangement, to me, was second to none. I may have written DEEP PURPLE (hard rock) type of music on impulse but people close to me know that The Carpenters was in the back of my mind whenever I wrote music in the olden days.
Chinland Guardian: : Congratulation for winning Salai Sun Ceu’s music award.
Yes, though it has been quite long since you had written songs, some of your songs still make their way up to modern Burmese music. Does it mean that you had foreseen the type of the songs for the future generation when you wrote them?
Salai Thuah Awng: : No, I didn’t really have a prophetic ability to foresee the future of modern Burmese music. Looking back from hindsight, I must have taken the right path by intensely pursuing contemporary western music while most people in the country were content with “copied music.”
Chinland Guardian: : After one of your greatest songs “Myaing nan san pan ta pwiynt’, I think “A Chit Phaw Kawng,” might be one of your catchiest songs as well. When you wrote this song, what was your feeling like or what inspired the song?
Salai Thuah Awng: : I didn’t know that song was one of the catchiest songs. I like it too. John Tin Zam also has a hand on some parts of that song. Also the title was given by him, as far as I can recall. What was my feeling? Well, shouldn’t that remain private? J
Chinland Guardian: : Were you part of any music band or which band or music group did you perform with? Can you tell us more on this?
Salai Thuah Awng: : I really wish I had a quote regular music band unquote back then. But we could not afford that luxury in those days. All we had was a group centered mainly around one guy: Saw Bwemu, known later on as Burma’s legendary musician. When we hooked up with him, he was not yet that good, you know, but he was the only one who could relate to my type of music. Oh, and I was a member of a small group called “The Breeze”. With that group we primarily made recordings for Karen Christian community. I was the lead guitarist. Unfortunately most of these musicians have died.
Chinland Guardian: : As a matter of fact, your songs are popular among the university students and youngsters. Your fans – especially 88 students even talked very much about how they loved your songs and how often they used to sing in the University campuses during their university life in Rangoon. In your opinion, what do you think have made your songs so popular, hit, and successful nationally?
Salai Thuah Awng: : I often heard about my music being talked about in some circles later on. It sure makes me feel good. I would’ve loved to hear or read with my own eyes many of the articles and interviews written about me and my music, but I have never seen one.
What made my songs hit? Well, it may have to do with the fact that people fed up of being bombarded with “copied music” after “copied music” started to appreciate original art work. I was adamant about the inclusion of only original music in every one of our albums. If I were to be remembered in history, I want to be remembered simply as a song writer who wrote his own music.
Chinland Guardian: : Unlike the past, it seems that you are no longer writing a song. Should your fans be concerned that you’ll leave your talent behind or you’ll stop composing new songs?
Salai Thuah Awng: : Contrary to “what it seems”, I still do make music. And more beautiful than before. It’s just that I don’t record them. It’s just not practical to make albums when you’re so far away from your potential/targeted audience. I have not left my talent behind. I’m very much involved with music these days in many different ways and am still looking for ways to show case the best of my music to the world in due time. But perhaps it’s a bit too early to open that chapter of my life because I’m still at the stage of putting the pieces together. But truth is, my fans (if there’re any left) should be hearing about me in the future, Lord’s willing. Perhaps I might gain a few new fan or two, who knows J I’ve also been recording a number of people in my personal studio these days. But I understand that time is not on my side. By the way, I recorded one song recently in GBC album (Gospel Baptist Church).
Chinland Guardian: : Whenever you write a song, do you have a target audience or you just generally write?
Salai Thuah Awng: : Writing music is in a way like having a baby. You cannot tell, when it comes out, this one is going to be grandma’s favorite or granddad’s favorite, etc. You just have to write and write them in “due time.” Besides, I didn’t really think about my target audience because I didn’t have any back then 🙂
Chinland Guardian: : As you noticed, almost all of the albums from Burma at present are copy music adapted or borrowed from the Western songs or from somewhere else. It seems that they didn’t even spare Chinese and Indian music in copying. What is your comment or opinion on music copying?
Salai Thuah Awng: : As you might have noticed by now, I have strong opinions about copied music. I think it’s a bad behavior for musicians to take an easy route. Potential music writers should avoid copying music at all cost. Because it’s going take a toll on their talent. I heard that there’s some restrictions these days on copied songs due to globalization. That’s a very good news, in my opinion.
Chinland Guardian: : Just to know your plan in future here, do you have plans to write more songs? Or, in future, do you have any particular thing you would like to do with regards to Music or songwriting?
Salai Thuah Awng: : People don’t know it but I never really cease writing songs in my life. It’s just that I have not recorded them for public consumption. I’m waiting for some music buddies I can work with to show up at my door. I really miss my buddies from the old days. It’s really difficult to do music business when you’re by yourself. Nobody knows or appreciate my do re mi fa!
Nor am I that far away from contemporary music scene either. I play music at area churches literally every weekend since the late 90s. I make a few bucks, and very proud of it. I play with many great Christian musicians in those churches, including 17 piece-orchestra, in some occasions. I don’t read staff notes very well but my tonic solfa knowledge has served me well. It comes in handy every time.
Chinland Guardian: : It’s a very good news for all of us to learn that you continue writing songs and also look forward to having your like-minded musicians to work with down the road. I am sure you will make it through. Is there any thing you would like to share with our audience?
Salai Thuah Awng: : I’m amazed that people are still contacting us (John and me) to use our songs a quarter of century later. They must have really loved the music. Monetary reward is appreciated but it’s temporary. Being remembered and recognized is something you can’t help but cherish. That fruit of labor tastes really sweet.
Chinland Guardian: : To ask you a general question, what do you remember most about your life in Chinland?
Salai Thuah Awng: : We used to have a farm called thaisuang. The road leading to the farm was quite narrow — about two feet wide– and it cut through treacherous rocky cliff on several fronts, so the trip to the farm was a bit scary. If you looked down the side of the road, it would give an airy feeling like being on the airplane. That’s more excitement than what Six-Flags or King Dominion combined could bring. It took about one hour to get to the farm. The fun part was that on that road, my siblings and I were able to stroll along, enjoying our favorite reading materials -mostly novels about one inch thick, without hardly ever looking at the road. Some times I even ventured walking backward just to see how far I could go without falling off the cliff. That was a pleasant memory I still cherish. The road leading to the farm may have been long gone but I still have it fresh in mind eyes, waiting calmly for me to take another walk. The scenery surrounding our village is permanently impressed in the back of my memory. Things must have changed a lot since I left but I still have all the structures, the people, the environment, the sounds, the smells, everything is vividly recorded in my mind. Can’t get rid of them.
Chinland Guardian: : Thanks so much once again for your invaluable time, and I sincerely appreciate your insightful, educational and informative sharings. As much as we enjoy talking to you, I am sure, the audiences will love your sharings and enjoy reading it. We wish you the best of luck with your future musical projects that you are working on.
Salai Thuah Awng: : Oh, what a memory! You sure know how to bring back lots of memories of the past. Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure talking to you. God bless.
(An in-depth interview with Salai Thuah Awng, who is a talented as well as gifted musical artist in Burma, was conducted by Salai Za Ceu Lian, an assitant editor of Chinland Guardian)