When KOSO returned to his hometown of Yangon in Myanmar last February, the city looked very different from what he expected. Two years had passed since the military coup that deposed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi and replaced her with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, plunging the Myanmar capital into waves of protests and repression, worsening an economic recession spearheaded by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the London-based guitarist found that Yangon had embraced a sense of normalcy again amid a few power outages here and there, he wasn’t expecting an exciting nightlife, instead bracing for a quiet time back in his homeland.
“Before the coup [and the pandemic], the nightlife scene in Yangon was almost entirely dominated by mainstream Electronic Dance Music (EDM),” KOSO recalled. “There was only one nightclub dedicated to techno music, [called Level 2]. Beyond that, were the occasional festivals sponsored by foreign alcohol companies, such as Heineken; that was pretty much all the electronic music Yangon had to offer.”
However, once the pandemic and military coup struck the country, foreigners and expats exited the country en masse, leaving a significant void in Yangon’s already narrow electronic music scene. As health restrictions eased, and the brutality of the military takeover turned into the mundanity of life under the junta, many local artists saw an opportunity to reclaim the underground scene, much to KOSO’s surprise.Departing from big international headliners and the bottle service culture that characterized Yangon’s nightlife pre-pandemic, this growing community is now exposing a new generation of ravers to harder, more experimental sounds, and the intrinsically revolutionary political history that comes with techno music.Inspired by the momentum, KOSO decided he wanted to contribute to the movement. Inspired by the underground techno scene of London where he studied and picked up his moniker, the young man repurposed the third floor of the bar-restaurant owned by his family, turning it into a venue for underground music. Thus Red Room was born.
After just five months, the venue has grown to become one of the most popular in Yangon’s burgeoning underground scene, which grew from the KTV culture that emerged at the height of lockdowns in the capital, when patrons would wait out curfew hours by renting large karaoke rooms. “There’s a real sense of community that formed at that time around nightlife and existing outside curfew [and lockdown],” KOSO told VICE, citing this as a shared characteristic with Red Room.
The venue quickly expanded to host techno parties, building on the founder’s dream to provide a meeting ground for local techno acts and former Level 2 regulars, and becoming home to two recurring parties: Underworld for harder, industrial beats, and Cosmic Bodies for trance music. While KOSO runs Red Room entirely by himself, he also opened the door to resident DJs, a step toward consolidating the underground community he envisions.Martin, known in the scene as UNKNW, became Red Room’s main resident act after sending KOSO the debut track he had produced. Hailing from a public relations background, the young man quit his corporate job after two years to dedicate his time to music production. “After the coup, EDM in Myanmar shifted backwards,” he said, as a result of the sudden departure of foreign patrons. Even when those big nightclubs reopened, UNKNW sought to escape what he described as the “corruption of the mainstream nightlife scene” as a result of patrons’ harsh drug use in the open.
“I started researching independent parties that still emphasized the music and the spirit of rave, and encountered Red Room via their Instagram feature,” he added. Around the same time, UNKNW was producing his first hard techno track, a genre that he said remains largely unexplored in the Myanmar music scene, which he ended up releasing on a Berlin label.
UNKNW contrasts the “lack of ideology played by DJs at EDM clubs” in Myanmar with the kind of techno music that characterizes Red Room: “Techno is revolutionary at its core, it has very clear socio-political roots and a history driven by oppressed societies,” a background he compared with the mundanity of life under the military over the past two years.According to him, ravers’ newfound appreciation for harder music should be situated in this context, citing a pressing desire for escapism: “[Yangon] youths are facing an economic repression and a political crisis, and techno provides a unique opportunity for escapism made possible by the community formed around the genre.”This sense of community is strengthened by the growing diversity within Yangon’s underground movement, something that further distinguishes this scene from mainstream clubs. Lalit, a frequent Red Room collaborator, is one of the city’s few openly queer acts exploring the realms of transgender and non-binary identities, which remain largely untapped in Yangon’s nightlife and artistic scene. “Most of the local queer community caters to gay men. There’s only one gay club in Yangon, but it’s more for drag shows rather than the showcasing of music as a form of art,” they explained.
The New York-raised artist, who used to frequently visit relatives in Myanmar before relocating to the capital over a year ago, noticed a strong contrast in the country’s queer community before and after Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, took over, saying there used to be a bigger queer community active in Yangon, “but the coup set everything back in terms of social structures, infrastructure, and overall quality of living.” They also pointed to a “backward culture when it comes to gender expression” that makes challenging gender norms in Myanmar difficult, even in Yangon, which is one of the more progressive cities in the country.Upon settling in Yangon, Lalit saw the rising underground movement as an opportunity to challenge patriarchal norms through community building and music production. Echoing UNKNW’s words, Lalit believes much of the scene’s current traction can be owed to an urge to escape daily life: “People here need outlets, more ways to make meaningful connections with each other. There’s a lot of pent-up rage in locals and harder music can provide an outlet for difficult emotions.” They also pointed to the unique struggle and success of sustaining this scene in light of restricted tourism, which makes it nearly impossible to attract foreigners. “It's easier to cater to wealthier people from overseas, but this scene is blossoming without any Western influence,” they said. “This is a unique aspect of the scene in Yangon that makes it more authentic and appealing, not just a carbon copy of scenes in other cities,” particularly at a time when other underground scenes in Southeast Asia are benefiting from tourism to grow interconnected.
Nonetheless, the departure of foreigners allowed many local artists and collectives to reconnect with Yangon’s party scene and help the crowds develop a taste for the various genres of electronic music. This opportunity is what inspired the creation of Groove Culture, Myanmar’s leading music collective dedicated to house and techno music. Formed by five friends who met at Level 2 parties in pre-coup Yangon, the collective aims to expose crowds to house music and cultivate appreciation for the genre.Sarvu, one of the collective’s founding members, spoke to VICE on how the coup was a catalyst for the emergence of Groove Culture: “There used to be a small EDM scene, but it was heavily saturated by foreigners. Locals didn’t necessarily care about the music, they mostly followed the big parties and festivals.” He situated Groove Culture’s mission in this context, citing a desire to educate local crowds on how to appreciate the diversity of electronic music.While the local scene remains small, Sarvu emphasized that it’s driven by a sense of community and mutual support, and describes KOSO’s project as a much-needed venue for collectives seeking a proper music community for their parties. “Finding venues has been a considerable challenge because the [12 to 4 a.m.] curfew makes it hard to host during that prime time frame,” he said. The curfew and other restrictions prevent underground acts from using open-space venues that used to host large-scale foreign-sponsored EDM festivals. KTV bars and nightclubs, such as Red Room, therefore become the next best available option.
Attendees are then faced with accessibility issues, with most raves charging around 20,900 kyat ($10) for entry, which is a significant cost to many considering Myanmar’s minimum wage of 4,800 kyat ($2.67).
In spite of these challenges, Sarvu remains hopeful that, as the collective grows, they’ll be able to host bigger events, catering to a crowd that’s slowly starting to appreciate more underground sounds, particularly house music: “We’ve attracted a more diverse crowd than in our Level 2 days, with more young professionals attending your events, not just students anymore.” He shared plans to soon host an underground rave festival, a project he hopes can cement the community that’s building around Groove Culture and the other collectives in Yangon’s underworld.While the new normal in Yangon has undeniably taken a toll on the local population, particularly the city’s youths, the sounds that resonate within the walls of Red Room provide a glimpse into how a community can form in the face of adversity and contribute to building safer, more inclusive spaces, one beat at a time.