Moe Naing is the co-founder of Gitameit, a non-profit community music school. He is actively involved in the community. His aim is to help develop not only musicians but also community leaders.
I was born in Mandalay in 1968, and grew up in Magway and later Yangon. I liked listening to music from a young age. I am the youngest in my family. My father played traditional instruments and sang traditional songs, as did my brothers and sisters.
Once I visited my relatives in the delta and saw my cousin play guitar. It inspired me to play guitar too, but just for fun. After I left school I started to learn piano at the YMCA, and also started to learn jazz guitar.
I had a friend whose English was very impressive. He suggested I read English books. So I borrowed English books from him and read until he didn’t have any more books to lend me.
Another friend suggested I join the British Council library. At that time the annual membership fee was 75 kyats, which was a bit expensive because my pocket money was just 5 kyats a day. So I shared the fees with an English teacher from our street and we shared the books too. We could borrow four books every two weeks, so she read two books and I read the other two.
Once I went to a workshop about graded readers. After that, the British Council started to stock graded readers. I was really fond of these. I felt my knowledge start to broaden. Later, I tried the original novels. I can say the British Council is the place that gave me an education. Now I can communicate with people when I go abroad.
After I left school I started at the university. Following the uprising of 1988, all universities closed for three years. I was one of the affected students. I ended up spending more time playing guitar. In the 1990s I got a job as a keyboard player in a restaurant. I practised during the day and played at night, and stayed for five years.
Then I met someone who changed my life. Kit Young was an American teacher at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She helped me improve my piano and suggested I apply for a scholarship. So I spent a year studying at her university. I used to visit the British Council in Chiang Mai because I missed it in Yangon.
I was aware that studying in Thailand and at the British Council gave me advantages many Myanmar youths didn’t have. So I came back in 2001 with the aim of doing something for them. Two years later Kit Young moved to Yangon and together we founded Gitameit.
Our vision was to provide “education through music”. We wanted to produce not only musicians but potential leaders. So we sing and bring people together. I have also put graded readers in our school so that students can read them.
After a few years we set up a community development department. In the beginning, we taught music at monastic schools, showed films, arranged trips and ran teacher training. We also funded a monastic school called “Sandar Rama” on the outskirts of Yangon. Our members contribute 10,000 kyats per month for the salaries of teachers who are working for that school.
I began to get more international experience and to build collaborations. In 2005, I participated in an International Choral Symposium held in Kyoto, Japan. When I came back, I decided to learn choral singing properly.
In 2007 a choir from Yale University visited and we performed together in Yangon. The following year I took a group to the US to perform in fund-raising concerts for the victims of cyclone Nargis, and in 2012 the British Council sent me to the London Jazz Festival.
In my view, the development of a country is intertwined with that of its music. The musical standard of our neighbouring countries is very high. But we have been left behind. As a country develops, the value of its music, arts and architecture increases.
In fact we have a strong tradition in music and place a high value on Myanmar traditional bands (‘Myanma Sai Wine’). What we need is public appreciation of the value of music, especially acoustic. With the change in government I hope our young people will get more international opportunities and they begin to see the real aesthetic value of music.
My ambitions have changed throughout my life. When I was young I wanted to be a musician. When I became a musician, I wanted to be a community leader because there was so much to be done in our country. I’ve decided that when I’m fifty I will give more of my time to the community. I want to share my musical knowledge with the next generation.
Gitameit has now produced hundreds of musicians and potential leaders and we want to continue to do this. We can’t expect everything will change for the better just because we have democracy. The current generation will have to suffer and work hard so that the next will have a brighter future.