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The Counterfeiters of Maha Bandoola Street

More than anywhere else in Yangon, Maha Bandoola Garden Street is the place to go to see this city's growing mania for all things Western -- and all things electronic. The narrow alley is jammed with more than 60 different shops selling imported televisions, and dozens more are overflowing with the latest Japanese stereos, videodisc players and Sony Walkmans. On an average afternoon, the stores are teeming with customers -- everyone from doubtful-looking old women to intense young monks in crimson robes, jostling each other as they inspect boomboxes to the beat of Hootie and the Blowfish. It's impossible to stroll up the street without six-foot high posters of Jon Bon Jovi leering out at you, and blackboards listing the names of the latest -- or maybe not-so-latest -- American rock bands lean against the doorways of a dozen hole-in-the-wall music shops.

"The Eagles are very big now," says "Freddie," the 26-year-old proprietor of one such shop, called the Heavy Metal Recording Studio. "We sell a lot of The Scorpions, Kenny Rogers, Air Supply." He pauses over a Bonnie Raitt tape. "Not this one, though," he says, a little doubtfully. "Is she famous?"

Freddie -- who sports a silk shirt, long fingernails and just the tiniest hint of eye shadow -- plucks a cassette off the wall and passes it over for inspection. It's the latest Michael Jackson tape -- sort of. The tape is a standard Onkyo cassette with a small replica of the HIStory album cover on the label, stamped with the logo, "Heavy Metal Recording."

"We make them back here," he says casually, leading the way through a narrow corridor into a room at the rear of the shop.

Heavy Metal Recording, it turns out, is a soup-to-nuts operation -- from importing the original music to copying the tapes, printing the labels  and retailing the phoney cassettes in the storefront. The back room is lined, floor to ceiling, with almost three dozen Denon cassette recorders, JVC videodisc players, speakers, Carver spatial enhancement devices and four or five other pieces of high-end stereo equipment. Hundreds of compact discs are piled in stacks, next to boxes of bank tapes and a red plastic crate of videodiscs.

Loading the machines is an older man in headphones, who's getting ready to make 50 copies of a Black Crowes disc. "That's my brother," says Freddie. "He goes to Singapore once a month to buy CDs. People tell us what they want, and we can usually get it for them right away."

With Myanmar teenagers as determined to be hip as teenagers anywhere else, counterfeiting rock 'n roll has become a gold mine for entrepreneurs like Freddie. He sells his Heavy Metal cassettes for roughly $1.50 at the prevailing black market rate.  A few doors away on Maha Bandoola Garden Street you can get the authentic CD for about $17.40, a hefty sum in a country where the average per capita income is only about $300 a year. And while the English-language New Light of Myanmar carries classified ads every day warning about copyright infringements, the government turns a blind eye to the counterfeiters.

But don't count on Myanmar's musicians to lead a drive to change things. Asked to play a sample of home-grown Myanmar rock 'n roll, Freddie clicks on a tape of a singer named Tun Andrabo. "She's Burma's best singer," he says, as the room fills with a familiar tune in an unfamiliar language.

The song is "Have a Heart." By Bonnie Raitt.

Posted on Tuesday, January 24, 2006 at 02:01PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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