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Myanmar's Tiger Girls roar at the status quo


Myanmar's Tiger Girls with their manager Nicole May, center, in their rehearsal studio in Yangon.

By NBC News contributor

YANGON, Myanmar – Five young women skimpily clad in colorful outfits – a school-girl skirt, a tight spaghetti strap dress, tank tops and short shorts – move their bodies to coordinated dance steps as they sing upbeat pop tunes to a rapturous crowd at an outdoor concert.

When one girl raises her arms above her head, sings out her lines and slowly swirls her hips, young men break into shouts and cheers. Two men climb to the top of a tree and rock and swayed themselves to the beats and rhythms of the music.

It’s a concert scene that wouldn’t be out of place in New York, London or Bangkok. But this is Myanmar, formerly Burma, a country ruled for decades by one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Meet the “Tiger Girls,” the trailblazing all-female band, who are shattering old rules set by Myanmar’s hardline generals.

Girl band breaks boundaries
Formed early last year, the Tiger Girls have already been likened to the Spice Girls, the British girl group phenomenon in the ’90s.

Each band member has her own character and style. “Chilli Tiger,” who comes from Chin state in the west of the country, represents the mystique and wilderness of a lush jungle. “Tricky” is a hip-hop tiger who raps in Burmese and English. The youngest, “Baby Tiger,” often dons a schoolgirl uniform. And while “Missy Tiger” is all glamour and elegance, “Electro Tiger” says her character, in a nutshell, is “Crazy! Just like me!”

Their studio is in a very basic apartment in the country’s capital, Yangon, where they rehearse regularly with their mentor, Nicole May, an artist and dancer from Australia.

May originally came to the country to teach singing and dancing at a Yangon orphanage, but she was approached by a record company owner, a Myanmar businessman, to help recruit and form the band. 

“After sitting for a day watching 100 girls audition, most of what I saw from the girls on stage was timid,” May said. “It was so refreshing to see these five girls and their bubbling confidence to get up on stage.”

But the Tiger Girls’ debut performance at an outdoor music festival last year was met with silence from stunned audience.

“Everyone was shocked and kept staring at us. They didn’t quite know what these girls were doing on the stage,” Baby Tiger said with a laugh.

Singing under iron fist of military rule
An all-singing, all-dancing girl band, not to mention the spectacle of their risqué costumes and make up, is relatively new to audiences here. For a long time Myanmar’s music has been dominated by love ballads or “copy tracks,” a reference to international pop hits rendered in Burmese.

But an increasing number of young musicians have begun to flourish in pop, hip hop and punk.

The Tiger Girls are among them – their almost instant first hit was an original song with a catchy chorus line: “I see you / Baby you see me / I’m gonna dance, gonna dance cuz I’m free.”

The success of pop musicians like the Tiger Girls, who are now recording their second album, and the increasingly uninhibited music scene could be a sign of a relaxation by the military junta, which has ruled with an iron fist since 1962.

Access to the Internet, in spite of the government blockage, connects people in this isolated country to the outside world. An inflow of foreign art forms and entertainment inspires artists and musicians to push the limits of what is acceptable.

But everything is still subject to scrutiny. A vast network of military intelligence, secret police and informers are the junta’s apparatus to spy on their people. Music, often perceived by the generals as an outlet for dissent, must be approved by the censors before they can be recorded or performed. Anything subversive or critical of the government, even vaguely, is banned.

The board of censors can be unpredictable and inconsistent. One musician was instructed to replace the word “shout” in one of his songs with “happy.” Hip-hop star Thxa Soe saw nine out of 12 songs in his most recent album banned. His song titled “Hey, We Have No Money” was passed but another, “Water, Electricity, Please Come Back,” an outright criticism of the country’s frequent power outage, was axed.

‘You’ve gotta be cool to break the rules’
The Tiger Girls’ songs are not be overtly political, but the existence of the band and their small acts of challenge to the limited freedoms of expression and the social conventions are enough of a statement.

They shatter the image of demure, submissive woman with the confidence they bring on and off stage. Asked if they consider their outfits too racy and they will tell you they are not – just too attractive.

One of their popular songs, “Little Sisters,” may sound somewhat trite and cute – “Sweet little sisters you’ve gotta be cool / You’ve gotta be cool to break the rules” – but they said it’s an empowering message for female audience. 

“[We] Burmese women can do everything we want. We want to make sure that everyone has that feeling and that confidence inside,” said Baby Tiger.

These five young women, one a college student and the others recent graduates with degrees in graphic design, math and science, reflect a news determination and optimism among the younger generation here.

“We are doing what we want to do and we’ll keep on doing it our way,” Baby Tiger said. “Everyone can do that, too. Everything is possible if they try hard.”

Due to restrictions on journalists in Myanmar, msnbc.com is not identifying the author of this post.