Yangon’s Insein Road is busy with cars, trucks and pedestrians, but close by in U Tin Yee’s eighth floor flat a different, more melodic sound dominates. Free from the blare of the city, a tune from his violin swirls around the room, a note of calm high above the city’s fray.
Soon to be 70, U Tin Yee looks the part of a virtuoso: slim body, long wiry beard and great big oval spectacles. The violinist, known lovingly as Uncle Gyi or A ba (old uncle) by his friends and students, handles the violin as if it were a part of his body. He plays Beethoven with his eyes shut tight.
U Tin Yee studied violin at the State School of Music and Dance from the age of 14. He was born in Danubyu, Ayeyarwady Division, which is known as a hero’s town. U Tin Yee doesn’t lack courage. His first act of defiance, in the midst of World War II, was reminiscent of the deceased general Mahar Bandoola, who died at Danubyu in 1825 while bravely trying to drive away English invaders during the first Anglo-Burmese War. With his town occupied by the Japanese, little U Tin Yee beat a young soldier’s shaven head with a corncob as he was having his watch repaired at U Tin Yee’s father’s shop.
He was only four years old then and his parents were so concerned about a possible reprisal that they abandoned Danubyu, moving to Yangon secretly.
“Leaving our hometown was a bitter experience for our family. When we moved to Yangon we had many troubles; my dad did not have a job and I had to walk around the city selling boiled corn,” he says.But it was this move that opened up the possibility for him to become the well-known violinist he is today.
“I at-tended the music school when I was 14 and had the opp-ortunity to play violin, which I had been interested in throughout childhood. At school at that time I had to learn traditional music as the main subject and inter-national music as an additional subject. Studying violin at school was the happiest time for me. I tried so hard,” he says.
His hard work paid off and in his second year of study he won the first prize in a countrywide violin comp-etition.
“It was in 1958-59. As a prize I was given a radio worth about K700, which was very expensive at the time. I was so happy on the way back home, holding the radio, but unfortunately it slipped from my hands because I was too small and the radio was too big and heavy. I was really upset and cried a lot on the road,” he reminisces, with a shy smile.
“Luckily for me though there were journalists and photographers watching and they wrote about how I cried after dropping the radio. I immediately drew a lot of attention to myself and after that the BBS (Burma Broadcasting Service) would record my playing and broadcast it on the radio.”
At school he received a broad education, studying traditional Myanmar as well as foreign music.
“When I got older, I had opportunities to perform at international concerts. I met with professional violinists there and learnt from them as much as I could,” he says.
This education inspired U Tin Yee to create his own music, in addition to playing the works of great composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. He has worked with singers like Zaw Win Htut, Htoo Ein Thin, Htoo L Linn, and Y-Wine.
But it was 20 years ago that U Tin Yee really shot to fame, following the release of his first album Myanmar’s Newest Tunes for Violin. The album caused a stir because it featured classic Myanmar songs set to violin with a Western style orchestra.
“The young people liked my album but I was denounced by many professional musicians. They accused me of trying to destroy Myanmar traditional music,” he says.
“Later, I found out that a copy of my album was kept at Boston University in America. I asked them why they kept it and at first they didn’t answer me. But after asking many times they said that although the violin playing on my album was not very good, or even the recording, it was the first album that was of acceptable quality for an international audience,” he adds.
U Tin Yee released his second album, Ta Yaw Thamar Tee de‘ Shwe Oshi (The Golden Dram played by violinist] in 1995. The album featured popular country folk songs.
“This time, an American musician called Rick Heizman came to Myanmar and recorded my album. It was released in America,” U Tin Yee says, looking satisfied. He sang the songs on the album himself.U Tin Yee has also played at many international festivals.
“Among my performances, the International Rondalla Festival held in the Philippines has been my most satisfying show. It was attended by many professional musicians from all over the world… and more than 100,000 people came to the festival,” he says.
“At that event, famous violinists from all over the world were invited to play a two or three bar solo. For the other players, if we were confident enough, we could stand up and play after the professional players had finished their solo perfor-mances. But our tunes had to be in harmony with the earlier ones.
“I stood up and played all out. I only played Myanmar traditional music and got a huge applause from the fans, unlike anything I had ever had in my life before. And then — I will never forget — the president of the Philippine’s, Arroyo hugged and congratulated me after my performance,” he adds.
Nowadays, U Tin Yee continues to entertain at events but is focusing on his violin course so that he can share his knowledge, and experience, with the new generation of Myanmar musicians.