Rolling into paradise

Myanmar native finding home in Lewistown as musician, sushi roller
By: 
CHARLIE DENISON
Reporter
Friday, April 26, 2019

Pyae plays fiddle at his apartment in Lewistown earlier this month. The multi-instrumentalist has quickly become part of the local music scene.

Photo by Charlie Denison

 

 

When Pyae Oo of Myanmar moved to Lewistown, Montana to assist his aunt at Albertsons sushi counter, he had no idea he’d become an integral part of the small town’s music scene.

A fiddler, guitarist, pianist and vocalist, Pyae has made his rounds, performing with Brian and Jeanette Priest, Angela Alaers, J.D. Moore, Terry Ernst, Chris Hildebrant and others. He’s played a Valentine’s Day showcase, a Mardi Gras party and the Fergus High School open mic. During St. Patrick’s Day weekend he wowed audiences at Gally’s Brewing in Harlowton and Central Feed Grilling Co. with traditional Irish fiddling.

Pyae moved to Lewistown in November of 2018. By February he was playing in three different groups.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Before here I lived in Louisville, Kentucky. That’s a big city, but I couldn’t find many people to play with. Here I am busy…very busy.”

A self-taught musician, Pyae started playing fiddle seven years ago, at the age of 18. Soon after he started learning piano, guitar, drums and more. He loves to compose music, record at home and perform in front of an audience. 

Having an opportunity to play regularly with a few different ensembles is remarkable to him.

“I was happy to hear there were other musicians in town,” he said. “As soon as I saw there were musicians playing events in town I wanted to get involved right away, so I reached out to Jeannette. At first, she thought I was a spammer. Then I saw her getting sushi and she put it together. I got together with her and Brian soon after that and have been busy playing ever since.”

When Pyae left Myanmar in July of 2017, he was looking for a better place, but never did he imagine he’d find Lewistown, a little town of 6,000 in the mountains where he can pursue his passion.

“This is my favorite place,” he said. “It’s beautiful, and I can play as much music as I want: jazz, funk, gospel, rock, pop, country, a little bit of everything.”

The sushi business hasn’t been bad, either.

“Sushi is new for me, and it’s difficult, but I like it,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of training.”

According to Albertsons manager Bob Agostinelli, the hard work is paying off.

“The sushi counter continues to do well,” he said. “It’s one of the best in the state.”

This is sometimes hard to believe, Pyae said, as sushi can be a “hard sell.”

“It’s not like other foods,” he said. “For one, it’s hard to maintain. It expires after a day and a half, so if we don’t sell it the day we put it on the shelf, we have to throw it out.”

 

A new home

Pyae said he appreciates the community here, as they’ve been kind and welcoming to him, supporting his music and his sushi. He likes to encourage people to try the sushi counter if they haven’t tried it yet.

“It’s good,” he said. “Come stop by and see me. We can visit, and I can recommend something to your liking.”

 Sushi, however, is not an entrée Pyae anticipated serving, but a job came available through family connections with Advanced Fresh Concepts. 

Surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for natives of Myanmar to find work in the U.S. as sushi-rollers. AFC, Hissho Sushi and other businesses focused on creating sushi counters at national and regional grocery store chains continue to grow and regularly employ individuals from Myanmar, the southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. According to a “New York Times” article from 2017, Hissho Sushi has more than 1,100 sushi counters in 41 states, and about 95 percent of franchisees are from Myanmar.

Pyae admits it’s random, but if rolling sushi gives him a chance to pursue happiness and one day go to music school, so be it. It was a risky leap to leave his homeland, but he has no regrets, as he feels tremendously lucky to have landed in Lewistown.

 “I don’t want to leave,” he said. “I hope to stay here and hope someday my girlfriend can join me. She’s still in Myanmar, and I miss her.”

 

 

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