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Books + CDs

The traditional music of "Myanmar"
written by Ingo Stoevesandt

The following article would like to show, that the musical traditions of this country...
(which is actually called "Myanmar", a term from the 6th century and a western spelling of the term "Bama",
"Burma" is the French spelling and "Birma" the english version -
I am using this term in brackets and refer
 to this country as "Burma" further on, because it seems to reflect the most common international usage of
a name for this region)

...represent another important  link back into the deep history of Southeast Asia:

In the same century when the first predecessors of Angkor started the Khmer empire the great city of Pagan manifested in 849.
Even sooner, in the year 802, thirtyfive Pyu and Mon musicians were sent to the Chinese kings court where they were welcomed and raised a lot of attention with their music and dance professions.
Also, the most famous of Burmese instruments, the “Burmese Harp” is sometimes compared to Mesopotamian instruments and believed to be imported via old trade routes between India and China.
If we keep in mind that ethnicities like the
Karen do produce bronze drums like of the DongSon culture until today, we become aware that  in this country we really face another link back into the deep history of Southeast Asia.

Of course this article cannot provide a catalogue of all musical traditions, especially the rich diversity of
ethnic groups in Burma has to be neglected as further research has to be done in the future. This article is divided into subchapters as follows:

Page 3:    A historical overview
Page 4:    The ensemble + chamber music
Page 5:    The vocal music
Page 6:    The musical theory: scales and modes
Page 7:    Theatre and dance traditions
Page 8:    Tendencies

Besides this traditions, modern Burmese music knows a huge market for popular music, mainly influenced by Thai and Indian pop music but sung in Burmese language. Sometimes, famous Western pop artists (like Madonna) get re-interpreted by Burmese vocalists and dancers.
In festive occasions, all modern acts get supported by at least four big walls of loudspeakers, turning up the sound as loud as possible, and somehow most Burmese audiences are more than used to a very distorted sound...

For pictures, descriptions and videos of the musical instruments and ensembles described in the article above please visit the 
instruments section.

A historical overview
The only evidence of the musical treasures of the Pyu people living in southern Burma and the Mon people in upper Burma we know today are the already mentioned troopes of performers visiting the Chinese court in 802. We also know that, after defeating both groups, the first Burmese empire in the famous Pagan city was not only partly taking over the musical traditions of these two groups, which were slightly influenced by Indian and Indoesian traditions. In the "Shwesandaw" pagods inscription from 1093, the Mon term "pantara" is used for all singers and dancers.  None of the ionstruments
of this periods survived, only the crocodile shaped zither of the Mon people and the famous "Saung gauk" harp are still in use. After an intermissional reign of the Mongolians, the Burmese recaptured power in 1567 and established in 1752 the main city Pegu, in which many Thai (slaves) and Indian influencies are presented, not only by using the term "thabin" for musicians, puppet performers and dancers.  Thai influencies increased after the Burmese sacked the ancient capital city Ayythaya in 1767. In this time, even the "thabin wu" (minister of music) was a Thai musician.

The Pegu court sent out scientists in 1785 to Cambodia and Java to study the local traditions. In 1787, the xylophones and harps, which formerly also took part in folk ensembles, strictly were bound to the chamber and court music. In 1857, when Mandalay became the capital city, Thai influencies were reconfirmed by several plays that became popular.

In 1885, the British occupation of  Mandalay opened the court music to the public because most of the artists urgently needed new occasions to play and earn their money for living. The most important impact was shown on the theatre traditions, where Western ideas of performance were mixed up with local habbits. In 1890, the first instrumental music without any dancing or singing ("balat saing") appeared, and in 1895 traditional instruments like the crocodile zither and the arched harp disappeared in the use of bigger orchestras.

Up to this point, dancing, singing, acting and performing are strictly bound to each other and cannot be seperated. Each instrumentalist starts learning his instrument by learning how to sing properly first, and every dancer or performer is always expected to sing or perform an instrument as well. A student learns the first 13 "kyo" songs by imitating his teacher, who plays them in three levels of difficulty and without any rhythm. Before the notation of the "Mahagita" ("book of songs"), no musical notation was written down, only the text of a song.
Regarding to these learning methods, vocal traditions stay in the centre of Burmese music until today, and mostly all of the traditional pieces were transferred orally by imitation.

The ensemble music
The difference between ensemble or folk music and the chamber music is presented in the level provided by the instruments used within - thus one could say that the ensemble music is the "loud" music, referring to its instruments, like the drum circle, the gong circle, the oboe and several drums. The music is based on rhythmical aspects more than melodical ones and follows aspects of the Thai classical music.

The most common ensemble is the "hsain waing" ensemble ("hang with chords in circle"), consisting of 6 to 10 players, with a drum and a gong cirlce plus a main drum in front and the oboe and the cymbals and clappers in the back of the ensemble. The oboe leads the melody with many ornamentations, while the clappers and cymbals mark the rhythmical metre. The drum circle is the main instrument, the player of this instrument is also the troop leader. All melodies performed are heterophone.  Nowadays, most ensembles get mixed up with western instruments, only the "nat pwe" (trance dance with a medium who always is a transsexual performer) is performed strictly on traditional instruments.

Other ensembles focus on the usage of different drums, where the name of the main drum also gives the name for the ensemble, for example the "Ozi", "Doupa" and "Bounci" ensembles (beaten by hand) or the "Byo" and "Sito" ensembles (beaten with sticks). In 1870, 34 drummers were placed in the court hall for the kings appearance and leaving, and during travels he was followed by an ensemble of 5 drummers.
During festive performances, "Se gyi" drum dancers mixed with the audience.

Unfortunately, some ceremonial ensembles suffered from lower respect, like the funeral ensembles who were understood as "unclean".
All ensemble music is bound to theatre or dance performance, and during the rare instrumental "bala hsain" performances, the player needs high virtuosity and entertainers make jokes in order to keep the audience interested in the music. 

The chamber music
The chamber music seperates from the ensemble music by the instruments used within. Most of these musical instruments are performed by women today,  though this is no rule but might be refered to the famous "ah nyeint" women of the court, which remind us of the Japanese Geisha and other female courtship traditions.

All chamber music is performed in a duet of a harp/xylophone player and a vocalist who controls the tempo of the music with cymbals and bamboo clappers. The "modal" structure of the chamber music was a big influence for the ensemble music, like we will see in the following chapters.  For pictures of the xylophone, harp and other instruments please visit my 
instruments section.

The vocal music
The Burmese language is in the center of the music, the text and poetry forms the melodical appearance of all phrases. This is why each instrumentalist has to be a well educated singer before he can start learning his instrument. The classical repertoire "thak cin" ("great songs") knows several categories, like the royal court songs "cou" and "bwe", songs from the Ayyuthaya period or of the Mon people.  

The language gives form to the music: Rhymes form meters, syllables duration is strictly bound to normal speech, indicated by the lowest notes resounding longer than higher notes.  Starting from the 16th century, more freedom and variations were provided, but the core
melodies only get varied by the melisma.

Basic idea of the music is a kind of "inner melody" like it can be found in the Indonesian Gamelan music. This melody is always that much improvised and ornamented, that the true "inner" melody will never be heard by the audience, but functions as a musical core melody for all players taking part. Or in other words: Nobody plays it, but everyone knows it. Today, most singers are prefered to sing in tenor (male) or deep alto (female) voice. Solo singing has become rare, most of the singing is accompanied by a "sito" drum or (more common) by a "hsaing" ensemble.

The very widespread Burmese pop music is basically influenced by Thai and Indian Pop music, there are no links or only rare melodical influencies from the traditional vocal music.

The importance of the language for the music is displayed in the fact that each student learns the meaning of the basic pitches "tya", "tei" and "tyo" (basic, 7 and 5) and their melodical patterns in the first of the "kyo" songs mentioned above. Unfortunately, most of the modern singers do not know the difference between a diatonic scale and an old Burmese scale anymore.  Also, most of the old language used in the singing traditions is not understood by the Burmese audience at all.  The reason for this lies in the "Westernization" of the quite like equidostant scale usede in the traditional Burmese music, which we will see in the following chapter.

The musical theory: scales and modes
Long discussions and false comparisons have mislead scientists to believe that the traditional scale in Burma is equidistant like the one in Thailand. If we keep a close look on the oboe "H'ne" among the 
instruments, we will see that this scale is not perfectly equidistant.

If we look at the scale above, the names of the tones already indicate their heritage from the playing of the oboe: "Hna pau" means "two fingers", "thou pau" means "three fingers" and so on. This scale is fixed for every kind of chamber music, while it is used in the ensemble music only if the instruments used within are tuned this way.  

The scale is reading to western eyes like a diatonic scale put backwards, following the descending tendencies of Burmese music.
Not indicated are the microtonal differencies in the pitches of the fourth and seventh note, which almost disappeared today, leaving back a western diatonic scale. The "old" scale is still discovered by the great tolerance and acceptance of pitch discrepancies or mistuned instruments by the Burmese audience and by cadencing formulas which sound "unfinished" to western ears.
The names shown above are only used in the ensemble music, the chamber music gives other names to the tones, which indicates the fact that the chamber music has to be understood as a kind of "modal music":

There is a fixed hierarchy for pitches in the chamber music, condensing in scales which are strictly bound to cadencial patterns and phrases. Each pitch knows its "friend" ("mei") note, which is commonly a fifth higher or a fourth below. All "modal" scales appear like pentatonic scales with two side notes, which always get performed in unstressed positions and in high registers.

Unlike in India or Java, these "modal" scales do not know proper circumstances to be used, the reason for this might be that there would be too much time and effort to retune an instrument. In case a "modal" change appears, only the retunable instruments get retuned while non retunable instruments simply leave out the tones which the instrument doesn't provide.  This practice may also funtion to explain the two central scales of the chamber music, in which either the second and sixth or the fourth and seventh tone appear as seperated tones and are left out while playing.
Most of the melodical phrases start with an octave and end on the main tone.
Theater and dance traditions
Basing on the traditions of the Pyu and Mon people, the Bumrese traditions in music and 
dance , theatre and puppetry have always based on old Indian, later on Indonesian and rare Chinese influencies.  The basic influence for all dance and theatre traditions was the traditional marionettes and puppet theatre, which is called "Yoke Thay" ("small people") and dating back over 800 years.

Besides outstanding traditions like the rope dance ("kimari"), in which occasion the perfromers were allowed to be placed higher than the audience which was usually forbidden, another interesting fact lies in the "ah nyeint" tradition, the female entertainment groups which performed in the kings private appartements. These female actors, musician and dancers were highly respected in and outside the court, but lead no easy life, followed by many scandals like for example the "elephant lady" (Sin Koh Malay). Today, these performances are reduced to a kind of comedy show in which the prince figure ("mintha") is acting and dancing with at least four clowns.

The first documented theatre play in the court was "Maniket" in 1733, a version of the Thai "Thata-danu". This bombastic show featuring elephants and cattle on the stage was just the start for big shows with up to 200 actors and 4 ensmebles. The court shows opened up to the public during the occupation of the British empire, before there were seperate theatre houses for women (showing plays like "Enaung" or "Thudanu" dealing with love themes, the latter one deals with an Indonesian hero called "Pandji" and was later  translated in English) and men (showing the Ramayana version and other battle theme plays).

The Burmese Ramayana version originated in the Indian Ono Turu version, not the Thai Ramakhien or the Malaysian Hikarat as could be estimated. In this version, sometimes masked players appear, which links back to the "Khon" drama traditions of Ayuttahya.
As women were not allowed in these plays, men played the all female roles in this acts. These gender rules were also applied to the puppet theatre 
"Yoke Thay", which first appeared in the 14th century. Religious themes also play a big role in several folk traditions:

The "Nebathkin" groups ("little story tellers") were inherited by monks during the Pagan period. Actors move around in vehicles and stop their movement on a gong signal, thus depicting the stories of Buddhas life.

Most of the travelling drum ensembles ("yi") share at least on dancer, a common sense which later lead to the famous "myang waing" groups,
a circle performance with theatre, dance and music. Normally, a ring of carts functioned as the stage, with the actors masks hung on poles, while the actors and musicians perform in the center of the audience.

All performances know two lead actors: The 
"mintha" (prince) and the "minthamee" (princess). Their customs and requisites were as simple as possible, which changed during the 19th century. The center of each play was the weeping song "ngo chin" of the mintha.
Both "mintha" and "minthamee" changed to well reputated stars in the late 19th century, like we will see in the next chapter.

"Pwe" festivals and tendencies
When the court music opened up to the public starting from 1885, also the mintha and minthamee were able to profit from the skills of these actors and performers. The British occupation of Mandalay was leaving its traces: They "imported" ideas like a real stage, a curtain, electric light and the entrance fee (normally plays were free before).  The mintha gets more and more important, sexual taboos brake while the mintha touches the minthamee during play, which was unthinkable before, and after a while even men appear performing the role of the minthamee.

The Westernization continued in the 20th century, showing its impact in costumes, stage themes, and the more and more common sense for "pwe" shows (thanks to their central figure Po Sein) which mix up every kind of playing tradition in no specific order. In the 1930ies, the Minthamee flirt directly with the audience and wear European costumes. As a reaction to this, traditionalists founded a school for the "Mahagita" songs in 1931. During  WWII, most of the well known artists and performers as well as teachers had to flee the country. It took as long as 1953 to found a commitee for the categorization and preserving of traditional arts.  It was at this time, when the famous dramatic plays "pya zat" evolved.

Despite these tries to preserve the old traditions, from the 1980ies on the Ramayana was the only traditional art form left over to survive, besides the irregular 
"Nat Pwe" ("spirit shows") in the street, which look like a performance but are a worshipping for local ghosts and spirits. The fact that these shows still strictly use the traditional ensembles may be explained through the fear of the people to do something wrong and get punished by the spirits.  In the actual "Zat Pwe" festivals, the mintha and minthamee appear as modern pop stars, performing a modern opera with songs ranging from Hiphop over Punk rock to Techno.

The military government actually often holds regular singing, dancing and acting 
"competitions" with traditional instruments.
Besides the fact that most young people are only interested in the modern popular music and western idols, these competitions only provide medals as a prize (and not a fee or even a garantue to earn a living from this tradition) and thus do not provide any help in the preservation of these traditions other than keeping it in peoples mind once a year. It would be a sign of true interest if the government could provide a more reliable support for the older generation who still know about and
perform the traditional arts.

The most important hope for the future is, that the harming of human rights in this country does not overshadow a more than thousand years old tradition which is rather unique, outstanding and beautiful. As most of the traditions already vanished and only stay alive with single old performers (or in rare books and museum artefacts), the Burmese people and government should open up to foreign help and interest in order to reawake one of the most fascinating traditions of  Southeast Asia!

(written in Germany, 2010)