For a Myanmar child. from the moment he is pushed into the world his first wah-wah is accompanied by saing (music of the orchestra played to celebrate any event) and throughout his life's journey, everything that happens to him, or everything he does is accompanied by saing. The saing continues after he leaves the world as dolorous music of the of the Monkey King's Lament is a fixture of funeral music. “Without the benefit of saing” is a popular Myanmar idiom to describe any dull, uninteresting event or something unceremonious or unheralded. A person arriving without any previous notice is often remarked upon as arriving without the benefit of saing. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The basic idea of much of Burmese music is to create an "inner melody" like that in the Indonesian Gamelan music. This melody is always improvised and ornamented in such a way the true "inner" melody is never heard by the audience, but functions as a core melody for all performers to imrovise from. In other words: nobody plays it, but everyone knows it.

The music produced by a traditional Burmese orchestra—which includes sets of gongs, finely tuned drums and an oboe-like nstrument called a nhai—is similar to that of a Javanese gamelon. According to The New York Times : “Its pieces sound richly theatrical. Melodies start slowly, then dart frantically ahead, then pause and turn sideways in ways that merrily defy prediction. On Burmese harp music the New York Times reported: “Mostly solos, occasionally accompanied by quiet percussion—sends melody bouncing lightly from hand to had, octave to octave, sparkling like a sunset reflected on a pond.”

Burmese Musical Instruments

Myanmar traditional music is based from the sounds made from instruments grouped in the following five categories: 1) Kyee (kyay), bronze instruments such as gongs; 2) Kyoo (kyo), string instruments such as harps; 3) Tha Yey Tha Yey, hide instruments like drums; 4) Lei (Lay), wind instruments such as flutes; and 5) Let Khok (lekkoke), clappers, particularly bamboo clappers. Myanmar musical instruments can further be placed in two categories: concert (anyeint) and orchestra (saing-waing). In today's modern musical troupe: piano, accordion, trumpet, guitars, organs and other Western instruments are also included to compose songs. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Many musical instruments were invented and fell into disuse throughout the ages. The anyeint (concert of chamber) musical instruments of the past that are no longer used include are the saniara (an extinct stringed instrument), aung galay (an extinct stringed instrument), don-min (an extinct dulcimer-like instrument) and hnyin (extinct reed pipes). Among those are still played are the boat-shaped harp, crocodile zither, xylophone, flute, oboe and than-lwin (small cymbals). However, only six instruments were prescribed for anyeint, intended as intimate musical entertainment of the royal chambers.

Shan Osi (Shan Long Drum, or Stone Drum) is actually is not a musical instrument. We just present it as a peculiarity. A drum made of stone?. It consists of a somewhat a flat piece of rock. usual hung at a pagoda or monastery. You can ring it by hitting with a stick. The purpose of using these is just like using bells.

CD: Music by the Hsiang Waing Orchestra/ The Burmese Harp (Auvidis/UNESCO).

Maha Gita: Classical Music of Myanmar

The complete body of Myanmar classical songs is usually referred to as. the "Maha Gita." meaning great or royal song. The repertoire is also sometimes referred to as "Thachin Gyi." or great songs. These were the songs of the royal Myanmar courts and form the basis of Myanmar classical music. The Maha Gita repertoire is pervasive in the performance of Myanmar music. It forms the basis of shared tradition of the chamber music ensemble, the Hsaing ensemble, as well as that of solo instrument performances such as the piano. The Maha Gita also provides much of the basis for music in the theater, both the puppet theater and that which employs live actors. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The Maha Gita exists in printed collections of the songs texts. There are no traditional examples in notation. No system of notation exists in the Myanmar tradition. During the 1960s, an adoption of the Chinese cipher notation system was used for notation of the single melodic line. A few examples of the skeletal structural patterns of the music have been printed in Myanmar in Western notation, from time to time since the 1940s. ~

Kyo songs, Bwe songs and Tachin Hkan are thought to be the oldest parts of the repertoire and contain a great number of songs: 1) Patt Pyou, a song type that was very popular in the court and contains the largest number of songs in the collection; 2) Loung Chin, songs of longing; 3) Lei Dwei Than Kat, a group of two special songs; 4) Myin Gin, music to make the horses dance; 5) Nat Chin Nat Chin, songs from the repertoire of the worship and propitiation of the 37 Nats, a native Myanmar religion which exists along side and in harmony with Buddhism; 6) Yodaya songs, songs which were introduced from Ayutthaya in Thailand as well as songs which were later composed in that style; 7) Talaing Than Talaing Than, songs of the Mon minority in Myanmar; and 8) Bole, laments and songs of sorrow. ~

In addition to this body of court songs. there are a number of instrumental pieces in the form of opening music for the theater which are called "Panama Ti'loun," or "first pieces". There are a number of instrumental types associated with the Royal Palace Watch, such as the "neyi." the first music played each morning in the royal palace and the "yegin." played as the watch musicians navigated the moat around the royal palace. A number of rhythmic and melodic types borrowed from folk repertoire—such as "byo," "si daw." and "dophat"—also are included in the corpus of Myanmar traditional music, although not formally part of the Maha Gita. ~

Harp (Saung), Xylophone (Pattalar) and Flute (Hne)

A "harp" is called a “saung” in Myanmar. There basically are two types: the Byat Saung and Saung Gauk (bent harp). Almost nobody plays the byat saung these days so Burmese harp music therefore generally refers to music made by the bent harp. In A.D. 10th century musicians played a five-string harp. In the 18th century the number of strings was increased to seven. During the reign of King Bodaw Pharar the art of playing harp was much promoted by the king and the harp was improved to using up to 13 strings. The body of a Burmese harp is made of padauk, a kind of Myanmar mahogany. The flat bar is made of cutch wood. It is covered with the leather of a female deer. And the strings are made of silk! [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The Burmese bamboo xylophone (Pattalar) is regarded as an ancient musical instrument. Old versions had a sound box underneath, with seven graduated keys. Later on, ten keys were added and nowadays. 24 keys are used. The name “pattalar” means a “musical instrument on which you can play from the crescendo to the bases or from the base to the crescendo.” The xylophone is played with two sticks wrapped with cloth. ~

To make a bamboo xylophone, first you must split the Waboe bamboo into four parts and then immerse the parts in the mud for about a year. After washing it, the bamboo is smoked for a year so the bamboo becomes seasoned. The seasoned bamboos are cut into slats which are smoothed out, polished and made in a left to right position. Twenty-two bamboo slats are sandwiched onto the xylophone. The largest slat is one and half feet and shortest is 6 inches. Later on, the slates are drilled with holes so that strings, which hold them to the xylophone, can be passed through. There are seven musical notes in the Western scale. The Myanmar Pattala has seven musical keys, which are reproduced from the sounds of animals and also from Myanmar Oboe, which has seven holes. In this ways we can see that although Myanmar musical instruments differ in shape and tone from western musical instruments they all have the same musical notes. ~

The Hne (oboe) is one of the traditional wind instruments in Myanmar. It has been used in Myanmar since ancient times and is created by using a metal horn, a wooden flute and a palm reed. The oboe is a double-reed woodwind instrument having a high pitch and penetrating tone. There are two kinds of Myanma oboe namely big oboe and small oboe. Big oboe has more bass than the small. Big oboe has been used in Myanmar for many years and it is said to have come into use in 211 in the Myanmar era. It is used to play the melody particularly in Byawsi, Yegin, Nayi, Thapyay and Yadu music. The small oboe has been commonly used from 1290 and 1300 in the Myanmar era up to now. It is played not only for the tunes of Ozi. Dhobat. Si and Byaw music but also essentially for Myanmar Orchestra at Myanmar opera.So. Myanma oboe is a vital wind instrument among Myanmar musical instruments. ~

Myanma Saing Waing—Myanmar Orchestra

The musical ensemble called "Saing Waing" in Myanmar is the Burmese equivalent of a Western orchestra. The ensemble is surrounded by fencing made of gilt teak or lacquer ware. This music is considered professional and formal and mostly played indoors. The components of a Myanmar orchestra are: 1) a circular series of drums (pat-lone); 2) circular series of gongs (kyay-wai); 3) gongs (mong-sai); 4) bamboo clappers (war-let-kote); 5) oboe/flute (hnae); 6) timing bells (si); 7) bamboo (warr); 8) short drum (si-toe); 9) cymbals (lin-gwin); 10) six drum set (chauk-lone-pat); and 11 Great drum (pat-ma-gyee). [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The heart of a "Saing Waing" is composed of a circle of 21 drums (pat-lone). In the center of the 21 drums sits the leader of the drums who moves his hands very quickly to direct the drum music The leader of the saing-waing orchestra is the central player of the drum-circle. He is always courteously addressed as ywar-sar (literally “eater of a village”, or “lord of the village”). In the old days ywar-sars were appointed by the Myanmar kings to rule big and prosperous villages. A big double-faced drum is hung on the body of a mythical figure. This mythical figure is known as "Pyinsa Yupa", which is a combination of five animals: elephant, bullock, horse, carp and toenayar, or alternately, a lion, elephant, buffalo, carp and hinthar. The Pyinsa Yupa is supported by tripods. This drum is beaten with great force. Accentuating the drums is a circle of 18 bronze gongs. Another person sits in the middle of the gongs directing the gong music. ~

Other instruments: 1) a group of six drumlets, consisting of one round drum, a medium size drum., a pair of bronze cymbals and two sets of bamboo clappers (wa-let-khot); 2) one oboe and one flute (hne); 3) a pair of timing instruments called "See" (two small bronze cymbals for the fingers); and 4) "War" (very small clappers. just for the fingers). Altogether there are 31 drums of various sizes, which correspond to the 31 planes of living beings according to Buddhism. ~

The Myanmar music ensemble is not an "orchestra " in the Western sense of the term in which "orchestra" means a full array of strings, wood-winds, brass and percussion instruments performing Western music in front under the direction of the conductor. Visually Myanmar orchestra is an array of of gongs and drums with a few other, mostly percussive instruments, thrown in. Spectacular in appearance and unique in musical tone, the saing-waing orchestra contains no stringed instruments. The xylophone too is absent, it being confined to concert performances. ~

Burmese Saing Waing Orchestra Drums and Gongs

At the forefront of the saing-waing orchestra is the pat – waing (drum circle), a group of twenty-one drums of different sizes arranged in a circular order which make the tune. The kyee-naung waing (sharp – toned brass gong circle) and the maung waing (mellow-toned bronze gongs) support the "drum circle.” The left-hand and right-hand combinations and permutations of the players of the three instruments are almost identical. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The tympant corner (pat-ma – gyaung) of the saing-waing consists of the " big drum "(pat-ma-gyi) held up from above by the enormous figure of a mythical "Phinsa-Rupa” (meaning an animal with different parts of five animals), the medium-sized support – drum (sea-khunt), the six smaller base drums (chauk – lone-pat) and the stick-struck drum (si-doh). As companions are two pairs of big and medim-sized cymbals (lin-kwin), small tempo-keeping cymbals (than-lwin), hollowed-out wooden block or hollowed-out giant bamboo with closed ends, and the irrepressible bamboo clappers (warlekkoke). The drum circle and the brass gong circle are situated behind a circular frame or fence. The circumference of the drum circle is about 5 meters. The fence is about 80 centimeters high. ~

The brass gongs-circle is smaller. The fence is about 55 centimeters high and circle is approximately two thirds the circumference of the circular frame for the drum circle. The bronze gongs are suspended by means of ropes between five wooden frames, three of which are placed flat on a box, The other two, the largest ones, are set upright. ~

Except for the si-soh the drums are all tuned by certain amounts of pat-sa (drum-feed) which is a mixture of wood-ash and cooked rice kneaded thoroughly. The dough-like mixture is stuck onto the centers of the ox-skin surfaces. To lower the tone: add more. To raise the tone: remove little by little and tidy up with wet fingers or thumb. Sometimes, changes of weather, raise or lower their tuning of the gongs. They are then retuned by hammering them (bronze ones) or by applying bees wax and lead fillings inside the hollow of the bosses (brass ones). ~

The highest measure of art for a saing-musicians, particularly the drum circle players, is to perform for a dramatic troupe. Whereas Moha Guta plays an indispensable role in Myanmar saing-music. the Myanmar saing-music plays an important part in Myanmar drama. Myanmar saing-music and Myanmar theater developed simultaneously as music was created to provide patterns of " expression "of emotions for dramatic situations. Burmese music produce by saing-orcestra does express emotions in the same way of Western operas and musicals. The moods, plots and theme of Burmese plays are matters of conventions, with fixed conventional passages and musical pieces for the orchestra: such as lay-kin and bein-maung for storms, flights fights, chases and commotions; ngo-chin or ah-pu taik for grief, despair and weeping; chute for stealth; bone-tauk for happiness and jollity; baw –lei and hmaing for celestials; nat-doe for evil spirits; wai-tar for water crafts and swimming; and hunget-hyi for keineras. These dramatic (musical) conventions have been firmly embedded into the Burmese consciousness since childhood, so much so that Burmese feel a twinge of emotion when the hero (mintha) or the heroine (minthamee) starts singing the familiar ngo-chin (wailing song) in vibrant strain. At the end of the song the orchestra crashes in crescendo with the big pat-ma beating vigorously booming in synchronisation with heart-beats and tears of the theater-goers. ~

Karen Bronze Drums—an Ancient Animist Art Form

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The use and manufacture of bronze drums is the oldest continuous art tradition in Southeast Asia. It began some time before the 6th century B.C. in northern Vietnam and later spread to other areas such as Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Karen adopted the use of bronze drums at some time prior to their 8th century migration from Yunnan into Burma where they settled and continue to live in the low mountains along the Burma - Thailand border. During a long period of adoption and transfer, the drum type was progressively altered from that found in northern Vietnam (Dong Son or Heger Type I) to produce a separate Karen type (Heger Type III). In 1904, Franz Heger developed a categorization for the four types of bronze drums found in Southeast Asia that is still in use today. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The vibrating tympanum is made of bronze and is cast as a continuous piece with the cylinder. Distinguishing features of the Karen type include a less bulbous cylinder so that the cylinder profile is continuous rather than being divided into three distinct parts. Type III has a markedly protruding lip, unlike the earlier Dong Son drums. The decoration of the tympanum continues the tradition of the Dong Son drums in having a star shaped motif at its center with concentric circles of small, two-dimensional motifs extending to the outer perimeter. =

“In Burma the drums are known as frog drums (pha-si), after the images of frogs that invariably appear at four equidistant points around the circumference of the tympanum. A Karen innovation was the addition of three-dimensional figures to one side of the cylinder so that insects and animals, but never humans, are often represented descending the trunk of a stylized tree. The frogs on the tympanum vary from one to three and, when appearing in multiples, are stacked atop each other. The number of frogs in each stack on the tympanum usually corresponds to the number of figures on the cylinder such as elephants or snails. The numerous changes of motif in the two- and three-dimensional ornamentation of the drums have been used to establish a relative chronology for the development of the Karen drum type over approximately one thousand years.” =

Uses of Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Bronze drums were used among the Karen as a device to assure prosperity by inducing the spirits to bring rain, by taking the spirit of the dead into the after-fife and by assembling groups including the ancestor spirits for funerals, marriages and house-entering ceremonies. The drums were used to entice the spirits of the ancestors to attend important occasions and during some rituals the drums were the loci or seat of the spirit. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“It appears that the oldest use of the drums by the Karen was to accompany the protracted funeral rituals performed for important individuals. The drums were played during the various funeral events and then, among some groups, small bits of the drum were cut away and placed in the hand of the deceased to accompany the spirit into the afterlife. It appears that the drums were never used as containers for secondary burial because there is no instance where Type III drums have been unearthed or found with human remains inside. The drums are considered so potent and powerful that they would disrupt the daily activities of a household so when not in use, they were placed in the forest or in caves, away from human habitation. They were also kept in rice barns where when turned upside down they became containers for seed rice; a practice that was thought to improve the fertility of the rice. Also, since the drums are made of bronze, they helped to deter predations by scavengers such as rats or mice. =

“The drums were a form of currency that could be traded for slaves, goods or services and were often used in marriage exchanges. They were also a symbol of status, and no Karen could be considered wealthy without one. By the late nineteenth century, some important families owned as many as thirty. The failure to return a borrowed drum often led to internecine disputes among the Karen. =

“Although the drums were cast primarily for use by groups of non-Buddhist hill people, they were used by the Buddhist kings of Burma and Thailand as musical instruments to be played at court and as appropriate gifts to Buddhist temples and monasteries. The first known record of the Karen drum in Burma is found in an inscription of the Mon king Manuha at Thaton, dated A.D. 1056.. The word for drum in this inscription occurs in a list of musical instruments played at court and is the compound pham klo: pham is Mon while klo is Karen. The ritual use of Karen drums in lowland royal courts and monasteries continued during the centuries that followed and is an important instance of inversion of the direction in which cultural influences usually flow from the lowlands to the hills. =

Playing and Making Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “When played, the drums were strung up by a cord to a tree limb or a house beam so that the tympanum hung at approximately a forty-five degree angle. The musician placed his big toe in the lower set of lugs to stabilize the drum while striking the tympanum with a padded mallet. Three different tones may be produced if the tympanum is struck at the center, edge, and midpoint. The cylinder was also struck but with long strips of stiff bamboo that produces a sound like a snare drum. The drums were not tuned to a single scale but had individualized sounds, hence they could be used effectively as a signal to summon a specific group to assemble. It is said that a good drum when struck could be heard for up to ten miles in the mountains. The drums were played continuously for long periods of time since the Karen believe that the tonal quality of a drum cannot be properly judged until it is played for several hours. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

For the Karen, the bronze drums perform a vital service in inducing the spirits to bring the rains. When there is a drought, the Karens take the drums into the fields where they are played to make the frogs croak because the Karens believe that if the frogs croak, it is sign that rain will surely fall. Therefore, the drums are also known as "Karen Rain Drums" =

“The town of Nwe Daung, 15 kilometers south of Loikaw, capital of Kayah (formerly Karenni) State, is the only recorded casting site in Burma. Shan craftsmen made drums there for the Karens from approximately 1820 until the town burned in 1889. Karen drums were cast by the lost wax technique; a characteritic that sets them apart from the other bronze drum types that were made with moulds. A five metal formula was used to create the alloy consisting of copper, tin, zinc, silver and gold. Most of the material in the drums is tin and copper with only traces of silver and gold. The Karen made several attempts in the first quarter of the twentieth century to revive the casting of drums but none were successful. During the late 19th century, non-Karen hill people, attracted to the area by the prospect of work with British teak loggers, bought large numbers of Karen drums and transported them to Thailand and Laos. Consequently, their owners frequently incorrectly identify their drums as being indigenous to these countries. =

Early History of Traditional Music of Myanmar

In A.D. 802, thirty-five 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. The most famous of Burmese instruments—the “Burmese Harp”—has similarities with ancient Mesopotamian instruments and believed to be imported via old trade routes between India and China. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

The only evidence of the musical treasures of the Pyu perod (2nd century B.C. to 1050) and the Mon period (825-1057) is the troop of performers visiting the Chinese court in 802. During the Pagan period (A.D. 1044 to 1287), the Burmese defeated both groups and incorporated their musical traditions, which in turn were slightly influenced by Indian and Indonesian traditions. In the "Shwesandaw" pagoda an inscription from 1093, uses Mon term "pantara" do describe all singers and dancers. None of the instruments of this periods survived, only the crocodile-shaped zither of the Mon people and the famous "Saung gauk" harp are still in use. ///

There is only fragmentary knowledge of the early history of Myanmar classical dance and music. It seems clear, however, that the present style and technique evolved over some 1,500 years, incorporating elements of the earlier Mon and Puy traditions predating the arrival of the Burmese. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “ As may be expected, Indian influences are clearly present, but it is not exactly known how the Indian influence was received. It is probable that the source in India was the Pala dynasty off Eastern India, which was partly contemporaneous with the classical Pagan period in Myanmar from the 11th to 13th centuries. Pala culture deeply influenced the arts and architecture of Pagan. Thus it is possible that the influence was also felt in the field of in dance”—and music. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

The Tang Dynasty chronicles from 801 “give a full description of the instruments used in the performances as well as of the materials of the costume and ornaments worn by the performers. The dances were performed by groups varying from two to ten dancers, among whom were tattooed men. The performances were received with great appreciation by the Chinese court, and minor titles were bestowed on the group leaders. |-|

Visual evidence of Pyu dance and music also exists. “Perhaps the best-known Pyu metalwork, now in the collections of the National Museum in Yangon, consists of five separate bronze reliefs, approx. 15 centimeters in height, depicting three dancing musicians and two dancers. They are dated to c. the 6th and 7th centuries. Two of the musicians are clearly depicted with their instruments: a flute and a pot drum. The third musician evidently plays the cymbals. This kind of small standing orchestra playing the above instruments was often shown in Indian dance reliefs from the 7th to the 12th centuries. |-|

Later History of Traditional Music of Myanmar

In the post-Pagan era the term "thabin" is used for musicians, puppet performers and dancers. Thai influencies increased after the Burmese sacked the ancient capital city Ayutthaya in 1767. At that 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 music traditions there. In 1787, the xylophones and harps, which formerly also took part in folk ensembles, were officiallly made part of chamber and court music. In 1857, when Mandalay became the capital city, Thai influences were reconfirmed with the popularity of several Thai-influence plays.

In 1885, the British occupation of Mandalay opened court music to the public as the abolition of the monarchy led court artists and musicians to seek new ways to earn their money for living. There was also an impact on the theater traditions, where Western ideas of performance were mixed up with local traditions. 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 bent harp disappeared in the use of bigger orchestras. ///

Up to this point, dancing, singing, acting and performing are strictly bound to each other and could not be separated. At that every instrumentalist started learning his instrument by learning how to sing properly first, and every dancer or performer was always expected to sing or play an instrument as well. Students learned the first 13 "kyo" songs by imitating their teacher, who played 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. Because to these learning methods, vocal music stayed in the center of Burmese music and traditional pieces were transferred orally by imitation. ///

Traditional Burmese Ensemble and Chamber Music

The difference between ensemble music (folk music) and the chamber music is distinguished in some respects by the loudness of the instruments used. 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 rhythm more than melodies ones and has similarities with Thai classical music. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

The most common ensemble is the "saing waing" ensemble ("hang with chords in circle"), consisting of 6 to 10 players, with a drum and a gong circle 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 simultaneously by a number of singers or musicians doing f two or more versions of the same melody. ///

Nowadays, most ensembles incorporate 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 five 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 theater or dance performance, and during the rare instrumental "bala saing" performances, the player needs high virtuosity and entertainers make jokes in order to keep the audience interested in the music.

Chamber music uses different instruments than ensemble music. Most of these musical instruments are performed by women today, though there is no strict rule that dictates this. 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 on ensemble music.

Traditional Burmese Vocal Music

The Burmese language lies at the heart of Burmese music. Text and poetry guide the melody in 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") embraces several categories, including the royal court songs "cou" and "bwe", songs from the Thai Ayutthaya period or of the Mon people. The language gives form to the music: Rhymes form meters, syllable duration strictly bound to normal speech, are 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 (the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of text is matched to a single note). [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

Today, most singers prefer 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 "saing" ensemble. The importance of the language in the music is displayed by 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 the 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 traditional scale used in the traditional Burmese music.

Traditional Burmese Musical Scales and Notes

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his website book “The Music of Southeast Asia”: “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. The names of the tones on the scale 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. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia ///]

“The scale is read by western eyes like a diatonic scale put backwards, following the descending tendencies of Burmese music. Not indicated are the microtonal differences in the pitches of the fourth and seventh note, which have almost disappeared today, leaving a hole in comparison with diatonic scale. The "old" scale is still in evidence in the tolerance and acceptance of pitch discrepancies and mistuned instruments by the Burmese audience and by cadencing formulas which sound "unfinished" to western ears. The fact that names used in ensemble music are different from those used chamber music shows that 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 explain why the two central scales of the chamber music, in which either the second and sixth or the fourth and seventh tone appear as separated tones are left out while playing. Most of the melodical phrases start with an octave and end on the main tone. ///

Music and Myanmar Military Regime

Traditional music has the reputation of being the "official music" of Myanmar’s military regime that has a history of jailing or exiling artists it considers a threa. The Los Angeles Times reported: “After military generals took over Myanmar in the early 1960s, they initially didn't exert much control over musicians, who could still collaborate with foreigners and imitate Western trends, including a soundtrack U Tin worked on for a Burmese knockoff of "Tarzan" called "Charzan." [Source: Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2010 <>]

Western music gained much popularity in Burma starting from the 1930s. Despite government intervention at times, especially during the Socialist era, popular Burmese music has become considerably influenced by Western music, which consists of popular Western songs rendered in Burmese and pop music similar to other Asian pop tunes. Classical music was also introduced during the British occupation. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Pop music emerged in the 1970s and was banned by state-run radio stations. However, many artists circumvented this censorship by producing albums in private studios and releasing them in music production shops. During the Socialist era, musicians and artists were subject to censorship by the Press Scrutiny Board and Central Registration Board, as well as laws like the State Protection Law. +

During the 8888 Uprising, restrictions loosened and many artists began writing music with themes of freedom and democracy. However, after the State Law and Order Restoration Council usurped power in 1988, the Press Scrutiny Board was reformed to censor specific political and social issues, including poverty, the sex trade, democracy and human rights. The Myanmar Music Asiayon (MMA) was established by the SLORC to further censor Burmese-produced music. +

“After 1970, however, censors tried to stamp out all foreign influence and set rigid guidelines that stifled musical innovation, at least on state radio and in official circles, as part of the generals' bid for absolute power. "The regime has played up the kingly 'protector of traditional culture' image" in an attempt to counter concerns about its political legitimacy, said Gavin Douglas, an ethnomusicologist with the University of North Carolina. <>

Repression in Myanmar and a Humble Music School

Reporting from Yangon, Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The military government's tightening grip doesn't give people here much to sing about, and when they do feel the urge to make music, even that can be risky. The generals who rule Myanmar have spies snooping around for subversives in the most unlikely places, such as a small music school in a rented house sandwiched between a Hindu temple and a broomstick factory. It isn't a renegade hip-hop crib, or a blue-hazed den of protesting folkies, just a small rehearsal hall of plywood and particleboard where children peck away at piano keys and a chorus of university students sings with enough heart to raise the low roof. What riles the government is that the music school depends on foreign support, especially from a group of Yale University students and other American donors. Some of the generals' enforcers suspect a dangerous plot. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2008 **]

“After 45 years of military rule, that isn't as weird as it sounds. Xenophobic propaganda is one of the ways the generals rally support and scare off dissent...The students at the Gitameit, or "Music Friends," school take their direction from the more universal language of music. They studiously avoid politics, but that isn't always enough to escape the probing eyes of the government. **

Founded in 2004, “the school is one of the few places, outside of a temple or church, where people can go to learn how to play a Western musical instrument or read music in Myanmar. Its students' struggle is a lesson in the often bizarre lengths to which the generals will go to maintain their hold on power. But they're not strong enough to stop music bringing people together, and giving them hope. You can feel it walking up the front path, in the breeze of notes from four upright pianos, a baby grand, guitars and traditional instruments that drifts from the rehearsal rooms, where jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie look down from photocopied portraits taped to the walls. **

“When the school opened, neighbors told the students they wouldn't last long. They were still going strong last year, and a few foreign visitors began dropping by, so intelligence agents started showing up. They reminded the students that Myanmar's security laws hold them responsible for anything their foreign guests do, and if the outsiders strayed into politics, the locals would go to jail. "Some people are using you for propaganda purposes," the agents warned. "We're going to watch your every move." There wasn't all that much to see. A 9-year-old girl, with pudgy cheeks and an infectious smile, comes regularly for piano lessons. Young men and women, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims among them, spend hours each day focused on sheet music, coaxing melodies from the strings of guitars, violins and pianos. **

“Choir director U Moe Naing, 40, explained that the group members wanted to be good enough to perform for the public. They were working with foreign musicians and getting some experience by showing their talents to foreign music lovers, he told the agents. Naing, a pianist who once studied to be a geologist, didn't want trouble with the law. So he followed orders and reported weekly to the neighborhood intelligence agency office on any visitors and the school's activities. Yet the spies kept the heat on. They put a tail on Naing, showed his picture to people, interrogated his friends. **

“But the students gain strength from making music. Their choir is in constant demand in entertainment-starved Yangon, where they perform for diplomats, and at weddings and concerts. They refuse to be silenced by skeptics or thugs. "For the country, I can't do anything -- only this little thing," Naing said. "The students arrive with little confidence, but I see a lot of leadership coming out. It's really good to see." **

Music, Myanmar Military Spies and Yale’s Spizzwinks Glee Club

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, The military spies “got especially pesky in May 2007, when Naing's choir held a concert with the Spizzwinks, an all-male a cappella group from Yale University. Twenty Yale singers were on a three-week tour of Southeast Asia, with a five-day stop in Myanmar, where a Yale graduate had been teaching at Gitameit. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2008 **]

“An Ivy League glee club that hangs with the singing Whiffenpoofs wouldn't have made it onto any watch list in most other countries. But 15 minutes before the performance, a captain from the dreaded Special Branch police came backstage to poke around, while 250 people sat in the audience. The singers' butterflies morphed into terror that their show was about to be shut down as an anti-state activity. "He threatened me, saying, 'Maybe I'll come back to take you away,' " Naing said. "I was really afraid." **

“The captain demanded to know where the foreign singers were from, and when Naing replied they were U.S. university students, the cop asked whether that meant they were American. Every answer only brought on another question, and it was getting uncomfortably close to curtain time, so Naing says he told the officer testily: " 'If you'd like to arrest us, OK. But please do it after the concert.' He didn't show up. Fortunately." And the show did go on, and the spies have kept their distance in recent months, but the music still doesn't come easily. The students have too much to worry about -- like getting a job after graduating from college. **

“The government's iron walls and harassment are very effective at keeping the country in the dark. To the surprise of Nathaniel Ganor, a 21-year-old Yale computer science major who sings with the Spizzwinks), the Myanmar students were so isolated they knew little about the United States. And they didn't seem very curious to find out more. "One evening, sitting around the dinner table at a restaurant, I asked the students at my table, 'If you could visit America, what would you want to see?' " Ganor recalled. "One student looked at me strangely and said: 'That's ridiculous. I could never visit America. Besides, I have no idea what's there.' " **

Ganor decided he had to find a way to bring some of the Gitameit's singers to the U.S., and his group is trying to raise $60,000 to fly 16 of them on a two-week tour, with stops in San Francisco; New Haven, Conn; New York and Washington. Naing often tells his singers that he plans to take them on tour. They laugh at him. **

Decline of Traditional Burmese Music

The Los Angeles Times reported from Yangon: “U Tin cut his teeth as a musician playing Burmese folk songs for silent movies, which in this time warp of a country remained popular well into the 1950s. The 80-year-old recalls the challenge of playing guitar, watching the conductor and looking at the screen simultaneously, four shows a day. Periodically they'd mess up the sound effects, leaving the audience to wonder why a bang occurred well after the gunfight ended. "Some of the band leaders were quite drunk, particularly by the late show," he said. "But we managed." [Source: Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2010 <>]

“Today, he sits on his well-worn floor surrounded by memories and his beloved string instruments lined up like sleeping maidens. With minimal encouragement, he grabs a sort of battered hubcap attached to a cricket bat, his homemade banjo, and croons a folk song about a girl from Yangon worried about keeping her skin fair. It's not about to top the pop charts, and that's part of the problem. U Tin is among the last of a breed of traditional musicians in Myanmar, who are steadily dying off, and along with them, their songs. <>

“Traditional music's association with the often brutal military regime, not to mention the rising popularity of Korean pop and hip-hop, has undermined its popularity. The music is distinctly old-fashioned, its simple instrumentation overlaid with vocals that evoke great pathos and melancholy. "The younger generation is no longer interested," U Tin said. "If the music is lost, Myanmar will lose a piece of its soul." <>

Nowadays, one of the few ways folk musicians can earn money is occasionally playing in hotel lobbies for tourists who don't understand the tradition. "They may not understand, but at least they appreciate it," U Tin said. "That's more than you can say for many Burmese." <>

Efforts to Save Burmese Music

The Los Angeles Times reported: “Hoping to stem the loss, a local music school is videotaping old-timers as they play and making digital recordings of vintage records, but acknowledges that it's a race against the clock. For one thing, old recordings, mostly 78s, aren't plentiful because record players were traditionally beyond the reach of ordinary families in this poverty-racked country. Mold, insects and tropical heat have rendered many inaudible, and wartime bombings and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 destroyed others. Those that remain are often in terrible shape. Some were used by children as Frisbees or played using sharpened nails after diamond needles became scarce, or scraped at with rocks to make a paste believed to be good for the skin.[Source: Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2010 <>]

“Despite the hurdles, there are small triumphs. After being interviewed by researchers, musician U Sein Kyi Mya, 75, expressed great relief that her knowledge had been passed on, telling them that she could die in peace, said Nay Win Htun, the manager of the Gitameit music school here. Researchers at Gitameit have interviewed 65 musicians and made digital copies of about 1,000 records. Burmese music lacks a notation system, so even when the lyrics have been written down many of the melodies or rhythms of old songs have been lost, particularly those not blessed by the government. "How many generations have been lost already?" said Marc Perlman, a music professor at Brown University. "It would be such a shame to see another go to their grave." Kit Young, an American musician who founded Gitameit, said she hopes the archive attracts wider audiences, fuels the genre's rich history of innovation and reverses a view among some here that traditional music is boring or irrelevant. <>

“The challenge is to find ways to stimulate interest in the Burmese classics as well as Myanmar's many ethnic musical traditions in ways that "are not threatening to the authorities," she said. Hip-hop musician Anegga believes that folk musicians themselves, particularly those playing the Mahagita, a repertoire of songs from the royal Burmese court, share the blame for the decline of Burmese music. "You have to sing it exactly like this, do that with that verse," he said. "It never changes." <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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