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K : Burmese Music

U Khin Zaw (“K”), Director, Burma Broadcasting Service

Article written in 1958

What is Burmese music like? To ears accustomed only to Western music, ours may at first be a little disconcerting. It may seem more like a medley of spontaneous, unrelated sounds than a careful composition. And its rhythmic patterns may be hard to follow at first hearing. But I think that if you will listen to some of it a few times—and the Burmese Folk and Traditional Music record in the Ethnic Folkways Library offers a good sampling—you will discover that ours is actually a fully developed musical art. Historically, the traditions of Burmese music go back at least fifteen hundred years. For we know from a fascinating description in a Chinese chronicle of the year 802 A.D. that our musical instruments, and compositions for them, were already highly perfected at that time.

To begin with the fundamentals, let us first analyze our Burmese scale. It sounds as though it might have quarter tones and microtones, but actually it does not. It is the same as your European diatonic scale, but with this difference, that the fourth and seventh notes are both “neutral,” so that the succession of notes is different. The makers of our early instruments did not provide for the accidentals in an octave. Yet our music does modulate from the tonic to the dominant—say, from C major to G major—and frequently from the tonic to the subdominant — C major to F major, and back again. But we have no F sharp, or B flat. What we do is to put our F halfway between F natural and F sharp, and our B halfway between B flat and B natural.

Since we do not have the chromatic scale, our music may sound a bit flat to Westerners. Another basic point of difference is its essentially two-dimensional nature. The development of harmony has given Western music enormous depth. Because our instruments were not suitable for harmony, our music has instead developed a complexity of pure melodic patterns. You derive your musical satisfaction from marching in depth with chords. We have to get ours by going in the single file of notes, twisting and turning in graceful patterns. Even our drums play tunes. Thus our putt waing, a circle of tuned drums, is not merely for percussion, but plays a melody itself.

The rhythmic systems of Burmese music may have been determined by the nature of our language, which is not accentual but tonal. Rhythm in English depends largely on differences of emphasis on the syllables in the words and the words in the sentence. Burmese verse depends rather on the schematic arrangement of words with certain sounds recurring at fixed points. This means that timing and caesuras have great importance. In fact, in our singing the caesuras are even more important than the syllables or words in each measure. Often the singer keeps time with a pair of tiny bells and a small clapper in his hand.

The most usual time in our music is a simple duple or a simple quadruple beat. In the duple, the bells and the clapper go alternately. In the quadruple there is a rest on one or the other of the middle beats. No great importance is attached to the variation. In one and the same piece the quadruple may sometimes change into the duple, or become faster or slower. But never must a musician get out of rhythmic time. So far as I am aware, compound time has never been used in our music.

Turning to the instruments which are now most in use, we must give pride of place to the graceful, boat-shaped harp, the thirteen-stringed saung kauk (see Plate 23 in art section). The Burmese orchestra is called a saing. Its ensemble includes the picturesque putt waing, with the player seated in his circle of drums, a circle of gongs (the kyee waing), the big putt ma drum, cymbals, clappers, and wind instruments such as the hnè (like an oboe) and the palwé (a bamboo pipe). The saing accompanies our stage performances (zat pwès), our ritual dances (nat pwès), and others of the many festal occasions that enliven Burmese life.

Even though Buddhist doctrine has sometimes frowned on music as appealing to the senses, we Burmese must be one of the most music-loving peoples in the world. Folk music is very much alive in our villages, where several interesting kinds of drums are especially popular.

The bucolic dohpat (which can be heard on Side II, Band 4 of the Folkways record) presides over village roisterings and goes along with itinerant singers. The pot-shaped ozi, boon companion of the bamboo flute, may be trusted to go off on such a spree of tune and rapid rhythm as to make one’s limbs twitch to dance. The big bongyi (Side II, Band 3) is lord of the paddy fields, where its thundering rhythm eases the toil of those who are transplanting the rice. The byaw drum (Side I, Band 2) has its day in such home ceremonies as our almsgivings and shinpyu head-shavings.

Our classical music is far more elaborate than the instinctive rural drumming and singing, and scholars usually divide it into six main categories, most of which are represented on the Folkways record. But I must not risk tiring you with too many strange names and will say only that these classical compositions are usually songs, ranging in theme and tone from simple lyrics to courtly measures eulogizing the king or the royal city and solemn chants composed in adoration of Lord Buddha.

One of the most important events in the history of Burmese music—and all Burmese culture for that matter— was the second conquest of Siam by King Hsinbyushin in 1767. It is pleasant to think that although our wars with Siam were generally motivated by the Siamese king’s white elephants, we brought back something which was by no means a white elephant to us! Craftsmen, entertainers, musicians, dancers numbering many hundreds were imported from Siam to Burma, and they brought about a vast augmentation of our culture. New life and new forms were infused into our theater, our classical dance style is far closer to that of Siam than, say, to that of India, and a principal type of our classical song, the yodaya (Side I, Band 3 and Side II, Band 8), takes its name from Ayuthia, the old capital of Thailand.

In the years following this Thai “invasion,” there lived a remarkable man named U Sa, a veritable Leonardo da Vinci, who was poet, musician, playwright, soldier, diplomat, and statesman all combined. In a long lifetime, he was constantly creating and adapting new literary, dramatic, and musical forms, and over two hundred of our finest songs are attributed to him. Another important school of classical music comes down to us from the Mons; their beautiful songs were long ago enshrined in a collection called the Mahagita.

Finally, some of the purest and oldest forms of our traditional music are preserved in the propitiatory rituals of rural Nat worship. As Dr. Htin Aung explains in his essay, these spirits from the old animist cults have been welcomed into Buddhism, and the country folk still honor them with wayside shrines, or by hanging a coconut turbaned with a piece of red and white cloth from the king post of the house, to which offerings of fruit or cooked rice are made with music and dancing.

Now what has been happening to Burmese music since the radio and the cinema have vastly magnified the influence of Western music upon us? For my purist taste, far too much! But, to speak for the other side — and I fear they are numerous — let me bring in the views of my much admired and musically learned friend Ko Thant of Mandalay.

Ko Thant is scornful of our Burmese instruments because they lack the precision of the Western ones. But does he stop to consider that, in a sense, their very precision has made a slave of the instrumentalist? Our Burmese players attain extraordinary virtuosity with their crude instruments — making them the slaves — and achieve the most subtle shadings in moving from one note to the next. And because they do not read from a written score, but play entirely from memory, our musicians create the music anew at each playing, with full scope for the expression of personal art.

Ko Thant likes the strict discipline of the Western orchestra and condemns the free-for-all of the Burmese saing. He rails at Sein Beda for tuning a recalcitrant drum in the middle of a concert. Ile does not realize that this really does not matter, that Western music is a compound, whose object is harmonious coalescence, whereas ours is a mixture, the pleasure lying in the artful mixing of sounds. A European listens for the total effect of all, a Burmese for the individual effect of each voice in the orchestra.

In our music, accompaniment to singing does not mean a harmonic background to vocal melody, but a partnership in patterns. In and out of the framework of musical time and melodic direction provided by the instruments, the vocal part weaves another, related pattern and direction. So long as they keep to the framework, both singer and player may embellish and improvise. It is skill in weaving sounds, rather than voice production, which determines the quality of the singer.

Ko Thant maintains that music is an “international language” and that we should allow Western instruments and melodies to overwhelm us so that our musicians may speak the same musical tongue as the rest of the world. But does not this idea stem from a basic misconception of the nature of art? Is not the individual voice the really important thing? And will not the community of world culture be far richer and more stimulating if each regional culture seeks to develop its own traditions?

And since we already have improvisation in our music do we really need Western jazz and popular songs? But perhaps that question has already been answered: we have them. As long ago as 1940, Daw Than E wrote this little sketch on that subject:

An old-fashioned Burmese gentleman was visited by a radio salesman. He settled down expectantly as the set was hooked up; perhaps he would hear the soothing strains of a song from the Mahagita. But what came out shocked him; he looked puzzled. “That’s Johnny, the Burmese yodeller,” explained the salesman, “the public adores Johnny; the new trend in Burmese music, you know. Oh, you’ll hear wonderful things with this set. To give you an idea, there’s Good Morning Tin Tin singing Thama-wa-yama to the tune of John Brown’s Body and Eingyipa to a rumba called Mañana mañana. They have Bei mir bist du schoen and Isle of Capri with Burmese words and even the old favorites like Good King Wenceslas —-that’s a duck of a tune —and Come to the Savior, make no delay . . .” At this point the old Burmese gentleman became unconscious.

Yes, we have been flooded with Hawaiian guitars, hillbilly banjos, and Harlem saxophones. Where will it end? As director of broadcasting in Burma I am trying to fight the menace. There are good modern pieces in the Burmese vein still being produced, and a number of popular songs based on our own folk tunes have become hits. And to preserve our old music—since little of it has been written down—we have been making tapes of the best classical pieces and folk songs.

For certainly our Burmese music is worth preserving, just as Gujarat painting, Khmer architecture, Chinese porcelain, and Mayan sculpture are worth preserving. The tragedy in those cases is that the art of the craftsmen has been lost. We cannot let that happen. We must not hope vainly for the evolution of a style that will be neither Burmese nor Western. Rather, we must go back to the purest traditions of our own music—relearn them, safeguard them, and present them to the world in a way the world can understand. For there is a strange beauty in the remote flowering of Burmese music

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