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The Burmese classical music tradition: an introduction.


Like many other musics in Southeast Asia, Burmese (2) classical music today is held in high national regard as a sophisticated art form. It not only remains a living tradition at home but also represents the country to great acclaim abroad. However, its infrastructure and musicians have received little ethnographic attention. In particular, from 1962 to 1988, when General Ne Win's regime was in control, Burma held tightly onto its xenophobic policies and long-term political isolationism. As a result, field-sites and the length of time permitted for non-Burmese people to conduct field research were severely restricted. Given this inaccessibility and the paucity of materials, the first-hand findings collected from the field research of pioneering non-Burmese ethnomusicologists/anthropologists (e.g., John Okell, Judith Becker, Muriel Williamson, Robert Garfias, Tokumaru Yoshihiko) are extremely valuable. In the years since 1988 under the current regime, more liberal policies have boosted the number of these "outsider" ethnographers. More scholars have dedicated long-term study to this subject (e.g., Ward Keeler, Gavin Douglas, Kit Young, Christopher Miller, Jane Ferguson, and myself). I should note here that the names listed above only account for the contributors who primarily publish in English. In fact, aside from the rich indigenous sources written in Burmese, scholarly publications based on field research can be also found in many other languages, such as Japanese, Chinese, French, German, and so on. (3) In addition, we should not forget that all ethnographic projects are situated in particular temporal, spatial, and humanly-relational contexts. The research results are thus inevitably somewhat subjective, dependent on the ethnographer's personal experience.

Taking these two facts into consideration, I do not intend to survey this music in an exhaustive manner in this article. Rather, I offer research findings from my extensive fieldwork and review existing literature, with the aim of providing an updated introduction to this musical tradition. The majority of the information was collected through personal interviews, conversations, and instrumental studies with Burmese musicians in Rangoon (now Yangon) between 1998 and 2009 (15 months in total). The extant literature on Burmese music published in English, Chinese, and Burmese also helped form the basis of this article.

Thachin Gyi: Ethnomusical Integration, Two Types of Ensemble

Burmese classical music is the court tradition passed down by the ethnic Burman, the predominant ethnic group constituting two-thirds of Burma's total population. Although its ethnicity is today associated exclusively with Burmans, the music is an amalgamation of ethnic cultures that had necessitated certain degrees of assimilation and indigenization. (4) An overview of Burma's geocultural layout and ethnic composition can help us better comprehend the intensity of cultural integration. On the one hand, Burma is nested at the intersection of three civilizations: India, China, and Thailand/Siam. The inter-regional exchange of trade, information, and culture speaks to its locus as a significant crossroads in southeastern Asia. Meanwhile, large-scale warfare between Burmese kingdoms and these external powers also enriched artistic practices remarkably. For example, Thai/ Siamese theatrical plays and music were adopted within the Burman artistic tradition after the Burmans' triumph in the Thai-Burman battles of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. In these two military victories, Burmans brought thousands of captives back to their court, among whom were numerous Thai musicians and dancers from the Thai court, Ayutthaya. This artistic infusion generated a new style, yodaya, which has been one of the most popular musical styles in Burma since the second half of the eighteenth century. (5) On the other hand, Burma's ancient ethnoscape also shows that many kingdoms, organized around major ethnic groups, peppered the extensive fertile plains, before the British took over the rule of these local settlements in 1886. (6) It is thus not unimaginable that frequent internal warfare, skirmishes, and interchange between ethnic groups within the country caused some cultural intermingling. In Noel Singer's accounts, Pyu, Mon, and Burman artistic traditions merged and evolved into a single style, thriving at the court of the Burman kingdom, Bagan (1044-1287 C.E.). Glancing at Konbaung (1752-1885) court musical practices, one can also witness the influences of Cambodian, Laotian, and Javanese music, dance and plays, as well as those derived from the indigenes, such as Shan and Arakan. (7) As a result, what is known as Burmese classical music today is an outcome of a centuries-long blending of diverse ethnic musics.

This musical tradition is today commonly known as thachin gyi. The term thachin gyi refers to the entire song repertoire of Burmese classical music. Although there is little documentation indicating when the Burmese began to use this term, it is clearly associated with the official anthology of the song-text repertoire, Maha-gita (Great Songs), published in 1969. (8) Later when the Burmese Broadcasting Service (BBS) was introduced to Burma to serve nationalism through political propaganda, its musical programs classified songs into "kit paw" (popular music) and "thachin gyi," the term translated directly from the Pali term mahagita ("great songs") by the BBS. Then thachin gyi was widely broadcasted and popularly adopted by the Burmese public. Now it is often used as a loose equivalent for "classical music," conceived by the Burmese as a repertoire characterized by certain distinctive musical sounds, articulations, and progressions that, taken together, constitute the "classics." In this article, I use thachin gyi to denote the tradition in this broader sense.

Thachin gyi is rooted in the Burmese vocal music tradition, composed of hundreds songs that are categorized into different song types in the Burmese government's standardization of music since the mid-twentieth century. The origin of many song compositions in Maha-gita today is historically traceable. Most songs of the three ancient song types, Kyo, Bwe, and Thachin-khan, were the main court music before the Konbaung dynasty, coming into being in the mid-eighteenth century. (9) These songs are still extant in today's thachin gyi practices, while new compositions based on such court-derived, idealized compositional styles are still produced and performed.

Thachin gyi is characterized by two types of ensembles: the hsaing ensemble and the refined-style ensemble. (10) The hsaing music sounds exhilarating and vigorous, and its most common ensemble, hsaing-waing (or simply hsaing), features the shrill voice of the shawm and the virtuosity of various drum-sets and gong-sets (see Illustration 1 below). The sets include maung-hsaing (gong-circle), kyi-waing (gong-frame), chaut-lon-bat (six-drum set), and, the leading musical instrument, pat-waing (drum-circle). Illustration 1 showcases the National Hsaing Ensemble where Sein Chit Tee, an outstanding drumcircle player, served as a director during 1962-1985 in Burma's socialist era (1962-1988). In contrast, the refined-style music sounds more subtle and enchanting, often using an instrumental duet or a trio to support the crucial vocalist. Typically the vocalist controls the metric cycle by playing two idiophones called si (cymbals) and wa (clappers), (see Illustration 2 below). Compared to hsaing music, the music of refined-style ensembles exhibits a steadier, albeit still flexible, tempo. There are some Western musical instruments used in today's refined-style ensembles, but they were Burmanized for the purposes of playing of Burmese classical music during the period of British colonization (1886-1948). These indigenized Western instruments are accepted nationally as an intrinsic part of this Burmese tradition, and are prominently featured in the state-run musical competitions and school education. The Western instruments in question include the violin (tayaw), the piano (sandaya), the slide guitar (Bama gita), and the mandolin (medalin), each having undergone adaptation. (11) In comparison, the indigenous solo musical instruments saUng gauk (arched harp) and pattala (xylophone) are considered more historical and indigenous. Illustration 2 features the prestigious harpist U Myint Maung and the renowned singer Daw Yi Yi Thant.

Sounds, Texture, and the Aesthetics of "Playfulness"

Thachin gyi music is recognized as highly distinct from other Asian classical musics. To Western ears, this music challenges the expectations of steady tempo and symmetry, being marked rather by musical twitches and abruptness. Particularly in the hsaing performance, what characterizes the music are vivid contrasts of texture, abrupt shifts in rhythm and melody, and a unique style of deliberate virtuosity. The ethnomusicologist Terry Miller brilliantly describes the seeming incoherence of Burmese music as parallel to that of Burmese dances, which are similarly unpredictable and kinetically sudden. (12) Yet, these descriptions remain speculative in the existing literature due to the lack of decisive evidence. I suggest that, to comprehend the melodic and rhythmic "incoherence," the underlying dual structure of the music as well as the improvisation skills of Burmese collaborative playing must be explained.

A typical thachin gyi performance (either live or recorded) is a collaborative production, where individual performance is improvisational in nature. However, this individuality is relative to the other performers' presentations as a whole, and it is framed by a dual structure that informs a Burmese musical performance. This structure consists of a heterophonic texture of juxtaposed, independent musical entities that are rendered either monophonically (by the voice, violin and shawm) or in a two-part instrumental structure (by the harp, gong-circle, drum-circle, etc.), (13) and are interwoven with patterned metric cycles. The style and the aesthetics of thachin gyi derive from this duality. The component that supports the whole performance is the theme that Burmese musicians call the "backbone" (kyaw-yo). It provides a given frame in which a multitude of variations (a-kwet) based on musical motifs or phrases are created. This core melody is drawn from a body of themes associated with the song texts, recorded in song anthologies and passed down over centuries.

Since the classic anthologies such as Maha-gita only contain song texts without musical notation or symbols, performance of rhythms, melody, interludes, etc., conventionally relies on oral transmission. In order to keep the "backbone" from being lost to memory, however, contemporary Burmese musicians have been codifying cipher notations (15) over the past decades in order to preserve this oral tradition and to transpose the music easily. Western staff notation was also introduced in the 1950s to document the previously orally-transmitted Burmese classical music, and it is part of the government's standardization of music. This government-sanctioned attempt is called into question due to the fact that these transcriptions in staff notation are often used to serve nationalistic purposes (e.g., the unification of the national history and culture). It also proposes the artistic legitimacy and autonomy that the Western musical notation implies. (16) The project has resulted in a great number of descriptive transcriptions, posing as a dilution of the improvisations-as-performances of Burmese musical aesthetics.

In addition to the voice, the violin (17) is now a prevailing melodic instrument in a refined-style ensemble, as is its counterpart, the shawm, in hsaing. The instrumental monophony performed by these instruments tends to mirror the thachin gyi vocal style: highly embellished and lyrical. In doing so, the instrumental theme emulates the sentiments embedded both in the thematic contour and invokes the meaning of the original song lyrics. (18) The violin's unfretted fingerboard allows musicians to produce subtle shadings when moving from one note to another, similar to the idea of portamento used in the European art music. The shadings are characteristic of the thachin gyi monophonic style, i.e., "smoothness," or "slipperiness" (chaw), as well as the ideal expressive tone "moaning" (nyi). (19) An indigenous saying captures this commonality of style: "a fine Burmese shawm player can articulate the smoothness between notes as if it were the violin" (my translation). (20) In the refined-style musical playing, bearing in mind the understanding that "the voice takes the lead," violinists mostly mimic the vocal line by following closely behind or overlapping with it.

In order to understand the two-part instrumental structure that is performed along with the monophonic instruments discussed above, the manner of playing the remaining musical instruments is the key. Played with two fingers (e.g., harp, mandolin), two mallets (e.g., xylophone, gong-circle), or two hands (e.g., drum-circle), only two notes are sounded simultaneously. This practice underlies the Burmese two-part instrumental structure, in which the dual lines develop their intricacy from the song theme horizontally. (21) The ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias has therefore even suggested that Burmese music is "best thought of as an amplified single melodic line, rather than as truly polyphonic." (22) To help visualize these ideas, the transcription above presents the various layers involved. The dominant organizational element of the two-part instrumental structure, which characterizes the two variations, is the "backbone"-derived melody in the upper voice, while the melody below is designed to produce supporting intervals (i.e., 4ths, 5ths, 8ths, 9ths). (23)

Today, musicians prefer the instrumentation of a standard thachin gyi performance to combine monophonic musical instruments and "two-part-structure" musical instruments. For example, in view of the different articulation styles used with these two types of musical instruments, each player in a performance exerts him/herself, and eventually achieves "gusto," or what some musicians call "playfulness" (ka-sa), which is deemed crucial for a successful thachin gyi performance. There are also duet performances with only voice and a solo instrumentalist in which the voice is absent in repeated sections, allowing the instrumental virtuoso to improvise freely and dramatically depart from the rhythmic and melodic framework.

Improvisation (pan-ti) is intrinsic to collaborative playing in thachin gyi. In practice, Burmese musicians play music by watching and listening to each other. Technical terms such as yaw ti ("playing complementary notes") and kwet pyauk ("divergent playing from patterned techniques") denote two typical mechanisms of improvisation that serve the idea of "playfulness." Both suggest a sense of freedom and spontaneity in collaborative music making. Yaw ti (24) refers to a master musician's "playful" embellishments, occurring when the theme is carried by other musical instruments or the voice, or when s/he is "in the mood," which is to say, when s/he plays notes complementary to the theme, rather than playing the theme straight, to strengthen the effect of the resulting melodic and rhythmic contrast. Burmese musicologist U Tun Khin's simile vividly explains this skill: "it is a kind of 'hnan-pyu' ("sprinkling sesame"), referring to the addition of superfluous touches to someone else's work just to show off one's knowledge or skill." (25) The other virtuosic skill is Kwet pyauk, referring to the creative passages where a master plays patterns that diverge from what is expected in playing the theme. To Burmese musicians, a fulfilling performance involves this collaboratively creative process in which they achieve satisfaction through the "playful" skills of Yaw ti and Kwet pyauk. The experience of a performer in thachin gyi ensemble-playing is thus both personal and dialogic. Its musical structure, overlaying improvisational style, and aesthetics are what make thachin gyi music a distinctive and identifiable musical genre.

Musical Practice in Society

Today, thachin gyi continues to thrive in diverse expressive forms, both secular and sacred, instrumental and vocal, ensemble and solo. Professional musicians and amateurs, (26) whose artistry ranks very high in the category of "serious leisure," (27) keep it alive and flourishing. The online version of the Yangon/Rangoon Directory suggests that today quite a number of skillful thachin gyi musicians may be found in large Burmese cities in the country's central, fertile, and densely populated flatland. Musicians perform in professional troupes, (28) private ensembles, and individually; in addition, a few thachin gyi carriers are also found as emigres in Burma's diaspora. (29)

Traditionally, hsaing and refined-style ensembles are used as part of significant social and cultural practices. Hsaing is employed for ceremonial and outdoor entertainment occasions, including festive events such as "spirit-propitiation rites" (nat-pwe), "theatrical plays" (zat-pwe), (30) "puppet show" (yok-the), and "Burmese traditional football game" (chin-lone), as well as those activities related to family-oriented rites of passage (e.g., boys' initiation into novice-hood (shin-pyu), girls' ear-piercing ceremonies (nahtwin), weddings, and funerals). In light of Burmese conceptualization of certain diverse ceremonies (pwe) such as "auspicious ceremonies" (mingalar pwe), (31) some hsaing troupes perform only for specific types of ceremonies, due to concerns about inherent conflicts between the functions of different rituals. One can therefore hear some hsaing leaders state that they are mingalar-hsaing (an ensemble playing only for auspicious ceremonies) or nat-hsaing (an ensemble playing only for spirit rites). In contrast, other hsaing troupes play any type of ceremony. There are also balar hsaing ensembles, which only give strictly instrumental performances of hsaing music and do not accompany theatrical plays or dances. Today, one can find many new compositions made for such ensemble by modern Burmese hsaing maestros.

Hsaing and refined-style ensembles share the same classics as well as playing new compositions. However, there are particular repertories for the hsaing that are appropriate to different occasions according to thematic and contextual associations. For example, sacred music has its own repertoires, and certain musical pieces or even melodic passages are thematically and contextually identified, e.g. ngo-chin for grief, bon-tauk for joyfulness, etc. Burmese refined-style musicians in the past used to accompany the female solo dance form, the anyeint. Yet a new style of anyeint--a synthetic of melodrama, music, and dance (32)--emerged later (perhaps in the late nineteenth century), and soon found great favor with the public. Possibly to enrich the dramatic sound effects, the hsaing completely took over the role of accompanying this new form. (33) In more traditional contexts today, refined-style ensembles are found only within small-scale ceremonial and festive occasions such as weddings.

While the performance of classical music is still limited to a particular repertoire, (34) socio-cultural changes have created new performing milieus, performative mechanisms, and alternative repertories for the ensembles in question. Both ensembles have been brought to the stage, and publicized within new socio-cultural contexts, and have collaborated with Western orchestras in order to meet the needs of the film and music industries. Moreover, recent, large-scale nation-building projects have also opened up new performing arenas, such as the state-run radio and television broadcasts.

Specifically, since the mid-1990s, new performing mechanisms have emerged in the tourism and music industries in large cities. Most of these initiatives result from private enterprise, and they have benefited from the selective liberalization of Burma's economy. Stage-shows in restaurants, primarily designed for foreign tourists, were commonplace until the beginning of this millennium. Although the shows appear to have been the result of a sudden upsurge of foreign investment, as I see it, this situation might be a short-term remnant of the state-sponsored tourist campaign "Visit Myanmar 1996 Year." At the turn of the twenty-first century, continued political and economic stasis, together with corruption, second-rate tourist packages, and the partial Western boycott on travel to Burma brought tourism-oriented cultural shows to an end. For example, Lon-Ma-Lay, a well-known fine dining restaurant in the Kandawgyi (Royal Lake) area of Rangoon, held daily performances of Burmese classical music at the peak of the tourism boom in the late 1990s. Profoundly Burmese in its performance and decoration, it went out of business in 2001.

In Rangoon's music market of late, a growing number of albums of Burmese classical music has appeared. Many Burmese hsaing troupes and refined-style solo musicians have proudly produced albums that are typically given the name of the performance troupe as title. (35) Various disc formats, such as CD, VCD, and Karaoke VCD, are used for these recordings and may be found in the market. To cater to the different tastes of buyers, a typical hsaing VCD album includes maestros playing different styles of music. Some tracks are exclusively instrumental and designed for the master to display his/her virtuosity, while others are tailored for karaoke purpose in which the words are shown on screen for audiences to sing along. Some tracks feature the voices of celebrated singers. To attract the buyers' interest in purchase, the hsaing master may also collaborate with a few actors in order to tell short stories, deliver jokes, and make remarks. On top of these, there are also CD albums purely for sound recordings. The three album covers in Illustration 3 above demonstrate the diverse content of the hsaing albums available in the market.

Music of the Nation

Since the early 1960s, the Burmese government has generously funded the arts in order to shape the "traditional" or "classical" Burman arts to fit the profile of a "national" art. More recent endeavors enacted by the current rulers aim to unify the musical canon and to promote the nationalistic art heritage to the global community. This nationalistic scheme has been aided by tourism projects and the selective opening of the country to foreign investment and has permeated the state-controlled media. It also informed the foundation of the University of Culture (as of 2008, the University of National Culture and Arts) and the Hso-ka-yei-ti (36) Competition (The Music and Dance Competition), two high-profile national institutions. They were both established in 1993: the University was founded both in Rangoon and Mandalay; and the Competition only in Rangoon. (37) The University of Culture is the highest-level institution providing formal musical training in Burma, and its postgraduate program in music, established in 2005, offers the highest-level music degree in Burma today. However, as Gavin Douglas points out, although the University has produced a large number of graduates, it also trains civil servants for work in government offices completely unrelated to the arts. (38) In the same nationalistic spirit, Hso-ka-yei-ti Competition runs every October (November at times) as an annual moment of reasserting the current military dictatorship's power in the field of national culture. This moment is also to define good Myanmar citizens by awarding contestants who excelled at the state-standardized art tradition. Yet the state's legitimacy does not go unchallenged. For example, one anonymous musician keeps a statue of Socrates, the Greek sage, in a private space to "silently" voice his/her repugnance towards this Competition. Making a pun on the similarity of pronunciation between the competition name and that of the Greek philosopher, the musician said, "I have a Socrates ['s1-krc-tiz] at home; no need to participate in Hso-ka-yei-ti " (2002).

The University of Culture and Hso-ka-yei-ti Competition are oriented toward reinforcing national unity by instilling a patriotic "Myanmar identity" within its graduates, or contestants. Gavin Douglas notes that in the "Curricula and Syllabus" of the then-University of Culture, the general objective of teaching academic and cultural subjects is referred to as "keeping dynamic patriotism, strengthening of national unity, preserving and disseminating the Myanmar Traditional Culture, teaching Myanmar Traditional Culture customs of indigenous national races at Universities, Institutes, Colleges and Schools, upholding the spirit of nationalism." (39) Ironically, no ethnic minority musics are scheduled or present in actual practice; the curriculum is exclusively framed in terms of the artistic traditions of ethnic Burmans. Despite this fact, a representational exaggeration of the number and significance of the non-Burman contestants is found in the news coverage of and ethnic attire encouraged in the Hso-ka-yei-ti competition. (40) This discrepancy suggests that while the government is keen to emphasize the heritage of the ethnic majority Burmans as national culture, it is also eager to showcase the "willingness" of non-Burmans to participate in national, Burman-dominant culture. Despite the state news coverage of the competition, such high-profile presence of individuals who are relatively irrelevant to Burmese arts such as members of ethnic minorities, governing generals and children, is in doubt. It is believed that "art traditions" have been merged into the political practices of the military regime, (41) wherein the traditions are invented, standardized, and reinterpreted.

Two Cases of Creation: Blending Sounds, Clashing Aesthetics

Although new milieux for musical performance have opened up over the past decades in which musicians perform, traditional artists still cannot hold out against the Burmese musical industry, where Western-influenced pop music holds sway. This is evident from Rangoon's authoritative billboard charts, The City Music Top Ten, based on sales (see Illustration 4 below). Most professional classical musicians today encounter a severe lack of career opportunities in the arts. To make a living, many artists have become semi-professionals, concurrently pursuing another vocation. Some, however, have taken advantage of this globalized and modernized environment, and have turned Burmese classical music in new directions. Along these lines, as mentioned earlier, many hsaing maestros have produced sound recordings to boost visibility and maximize profit. (42) Additionally, a few artists have striven to introduce hsaing to new audiences and keep the music alive and thriving. The albums Yaw Tha Ma Mhwe (The Mixed) and Bang on a Can with Kyaw Kyaw Naing are two successful examples.

In the propaganda-based discourse of the Burmese authorities, it is the typically Western influences that are blamed for the substantial decline in popularity of traditional arts. However, DJ (disc jockey)-mix technology has at times turned Burmese traditional music into big hits in the Burmese pop music industry. The album Yaw Tha Ma Mhwe (The Mixed) blends British electro music with Burmese nat doe, the hsaing music played at the supernatural ritual of spirit propitiation. Such "sacred" sounds provided the DJs with "fresh" material to mix on their turntable. Produced by two of Rangoon's leading DJs, Thxa Soe and DJ Jay, this album soon won over urban youth after it was released in 2006. For Burmese urban youth who had craved "new" sounds for expression, this production fulfilled their desire.

Based on the regulations of the ill-reputed state-run censorship board, this album poses an apparent conflict between what was "hip" and the "classics" as well as between secularity and sacredness. Despite the problems, the album was not banned. However, the VCD version of its first track, "Hsaing Kyaik Te Maung" (The Man Who Likes Hsaing Music), was not allowed to be released in Burma by the censors. In the video, a hiply-dressed Western female dancer performs with a nat-ka-daw (spirit medium), which was determined to be "inappropriate." That this video was eventually made accessible to the Burmese, both at home and abroad, is a tribute to the power of cyberspace. Video-sharing websites, such as Youtube and some Burmese-run blogs, have helped people gain access to it. Such cross-border circulation of this video reflects a sense of resistance to the Burmese regime's political control that is essentially restricted by its territorial borders. (44)

Illustration 5 suggests the conceptual environment The Mixed has produced. From the picture, one can see the collage of disparate codes of traditionality (e.g., hsaing, the royal pageboy with two hair knots) and modernity (e.g., loudspeakers, Western jacket). Whether or not this album clashes with ideals of aesthetic integrity in the cultural politics of the nation does not seem to concern Burmese hipsters, as this album was a triumph. It reached Rangoon's Top Ten of the City Board in 2006 and remained there all year, paving the way for the success of Thxa Soe's next albums, in which he continued to re/mix more Burmese traditional musics with Western beats. See Illustration 4, track 5, of the Local Song List.

Another case is the album Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing, released in 2004 in New York. It originated as an avant-garde project in which the hsaing prodigy Kyaw Kyaw Naing collaborated with the New York-based ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. (45) Bang on a Can musicians have striven to expose "the new, the unknown and the unconventional" (46) in music over the past years, and Burmese music, which has had so little exposure in the Western world music market, serves this purpose well. This album exclusively showcases Burmese-inspired instrumental music, featuring tracks of Kyaw Kyaw Naing's new hsaing compositions, as well as those of some significant Burmese composers from older generations. However, even though the compositional idea expresses a strong sense of Burmese ness tied to the hsaing tradition, the package of this album greatly downplays any elements related to Burma. From the album cover (see Illustration 6 below), it becomes obvious that the image of Buddha and the golden color are used to create the impression of an Asian, or more precisely, an Oriental ambience, the design apparently catering to a wider range of white, middle-class, world music audiences, rather than only to a small coterie of Burma aficionados.

The first track of this album is coincidentally named "Hsaing Kyaik Te Maung," the same as the title of the first track of The Mixed. Even though its compositional idea is exclusively Burmese, the European-art-music-style rendition, as performed by American musicians on Western musical instruments such as clarinet, cello, and drum-set, makes this track sound quite un-Burmese. This in part results from the dilution of Burmese musical aesthetics, that is to say, the distinct hsaing features (e.g., the sudden shifts in rhythm and melody, and the collective playfulness) are not present. The distinct qualities of hsaing music are thus greatly compromised by the Western standards of music that emphasize continuity and coherence.

The two albums described above represent two cases of sound blending and aesthetic clash in this new millennium. Burmese conservatives might identify them as threats to this tradition. Yet, such blending and clash also occurred centuries or decades ago in both monarchic and colonial eras, appearing first as multiethnic integration and later as the Burmanization of Western musical instruments. Both developments may also have created conflicts and debates at the time, but the results were eventually transformed into what we now call the thachin gyi tradition. So the musicians' acts of musical blending can be seen as providing an incentive for this tradition to continue to flourish.


What is known as Burmese classical music today has been shaped over the longue duree: created by multiethnic contacts, patronized at court, later carrying a colonial inscription, and now standardized by the dictatorship. As it is seen now, the hsaing ensemble and refined-style ensemble are two common types of the Burmese classical music tradition. They have not only borne the old sounds, structures, and socio-cultural meanings for generations, but are also used to create new ones. Since the early 1990s, Burma has been developing a more modernized infrastructure, and is exposed to a wider, globalized community. Within this context, this music has been extensively appropriated and reinterpreted for a variety of uses by Burmese musical cohorts and individuals worldwide. To some extent, it is these new appropriations and reinterpretations that vitalize this tradition.

(2.) In 1989 the Burmese military authority (SLORC: State Law and Order Restoration Council, recently renamed the State Peace and Development Council) changed the name of Burma to Myanmar, and the former capital Rangoon to Yangon. However, this decision has been rejected by any sitting legislature in Burma and also by the U.S. Government, who argue that this military government does not have the authority to institute it. Myanmar is a derivative of the Burmese name Myanma Naingngandaw (nation). To be consistent with majority scholarly usage in the U.S. nowadays, in this article, I use the terms Burma, Burmese, and Rangoon without any political implications. In addition, the terms "Burman" and "Burmese" are used to indicate specific meanings: Burman refers to the majority ethnic group in Burma, making up 68% of the total population of 48 million (June 2009 estimate). Besides ethnic Burman, the seven minority groups recognized by the Burmese government are Shan, Mon, Chin, Kachin, Rakhine, Kayin or Karen, and Kayah. "Burmese" indicates all people of Burma's nationals <>, (accessed June 22 2009).

(3.) For publications in Japanese, see Sayuri Inoue, "Biruma Koten Kayou No Senritsu Wo Motomete--Syosyou To Kousyou Kara Sousaku e" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The Melody Creation of Burmese Classical Songs from Their Oral and Written Forms] (Tokyo: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 2007); "Birima Koten Kayou Ni Okeru Janru Kubun No Keisei" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The Formation of Genre Division in Burmese Classical Songs with Special Reference to Song Anthologies in Palm Leaf Manuscripts], Journal of Asian and African Studies 74 (2007): 121-63. For publications in Chinese, I myself completed a M.A. thesis "Miandian Gongxing Shuqin saUng-gauk zhi Xingzhi Fazhan yu Xiangzheng Yiyi" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] saUng-gauk [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The Development of Construction and Symbolic Meanings of Burmese Arched Harp--saUng-gauk] (National Taiwan University, 2001). A French musicologist Ludivine Isaffo also conducted ethnographic research in Burma. One of her conference papers is found relating to the Burmese hUn tayo (horn-violin). See Ludivine Isaffo, "The Timbre of the 'Horn-violin' in the Early 20th Century Recordings," in the Proceedings of the Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology. Montreal (Quebec) Canada, March 10-12 (2005). For more detailed accounts on the research foci of these ethnographers, see U Tun Khin, "Gitabeda Meitseik" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Introduction to Musicology], in Shwe Yatu A-thein A-hmat Magazine [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: [Golden Jubilee Magazine] (Rangoon: Commerce Graduate Association, 2004), 167-70. In addition, lately, a M.A. thesis "Myanmarische Musik--Yodaya Lieder im historisch-kulturellen Kontext" (Myanmar Music-Yodaya Songs in Historico-cultural Context) was completed by a German graduate student Daphne Wolf at the Humboldt University in 2008, Berlin (written in German).

(4.) Scholars have identified some foreign musical elements that contribute to Burmese classical music. For Chinese pentatonicism, see U Khin Zaw, "Burmese Music: A Preliminary Enquiry," The Journal of the Burma Research Society 30 (1940): 393-5. For Chinese musical instruments, see Shen Dong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "Tangdai Piaoguoyue Chutan" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [A Preliminary Investigation on Pyu Music in the Tang dynasty], Zhong Wai Wenxue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Zhong Wai Literary Monthly] 19, no. 3 (1990): 22-57; Lin Qiansan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Hayashi Kenzo], Sui Tang Yanyuediao Yanjiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Research on the Yan music in the Sui and Tang Eras] (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1974); and Hsin-chun Lu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "Qianxi Tangdai Piaoguo Xianyue de Yiyi" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The Meaning of the Burmese Pyu Band as a Tribute to the Chinese Tang Dynasty], in Proceedings of the First Conference of Music Graduate School Students (1999): 1-26. For ancient Indian musical instruments, see Judith Becker, "The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma," The Galpin Society Journal 20 (1967): 17-23; John Okell, "The Burmese Double-reed 'Nhai'," Asian Music 2, no. 1 (1971): 25-31; Muriel Williamson, "The Iconography of Arched Harps in Burma," in Music and Tradition: Essays on Asian and Other Musics Presented to Laurence Picken, edited by D. R. Widdess and R. F. Wolpert, 209-307 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981). For the Thai scale system, see U Khin Zaw, "Burmese Music," 398-400. For Thai instrumentation, see Robert Garfias, "The Development of the Modern Burmese Hsaing Ensemble," Asian Music 16, no. 1 (1985): 5; also U Ye Htut, Myanmar Dances (Rangoon: Win Sarpay, 1997), 28.

(5.) See Noel Singer, Burmese Dance and Theatre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 11; also U Ye Htut, Myanmar Dances, 30.

(6.) The politico-geographical configuration of these ethnic kingdoms actually outlines an ethnic map that endures to this day: the dominant Burmans mainly having occupied central Burma, the Mon southern Burma, the Shan the north, and the Arakan the west. See Maung Htin Aung, A History of Burma (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), 30.

(7.) Singer, Burmese Dance, 1-15.

(8.) Part of the nation-building project, Maha-gita was published by the Burma Ministry of Union Culture. See Muriel Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University, 2000), 22. Gita-withaw-dani is the earlier official anthology, published in Rangoon in 1923. It was based on the repertory established by the last court harpist, U Maung Maung Gyi, and later compiled by his pupil U Maung Maung Lat, ibid., 36-7. Overall, Maha-gita is now used more extensively through the musical institutionalization and centralization in the several state-run schools of the arts.

(9.) Specifically, for example, Wungyi Padei-tha-yaza (1683-1754), the musical minister in the Toungoo dynasty (1486-1752), was responsible for the first four song compositions of the Kyo type; his works also include thirty-seven Nat songs, the song type for the thirty-seven Burmese local spirits (nat). See Shoon Myaing, Mahagita Myanmar Classics (Mandalay: Mandalay Myoma Amateur Music Association, 2001), 88. Now his four Kyo songs are typically used for all the thachin gyi beginners, regardless of the musical instrument they play. In addition, Myawadi Wungyi U Sa (1766-1853), a famous Konbaung musician and also a dramatist, is said to have composed the last five pieces of the Kyo songs, and also probably composed at least sixty-seven Pat-pyo songs in his newly invented tuning, auk-pyan. Later, Pyinsi Mintha (1813-1862), the Princess Pyinsi, composed most of the Yodaya type of songs, Pat-pyo songs, and Thachin-khan songs. See Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University, 2001), 20-26; 141.

(10.) To conceptualize and systemize Burmese music, Western and Japanese scholars have in the past used terms to classify Burmese ensembles mostly in favor of their occasional contrast. For the terms of "theatrical"/ "chamber," see Judith Becker, "Modes and the Oral Tradition in Burmese Music" (M.A. thesis, University of Michigan, 1968); Yosihiko Tokumaru, "Burmese Music: A Brief Discussion of Its Present Situation," in Musical Voices of Asia: Report of Asian Traditional Performing Arts 1978, edited by Richard Emmert and Minegishi Yuki, 68-75 (Tokyo: Japan Foundation, 1980). For the terms of "outdoor"/"indoor," see Garfias, "The Development of the Modern Burmese Hsaing Ensemble." For the terms of "outside-style"/"inside-style," see Ward Keeler, "Music Cultures and Regions: Burma," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 4, Southeast Asia, edited by Terry E. Miller and Sean Williams, 363-400 (New York: Garland, 1998). However, these two types are now both played indoors and outdoors (e.g., those for making any mediated music production), and hsaing accompanies not only theatrical plays but also singing and sports, or may also be heard as "abstract" music. In addition, no indigenous terms indicate this dichotomy; interview accounts also reveal that most Burmese today don't have the conception of this distinctive duality. I thus prefer not using any contrast, or dichotomous, terms to avoid any misleading indication.

(11.) For example, the very first piano is believed to have shown up at court as a present from the Italian ambassador in 1872 (Rick Heizman, NPR transcript of the 7 April 1998 broadcast of All Things Considered), and the Hawaiian slide guitar was introduced to Burma in 1943. At the outset, they both had to be retuned to accommodate the intonation used in Burmese thachin gyi. For more information, see Kit Young's online article "The Strange, The Familiar: Foreign Musical Instruments in Myanmar/Burma" < myanmar/md_essays02.html> (accessed June 2009).

(12.) Terry Miller, 2004, "Southeast Asian Musics: An Overview," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 4, 19.

(13.) To avoid the confusion of using the term "harmony," I have derived the concept of "two-part instrumental structure" from "two-part instrumental style" as defined by Robert Garfias. See Garfias, "Myanmar," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001), vol. 17, 576.

(14.) These patterned variations are derived from Burmese mandolin music as demonstrated by my mandolin teacher U Kyaw Lwin in July 2006.

(15.) One cipher notation uses Arabic numbers (e.g., 1, 2, 3), and is considered as a Chinese influence. I have found Jonathan Stock's description of cipher notation as used in China equivalent to what Burmese musicians adopt in thachin gyi practice: "cipher notations is fully transposable, using a series of simple characters to represent modal degrees ... the basic character set is the Western digits: 1 (pronounced "do"), 2 ("re"), 3 ("mi") etc." See Jonathan Stock, Musical Creativity in Twentieth-Century China: Abing, His Music, and Its Changing Meanings (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1996). Another cipher notation is an indigenous form widely used as the musical skeleton of the two-part structure by many Burmese musicians. A tablature, this notation adopts Burmese numbers (1 to 7 = [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to indicate the numbered keys on a Burmese scale that the right hand and left hand (e.g., on the xylophone and the drum-circle), or right finger and left finger (e.g., on the harp and the mandolin) have to play. See Gavin Douglas, "State Patronage of Burmese Traditional Music," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 2001), 189-91.

(16.) Ibid., 192-96.

(17.) Burmese use Western-style violin to play thachin gyi, and in Burmese music, the violin only plays music in a monophonic manner, rather than playing double or triple stops.

(18.) This statement is based on my experience of learning the Burmese harp, as well as the interview with the Burmese musicologist U Tun Khin (fieldnotes, dated July 26, 2006).

(19.) The Burmese terms I use here, such as chaw and nyi are based on my fieldwork accounts and phone conversations with Burmese musicians.

(20.) "(12.) Terry Miller, 2004, "Southeast Asian Musics: An Overview," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 4, 19.

(21.) Ibid., 91.

(22.) Garfias, "Myanmar," 17:576.

(23.) The supporting quality of these intervals developed via "mouth-music," the Burmese mnemonic system, over centuries. In addition, thachin gyi musicians also often imitate the timbre and articulation of the harp in refined-style music on the drum-circle, its counterpart in hsaing music. A good tone of the drum-circle is described as "mellow roundness.... sounded like the harp." U Khin Zaw, Burmese Culture, 63.

(24.) Yaw ti is by origin a hsaing technique, but now many experienced masters on other musical instruments are capable of employing it.

(25.) This quote is taken from my field notes dated 7 December 2005.

(26.) The Burmese arts specialist Noel Singer has pointed out that amateur artists have managed to maintain the essence of the traditional performing arts, while the standards of artistry in commercial shows organized by professionals have deteriorated (Singer, Burmese Dance, 77). My ethnographic studies in the decade since his book appears also support this.

(27.) According to a leading psychologist's notion of amateurism, "serious leisure" refers to "a systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity that is substantial enough for the participant to find a career there in the acquisition and expression of its special skills or knowledge or both." See Robert Stebbins, Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992), 3.

(28.) The Directory lists seventeen Burmese hsaing ensembles in business under the category "Myanmar Orchestra" in Rangoon < sub_cat=13~Myanmar%20Orchestras> (accessed 10 February 2009). This number is supposedly a severe underestimate due to many musicians' unregistered status and the exclusion of refined-style ensemble musicians.

(29.) This statement is a general extrapolation from my extensive field research and personal communication (e.g., phone interviews, e-mail) with people in Burmese communities across Asian countries and the US.

(30.) For more information on the hsaing music of nat-pwe and zat-pwe, see Keeler, "Music Cultures," 372-74; also Keeler's online article: "Contemporary Burmese Za' Pwe" < md_essays01.html> (accessed 10 February 2009).

(31.) "Auspicious ceremonies" basically refer to all ceremonies excluding funerals and spirit-propitiation rites.

(32.) This new anyeint style refers to a public burlesque that incorporates comedians' slapstick within the solo female character's singing and dancing. Such anyeint performance is still commonly found.

(33.) For more detailed information of Burmese hsaing music and anyeint dance, see Robert Garfiaa, "Burmese Hsaing and Anyein," in program booklet accompanying Music and Dance of Myanmar (Burma) concert (New York: Asia Society, 12-13 December 2003). This is also available online at <http://www.asiasource .org/myanmar/md_essays03.html> (Accessed June 2009)

(34.) As mentioned above, all the classical musical repertories were collected in the eighteenth century within the Maha-gita, but only song lyrics, without notation, were recorded. The music itself has been orally transmitted from generation to generation. Nonetheless, these classical pieces are now basically fixed in rhythmic and melodic patterns, in terms of the improvisations overlaying the musical structure, and in their functions within social practice.

(35.) For hsaing, in most cases the name of the troupe is also the name of the leader (i.e., the drum-circle player).

(36.) In Burmese, hso literally means "sing," ka "dance," yei "song-writing," and ti "instrumental playing."

(37.) As for 2005, when the country's capital was changed from Rangoon to Pyinmana, approximately 200 miles north of Rangoon, the Hso-ka-yei-thi Competition was also moved to the new capital, beginning in 2006.

(38.) "In fact, all students of the University of Culture are guaranteed work in government ministries. Training in the basic academic courses has provided the students with a sufficient basic education to work as civil servants in any of a variety of government ministries not necessarily related to the cultural industry," quoted from Gavin Douglas, "The Myanmar University of Culture: For Patriotism and National Unity," Minsu Quyi/Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre and Folklore 141 (2003): 273.

(39.) Ibid., 278-9.

(40.) Gavin Douglas, 2001.

(41.) Ibid., 82-3.

(42.) Although the tourism-boosting national project "The Visiting Myanmar Year 1996" is ill-reputed, a vast number of sound productions came into being over the past decade, in addition to those ones discussed in this article. A multitude of sound recordings targets foreign tourists as potential buyers. Therefore, English album titles are designed to draw cosmopolitans' attention. For example, Eastern Country Production released a few series of albums featuring Burmese solo musicians awarded by the Hso-ka-yei-ti Competition. A series of harp albums highlights the harpist Hlaing Win Maung. They are Pleasing Melody, Pleasing Melody 2, Pleasing Melody 3, The Very First Season, and Myanmar Classical Songs (Rangoon, 2006 etc.). Another series is contributed to the hsaing maestro Sein Moot Tar. Two albums are Sein Moot Tar Plays Myanmar Classical Songs Volume 1 and its Volume 2 (Rangoon, 2006). On the contrary, Yinmar Music reproduced the sound recordings of a passed renowned musician, Saung U Ba Than (1912-1987), and presents the series "A Traditional Instrumental Music Collection," such as The Myanmar Xylophone: Saung U Ba Than and Myanamr's Harp & Xylophone: Saung U Ba Than (Rangoon, 2002). Manthiri also released a series of musical productions named "Myanmar Traditional Music: Myanma Gita A-Hla Ba-Day-Thar" [Varieties of Beauty in Myanmar Music](Rangoon, 2000 etc.).

(43.) The City Music Top Ten, City Mart Smart Living 41 (Rangoon: City Mart Holding Co., 2006), 9.

(44.) "Internet DJs Beat the Censors," The Irrawaddy 15, no. 6 (2007): back page.

(45.) Kyaw Kyaw Naing served as the director of Burma's National Hsaing Orchestra from 1985 until he went into exile in the U.S. in 1999. He is recognized as the only Burmese hsaing proponent in the U.S.

(46.) Mission Statement of Bang on a Can (

Hsin-chun Tasaw Lu (1)

(1.) Hsin-chun Tasaw Lu is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology in the Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Her doctoral dissertation, "Constructing Musical Identity among Burmese Classical Musicians in Burma and Its Diasporas," was completed at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2007. She may be contacted at This article has been peer-reviewed.
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Author:Lu, Hsin-chun Tasaw
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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