In Burma, A New Breath for Old Songs

Surnames omitted to protect people’s identities.

It is the Sunday of the birthday of the Buddha, the beginning of a new season in Burma. If this neighborhood, in the lively slum of Rangoon, is any slower paced than usual it is because so many people are at the ancient Shwedagon Shrine paying their respects. Inside this sweltering house, the faces of the nine musicians in the room glisten with a higher sheen than their various instruments, whose varnish has long since been worn away.
A structure of cement and corrugated metal, the house is owned by the brother of one of the musicians, a blind mandolin player with betel-stained teeth named Ko Pauk. Pauk, who began playing the mandolin at about the age of ten, was quickly recognized by his contemporaries as a musician of promise. Older musicians came to study or play with him. Now in his fifties, he still plays with the same core group who gathered around him when he was young.

In fact, of the fifteen musicians who will pass through this room today, only one is under the age of thirty. The rest are in their late forties and fifties. They gather, as many of them have for thirty years, to play the khi’haung–the “old era” songs. The term covers a time from roughly 1895 until 1960, and spans from Burmese folk songs to the 40’s pop tunes.
Maung Maung, a violinist friend of Pauk’s, wistfully remembers a time when the country’s mood was different–when people learned and played the old songs: “It was the atmosphere. It was…full of music.” Few young people are interested in the older songs, while rock and hiphop are increasingly accessible, thanks to advances in copying technology.
Neighbors watch with bemused curiosity through the barbed wire that sections off the open window, or glance in through the open wall that faces the pitted street. The musicians gather in the early afternoon and sometimes play late into the night, sustained on pastries and milky coffee. Today, Ko Pauk has his mandolin. On Maung Maung’s lap, a resin-dusted violin, a slide guitar. On any given day, this place might also see a half dozen additional instruments. And while some of them are familiar to Western audiences, others, like the Burmese harp on the farm table, are not. An elaborate, boatlike instrument with a black-lacquered body, the harp is supposed to house a nat: one of the traditional Burmese spirits that make their homes in everything from trees to lakes to birdhouse-like home shrines built for them.
And of the familiar set, some of them–the slide guitar, for instance, have been tuned to a different set of scales. While in the west a guitar’s base to treble strings are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, and E, in Burma they are G, C, F, G, C, F. Increasingly, though, western scales are favored. Another feature of the music is the gong and wooden clapper that one musician–sometimes the singer–uses to keep time to the music. Even piano performances would sound off to these musicians without the gong-chime.
There is little synergy between the old songs and contemporary ones, says Hnin Pwing, a Burmese student who, thanks to a grant, was able to study music and community development in Thailand. “Burmese music is complicated–it is very different from western music. To combine them effectively…you have to know old music well. You have to know the modern music also. But it is hard to get a music education in Burma.”
The content of the modern songs, he adds, is often bland because of government censorship. Songs may not criticize the government. Songs may not suggest that the Burmese people are unhappy, the Burmese economic condition bleak, or the Burmese country mired in a dictatorial quagmire. What’s left to the artists are unprovocative love songs, or–if they are daring–allegories. Phy recalls a popular musician who referred to renowned activist Aung San Syu Kyii in a song by metaphor. “It was called the Myawaddy. The Myawaddy is a river, and he is saying it goes on and on. She is like the river–she will be remembered and cannot be removed overnight.” The song was banned by the Burmese Censorship Board.”
Burmese old era songs cover a range of subjects. Some of them are love songs. Some are morality tales. Some are Jataka–stories from the Buddha’s life, generally told from a Burmese angle, even if they take place in India. One of the persistent themes in the older songs is regret for the lost Mandalay kingdom. The songs had their genesis in 1895, when the British arrested the Burmese king and queen and sent them into exile. One has only to observe the reverence which with the people of Burma’s neighbor–Thailand–still hold their king, to understand the void it must have left in the culture.
Few of these songs are written down. Recently, the government issued a multi-volume compendium, but one of the musicians in the room disparages it as arbitrarily selective and “written by committee”. The government promotes the old music in several other visible, though rarely substantive ways. Khi’haung musicians appear on the government television channel and there is a yearly khi’haung competition (in which Ko Pauk has three gold medals for the mandolin). It is a part of the government’s unrelenting promotion of Burman culture–often at the expense of the culture, and musics of the various peoples of Burma. Generally, the old songs, which do not deal with contemporary political issues, are considered less threatening than modern music.
And yet, it’s not always the case. In the late afternoon, the musicians in this house–every instrument available–strike up the strangely dissonant tones of a piece called “Nga Ta Ba”. It takes place at a time in Burmese history when the king has been defeated or died, and the nga da ba, or regent, goes to the abbot and flatters him: “I am not the king,” he says. “But you are wise like the Buddha and your feet are like the Buddha’s.” The abbott is not impressed and dismisses the flattery. “You are not the king. You don’t have to wear the shoes of the king. Wear your own shoes”. You can rule with my blessing, but only if you don’t abuse your power.”