“In all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together” wrote Anthony Storr, in his excellent book Music and the Mind. People sing together, dance together, in every culture and for most people, music is an important part of daily life. Myanmar people are no different.
Burmese traditional and classical music is quite melodious and is a centuries-long legacy of the Burmese royal courts. Like many other styles of music in Southeast Asia, Burmese classical music is held in high national regard as a sophisticated art form. It not only remains a living tradition at home but also brought great acclaim to the country abroad. Historical records of the music in Myanmar show people used music to celebrate different rituals and occasions relevant to their land and personal life events. Singing and dancing at festivals is evidenced on clay tablets of the 5th to 11th century found in the environs of Thaton and Bago. It is also known that a Pyu cultural delegation visited China during this period and they had brass musical instruments, conches, string instruments, and other instruments made of ivory, bamboo, leather, gourd and horn.
The complete body of Myanmar classical songs is usually referred to as the ‘Maha Gita’ meaning great or royal song which primarily forms the basis of Myanmar classical music. It also 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 theatre, both the puppet theatre and that which employs live actors. Burmese monarchy created different regional music styles and many classical traditions. A variety of folk traditions were included as well.
Traditional Myanmar music is mainly percussion-based music. In his book titled “The Art and Culture of Burma” Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote, “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”. Various kinds of music, songs, and dances are named after the kind of drums used. The Myanmar orchestra called ‘saing waing’ includes a drum circle of nine to twenty one drums suspended on a circular wooden frame. The drums are tuned by sticking dough which is a kneaded mixture of boiled rice and wood ash to the membrane to make the sound of the drum to be firm, distinct, loud, accurate and resonant which is essential.
The Myanmar orchestra is spectacular in appearance and unique in the musical tone it produces. In the Myanmar orchestra stringed instruments and xylophone are absent. They are used for concert performances. The saing accompanies mostly stage performances (zat pwès), ritual dances (nat pwès), and many other festive occasions that enliven Burmese life. Myanmar saing-music plays an important part in the Myanmar drama. Most of the stories or plots are drawn from Buddhist scriptures and from where the artistes draw their inspiration. A big double-faced drum hangs on the body of a mythical figure known as “pyinsa yupa” supported by tripods. This drum is beaten with force. . The leader of the saing-waing orchestra is the player of the drums-circle who is always treated with a lot of respect and is addressed as ywar-sar meaning ‘Lord of a village’. The ywar-sars of ancient days were appointed by the Myanmar kings to rule big and prosperous villages.
Large sidaw (see-daw) drums are used for formal music as it was a royal drum meant to play on royal occasions, auspicious gatherings, and favourable portents in the villages. It was also played during the entrance and exit of the king and queen during the Inwa period (1364- 1555) or when the monarchs were attending grand dramas or marionette (puppetry) shows. There is evidence that the drums were given to Buddhist temples or monasteries by an important person or monarch to mark a special event
The shape of the Burmese Frog Drum or Karen Drum is typical of the Karen drums found in Burma and Thailand. The ones found in Vietnam are of mushroom shape. These drums derived the name Karen drum or frog drum from the Karen word for frog drum “klo” and the Mon word for drum “pham”.
The sidaw was also played at ploughing ceremonies, city visits, and ceremonies marking the beginning and ending of the sitting of the Hluttaw. Long bonshay drums were used for folk music, and pot-shaped ozi (OH-zee) and two faced dobat (DOE-bat) drums for village celebrations. Other instruments include oboes, flutes, gongs, cymbals, bamboo clappers and xylophones. Westerner instruments, such as violins, guitars, and accordions, sometimes accompany the traditional instruments.
Burma is nested at the intersection of three civilizations – India, China, and Thailand (Siam). Therefore, a lot from their styles of music was also adopted within the Burmese artistic tradition. The Burmese harp or saung is an ancient and important musical boat-shaped, 13-stringed instrument which was introduced as early as 500 AD from Southeastern India in the form of Burmese temple reliefs that depict a long-necked harp very similar to depictions found in Bengal. In the10th century musicians used only 5 strings in Burmese harp which later increased to seven strings in 18th century. The body of the harp is very interesting. It is made of rose wood which is famous mahogany. The flat bar is made of cutch wood. Covered with the leather of a female deer its strings are made of silk.
The graceful harp benefited from the cultural renaissance of the Konbaung era (1752–1885). When the Burmese king Hsinbyushin sacked Ayuthaya, he brought back with him many Siamese (Thailand) courtiers. The captured Siamese actors and musicians fueled new forms and experiments in harp music.
The Burmese classical music scale is tuned differently from the Western scale, but lately, due to the overriding influence of Western music, many harpists tune to the Western diatonic scale, as fewer singers feel comfortable with the traditional tunings. In 1956, the Japanese film director Kon Ichikawa made an Oscar nominated anti-war film called The Burmese Harp set in Burma during World War II