Ignoring particulars: Music and society in Myanmar
RECENTLY I attended a talk by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at a major cultural institution in New York City. People filed in early to be sure of their seats in what became a packed auditorium. Once seated, guests tittered, tweeted, texted, talked. But precious few silently took in an incredible gift floating out from the loudspeakers: Burmese hsaing waing (gong-drum ensemble), hne (circular breathing double reed oboe), tayaw (violin) and slide guitar – impossibly intricate yet able to nearly intoxicate a listener tuned with a puzzling, assertively curious ear.
For the incurious, these wafting sounds were just an exotic background buzz, forgotten immediately in the trill of a tweet, or talk of more important matters. Recorded as consecutive instrumental solos, the loop of musical numbers repeated several times before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi entered on the stage and the program began. Even disinterested listeners had ample time before the event to wonder about these tunes.
This magical music – Kyaw Kyaw Naing’s hsaing, U Ba Htay’s hne,U Tin Yi’s tayaw and Myanmar slide guitarist Man Yar Pyae U Tin – carried clues to understanding the particular, the un-global latitude and longitude of Burmese character and art.
Not only in New York but also among so many in Myanmar are these particulars dismissed as irrelevant in the current rush to “catch up” with neighbours and to globalise musical culture. Elderly and even younger musicians languish, their genius unrecognised and ignored, abandoned for new cultural loops. You know this story. The world repeats it in each new generation that later suffers regret for irretrievable cultural loss, a collective sentiment unable to value living traditions as also a way to move forward.
In Yangon, English and now some Myanmar language event listings seldom announce gatherings and concerts where traditional musicians may be heard, nor do they note pagoda festivals of zat pwe where musicians and dancers can be experienced. Is it really too hard to undertake ear travel with particular tones and time, especially as with the internet we have more access than ever before to all kinds of music?
In her talk, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi invited those Americans engaging with Myanmar to cultivate particular understandings. That means listening to individual ethnic voices in Myanmar, supporting this government’s priority of a lasting peace agreement. In investment it means developing appropriate jobs and skills to specific sectors of the country in addition to estimating profit; being sensitive to a geo-infrastructure that suffers from heavy monsoons that wash away bridges and roads each year; and appreciating that democratic practice is an evolution, needing support for efforts to amend the constitution ensuring that all representatives to parliament are elected, not one-quarter appointed. In foreign policy, it means respecting that Myanmar will maintain a balanced relationship with all countries, not a favoured few.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged the study of Myanmar’s specific needs rather than settling for a generalised, global overview or drawing incorrect, facile comparisons with its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Deep listening acknowledges another voice, not the echo of our own, and navigating other languages of movement between sound and silence. The particulars of another music not only enrich experience but also encourage an integrated way to listen to culture as a whole.
As we put in earbuds to hear Burmese society and its traditional performing arts – aspects of both being lively hidden worlds to the outsider – we need to adjust the volume on the borrowed saying from environmental awareness: Listen locally, act globally.
Kit Young aka Sandaya Khin Khin Lei is a musician and a co-founder of Gitameit Music Center. She has researched and performed sandaya – the piano adapted to Burmese musical practice – since 1987.