Ig­nor­ing par­tic­u­lars: Mu­sic and so­ci­ety in Myan­mar

The Myanmar Times - - News | Views - KIT YOUNG news­room@mm­times.com

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.

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