Burmese Folk Music Is Fading Out

Listeners turn to foreign genres, rejecting folk songs often associated with the military regime. A school, though, is scrambling to save what’s left of a rich tradition.

Reporting from Yangon, Myanmar — U Tin cut his teeth as a musician playing Burmese folk songs for silent movies, which in this time warp of a country remained popular well into the 1950s.

The 80-year-old recalls the challenge of playing guitar, watching the conductor and looking at the screen simultaneously, four shows a day. Periodically they’d mess up the sound effects, leaving the audience to wonder why a bang occurred well after the gunfight ended.

“Some of the band leaders were quite drunk, particularly by the late show,” he said. “But we managed.”

Today, he sits on his well-worn floor surrounded by memories and his beloved string instruments lined up like sleeping maidens.

With minimal encouragement, he grabs a sort of battered hubcap attached to a cricket bat, his homemade banjo, and croons a folk song about a girl from Yangon worried about keeping her skin fair.

It’s not about to top the pop charts, and that’s part of the problem. U Tin is among the last of a breed of traditional musicians in Myanmar, who are steadily dying off, and along with them, their songs.

Traditional music’s association with the often brutal military regime, not to mention the rising popularity of Korean pop and hip-hop, has undermined its popularity. The music is distinctly old-fashioned, its simple instrumentation overlaid with vocals that evoke great pathos and melancholy.

“The younger generation is no longer interested,” U Tin said. “If the music is lost, Myanmar will lose a piece of its soul.”

U Maung Maung, 93, plays at Gitameit music school, which is making videos of traditional musicians to preserve their knowledge and techniques. (Los Angeles Times / December 25, 2010)

U Maung Maung, 93, plays at Gitameit music school, which is making videos of traditional musicians to preserve their knowledge and techniques. (Los Angeles Times / December 25, 2010)

Hoping to stem the loss, a local music school is videotaping old-timers as they play and making digital recordings of vintage records, but acknowledges that it’s a race against the clock.

For one thing, old recordings, mostly 78s, aren’t plentiful because record players were traditionally beyond the reach of ordinary families in this poverty-racked country. Mold, insects and tropical heat have rendered many inaudible, and wartime bombings and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 destroyed others.

Those that remain are often in terrible shape. Some were used by children as Frisbees or played using sharpened nails after diamond needles became scarce, or scraped at with rocks to make a paste believed to be good for the skin.

Traditional music also has the reputation of being the “official music” of a regime that has a history of jailing or exiling artists it considers a threat, analysts said.

After military generals took over Myanmar, also known as Burma, in the early 1960s, they initially didn’t exert much control over musicians, who could still collaborate with foreigners and imitate Western trends, including a soundtrack U Tin worked on for a Burmese knockoff of “Tarzan” called “Charzan.”

After 1970, however, censors tried to stamp out all foreign influence and set rigid guidelines that stifled musical innovation, at least on state radio and in official circles, as part of the generals’ bid for absolute power.

“The regime has played up the kingly ‘protector of traditional culture’ image” in an attempt to counter concerns about its political legitimacy, said Gavin Douglas, an ethnomusicologist with the University of North Carolina.

Despite the hurdles, there are small triumphs.

After being interviewed by researchers, musician U Sein Kyi Mya, 75, expressed great relief that her knowledge had been passed on, telling them that she could die in peace, said Nay Win Htun, the manager of the Gitameit music school here.

The historical record of Burmese music stretches back about 1,500 years, and a Chinese traveler’s account suggests that it was well developed by AD 802.

Researchers at Gitameit have interviewed 65 musicians and made digital copies of about 1,000 records.

Burmese music lacks a notation system, so even when the lyrics have been written down many of the melodies or rhythms of old songs have been lost, particularly those not blessed by the government.

“How many generations have been lost already?” said Marc Perlman, a music professor at Brown University. “It would be such a shame to see another go to their grave.”

Kit Young, an American musician who founded Gitameit, said she hopes the archive attracts wider audiences, fuels the genre’s rich history of innovation and reverses a view among some here that traditional music is boring or irrelevant.

The challenge is to find ways to stimulate interest in the Burmese classics as well as Myanmar’s many ethnic musical traditions in ways that “are not threatening to the authorities,” she said.

Hip-hop musician Anegga believes that folk musicians themselves, particularly those playing the Mahagita, a repertoire of songs from the royal Burmese court, share the blame for the decline of Burmese music. “You have to sing it exactly like this, do that with that verse,” he said. “It never changes.”

Nowadays, one of the few ways folk musicians can earn money is occasionally playing in hotel lobbies for tourists who don’t understand the tradition.

“They may not understand, but at least they appreciate it,” U Tin said. “That’s more than you can say for many Burmese.”

(The writer is unidentified to protect those who work with him)

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