Without a care, for now: Karen musicians in Thailand
Photo credit: Jack Chance
Until recently, Burma has generally had a way of staying out of the news. Burma? Myanmar? Many do not even know what to call the country. Maybe on a slow news day we will catch glimpses of a devastating cyclone, a Potemkin election or a once-famous political prisoner’s release. Since taking control of the government in 1962, the military junta has taken one of the most highly educated and economically successful countries in the region and turned it into an impoverished backwater, complete with a totalitarian grip that would make George Orwell blush. Burma has gotten very good at being forgotten.
The same goes for its music. Even compared to Southasia’s traditions, Burmese classical music might be some of the least accessible around. Complex rhythmic patterns often seem to descend into chaos. Melodies chase each other down forest paths and over cheerful streams to the fields of ancient pagodas, but then take a sharp tumble into pandemonium. It is fascinating music, but difficult to grasp. I once recorded a Burmese batala (xylophone) player, who sat down at his instrument and performed for over an hour without a break. His melodies and rhythms varied wildly, and I assumed he was improvising the entire work (or perhaps just banging the keys haphazardly). But once he had finished, he pointed out the three mistakes he would like to fix and where the track marks on the CD should go. He had known the entire 12-part composition by heart all along.
Geographically, Burma lies between the seats of three great music traditions – China, India and Indonesia – but Burmese classical music bears little resemblance to any of these. Sure, there are tuned metal gongs reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan, upright violins like the Chinese er hu, and reeded wind instruments like Southasia’s shehnai. The melodic scales might be familiar, but classical Burmese music has a meter, melody and structure unique among its neighbouring traditions. Full of abrupt and unpredictable movements, this music has moments of loveliness, but to the uninitiated it often can sound like a train wreck.
An explanation for these sudden shifts in rhythmic course might be found in Burmese folk ensembles, or saing waing. These are often performed to accompany, or perhaps follow, the movements of animated dancers, puppet shows or the frenzied worship of local nat – supernatural spirits. Perhaps the most unique instrument in Burmese folk ensembles is the pat waing. Picture an elaborately decorated circular fence, from which hang a few octaves’ worth of tuned drums, with the performer seated in the centre. Each drum is tuned by applying a small amount of rice paste to the skin. The buoyant sound is thought to mimic the plunk of a mangosteen fruit falling into a river.
With over a century of British colonial influence, Western instruments – including the piano, violin and even folk instruments such as the mandolin, banjo and lap-steel guitar – have all found local players, who quickly adapted these instruments to Burma’s complex musical structure. The masterful piano playing of artists such as the late U Ko Ko might be one of the most original methods of tickling the ivories, blending traditional Burmese classical structure with international technique. My favourite Burmese instrument, however, is the harp. The handheld saung gauk, ornately decorated with a dozen or so silk or nylon strings, has a lovely mellow sound. Its peaceful tones sing of a slower time, perhaps before the chaos of modernity and military rule.
It is hard not to get political when talking about music in Burma. And it is equally difficult to have straight talk about politics in places like Rangoon, where the presence of spies and informers tends to mute such conversations before they begin. Yet, in the peripheral regions of the country, such as along the Thai-Burma border, one can often get a better picture of the situation of Burma’s citizens, and an uncommon perspective on its musical arts.
On a recent winter morning, the Mae La refugee camp, in Thailand, looked like a Chinese painting, as mist flowed between steep jungle peaks to reveal rolling hillsides teeming with thousands of small bamboo huts. In a clearing by a makeshift football field, a group of musicians warmed their drums around a fire, as they practiced harmonies on pairs of bamboo flutes. Handheld gongs chimed in steady rhythm, and a dancer pulled two wooden swords stuck into the red earth, swinging them in a bit of a warrior dance. A buffalo’s horn was blown to call in the beginning of the new year.
Tucked into the mountains about 90 km north of the Thai border town of Mae Sot, this camp is home to at least 40,000 Burmese ethnic minorities and political exiles. It is one of nine Burmese camps officially allowed by Thai authorities, some of which have existed since the mid-1980s, among the longest-running refugee camps in the world. About half of the refugees in camps such as Mae La, including these early-morning musicians, are ethnic Karen. The origins of the Karen people are shrouded in mystery. Having no written language until the mid-1800s, folk stories, or hta, form the backbone of Karen culture and history. Migrating from Mongolia through Tibet and down the Salween River to settle in the mountains of northern Thailand and eastern Burma, the Karen claim to have been around long before the Burmans founded Bagan along the Irrawaddy River in central Burma, around the ninth century AD. The Karen named their homeland Kawthoolei, a land of purity and simple living in harmony with nature, free from their troubles
Knowledge of just how long Karen and Burman peoples have been fighting has also been lost to the ages. The gwe, a buffalo horn, is sounded as a call to gather villagers together, such as at today’s Karen New Year celebrations. Or, it can be used as a call to battle. The story goes that the first gwe was created after a Karen buffalo successfully gored a Burmese general, possibly centuries before the arrival of the British. During British colonial rule, the Karen and other Burmese ethnic groups enjoyed a reasonable level of social equality, and members of rural tribes such as the Karen became educated and rose in the ranks of government and military.
The situation changed during World War II, when the Karen and other ethnic minorities sided with the Allies while the Burman majority initially sided with Japanese occupying forces. Japanese commanders were surprised at the level of violence against Karen villagers by Burman soldiers under their watch. A British promise of autonomy to the ethnic groups was forgotten shortly after the war ended. Once Burma was released from colonial control, the Karen National Union declared itself independent, and has been fighting since 1949. After more than 60 years of civil war, the Karen’s aspirations for autonomy and self-defence are now considered the longest-running internal military conflict on earth. Today, the forests of Kawthoolei are dotted with landmines, laid by both Burmese and Karen soldiers. For more than 100,000 refugees living in camps on Thai soil or hiding in the jungles back in Burma, it is a life of uncertainty and seemingly endless waiting.
Yet, with time on their hands, the Karen refugees make the most of their music and folklore. Lyrical hta storytelling is often best accompanied by the melody of the Karen harp, the tha’na. It has anywhere from five to 12 strings and is played in various tunings, some more similar to a western blues scale than an East Asian pentatonic. Less ornate than the Burmese saung gauk, it is usually in the hands of a storyteller rather than an instrumental virtuoso. Younger players traditionally also used the tha’na for courtship. A mouth harp, indistinguishable from Nepal’s murchunga, is sometimes employed similarly, with a lover’s poetry whispered between the rhythmic twangs. These days, however, guitars are probably more popular flirting accompaniments, and the same homogenous pop, metal, and hip-hop that pervades many a modern music scene is undoubtedly influencing Karen music.
On the border
In the course of modern human migration and today’s rapid spread of information, the loss of traditional culture is perhaps one of the more lamentable sacrifices. While no culture remains static for very long, it is unsure where the rich traditions of the Karen will be in twenty years, as Western countries begin to resettle Burmese and Karen refugees into a global diaspora, far from their community traditions and native forests. The haunting tones of the tha’na, or the visionary poetry of the hta, might not last more than a generation in the suburbs of Australia or the United States.
But still, on special occasions like the Karen New Year, traditional culture remains strong. A large bronze drum, or klo, makes a rare appearance on the main stage. Played with a mallet and a handful of thin reed brushes, the drum’s head is marked by four frogs representing the Karen people, meant to follow each other in peace and unity. Other drums and cymbals accompany dohn dances during special events. These vibrant, intricately choreographed numbers feature dancers belting out songs lasting a quarter of an hour each. The lyrics often describe the misdeeds of a neighbour, or neighbouring army.
As the morning celebrations continue, a group of youngsters hold four-metre-long segments of bamboo, arranged to form a grid a few inches above the ground. Once the singing begins, the segments are rhythmically clapped open and shut while dancers leap through the spaces in a precarious game of hopscotch. Similar bamboo dances take place in southern China and as far west as Arunachal Pradesh.
Late that afternoon, as I leave the barbed-wire gates of Mae La camp, and bid farewell to a refugee friend and guide. He gestures with his eyes to an angry-looking gentleman staring at us down from across the road. We overhear words describing us as he chats on a cell phone in Burmese. Even on Thai soil, it is by no means safe for those on the junta’s watch list, even traditional musicians with no political agenda. After a winding motorbike ride down the border to Mae Sot, I am invited by a group of Burmese and Karen human-rights activists to check out an impromptu evening rock concert, held in a field about a mile from the Burmese border.
Things have been especially tense on the border lately. Since the November 2010 elections, renewed fighting between Burmese and Karen forces has sent thousands of (mostly Karen) villagers across the river to hide in the fields of sympathetic Thai farmers while 80-mm shells wreak havoc in their villages, their own fields left unharvested and full of shrapnel. Since late November there are several thousand new Karen refugees on Thai soil, staying with a minimum of shelter and care, unable to return safely. The fighting is expected to worsen in 2011.
But tonight on the border it is rock & roll, with several local Karen and Burmese bands performing with a passion few Western punks could hope to match. Thai soldiers stand guard near the stage, as many Karen are concerned that the Burmese army might try something fiendish during this public celebration. But the concert goes along without a hitch, teenagers with their sweethearts, texting and headbanging, drinking beer and singing along. You could almost forget there was a war across the river, and most people do.
Jack Chance documents traditional music throughout South and Southeast Asia and is the director of the Mountain Music Project. For audio samples of traditional Karen music, visit guerillaethnomusicology.wordpress.com.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
From our archive:
Subel Bhandari looks at the Strategic Partnership Agreement, noting its avoidance of contentious issues. (April 2012)
Vijay Prashad reviews Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, discussing Taliban strategy in the context of NATO withdrawal. (October 2011)
Aunohita Mojumdar explores questions of accountability in relation to the West’s “hasty exit strategy”. (February 2011)