Traditional songs of Myanmar are complex compilations of segmented musical patterns that can make them sound perplexing to those used to Western music. Whether performed on ancient instruments such as the crocodile zither, the saung gauk harp, the pattala, or on a Western piano played to sound like a pattala, they generally “lack harmony,” meaning they consist of a melody line — on the piano, most often played with the right hand — without left-hand accompaniment. (Should Burmese musicians add Western harmonies to their piano music to make it more accessible to an international audience, or would doing so inherently disqualify the music as being “Burmese?” Listen to “Tain Taman” performed by notable Burmese pianist Sandaya Aung Win, read the debate in the comments section, and decide for yourself. [Disclaimer: YouTube debates can take unexpected twists and turns, so look through the comments once before sharing them with the kids.])

The most profound collection of Burmese classical songs is called the Mahagita (translation: “great music.”) The collection is divided into several kinds of songs, such as, according to Wikipedia’s entry on the music of Burma:

thachin gan: the oldest repertoires
pat pyo: royal court music
lwan chin: songs of longing
nat chin: songs used to worship the nat (Burmese spirits),
yodaya: music introduced from Ayutthaya,
talaing than: music adapted from the Mon people,
bole: songs of sorrow, and, of course,
myin gin: music that makes horses dance.

You can listen to Burmese traditional songs at the site of pianist Sandaya Aung Win. If you’re intrigued (or if you flat out fall in love) take a further listen to CD suggestions from contributor Pharaoh S. Wail:

White Elephants & Golden Ducks: “Beautiful,” writes Pharaoh.
“This is the disc that started my obsession with the music of Burma 4 or 5 years ago.”
Spellbinding Piano of Burma: “Cemented my love of this music even further.”
Green Tea Leaf Salad: Flavors of Burmese Music: “Mandolin, guitar, slide guitar, violin and the clay pots and crocodile zither!”
Pat Waing: The Magic Drum Circle of Burma: “Actually I don’t own this one because the pat waing isn’t what I love about Burmese music, but if you find on the White Elephants disc that you love it, this is an essential disc for you.” (Do you agree with Pharaoh about pat waing?)
Mahagita: Harp & Vocal Music of Burma: “All saung gauk and vocals, this one is essential….This is really beautiful.”

Since the 1930s Western music has become increasingly popular in Burma, starting with the classical music the British introduced during their rule, then, in the 1960’s, ’70s and ’80s, Western rock (known in Burma as “stereo”), and more recently Asian pop and hip hop. Burmese pop stars were especially adept at reinterpreting songs by Western and other Asian artists, leading to an important distinction in Burmese music between cover songs and self-written “own songs.” Successive Burmese governments have tried to control this music through unyielding censorship bureaus and laws such as the Press Scrutiny Board, the State Protection Law and the Myanmar Music Asiayon (MMA). Since the 1960’s the government’s Central Registration Board has officially forbidden, according to,

“anything detrimental to the Burmese socialist programme;
anything detrimental to the ideology of the state;
anything detrimental to the socialist economy;
anything which might be harmful to national unity and solidarity;
anything which might be harmful to security, the rule of law, peace and public order;
any incorrect ideas and opinions which do not accord with the times;
any descriptions which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time or the circumstances of their writing;
any obscene (pornographic) writing;
any writing which would encourage crimes and unnatural cruelty and violence;
any non-constructive criticism of the work of government departments;
any libel or slander of any individual.”

Still today, Burmese protest singers have to live in exile or risk arrest–or worse–for breaking these rules.

In class we’re going to listen to:
— Sai Htee Saing in concert at the Strand Hotel in Yangon Sai Htee Saing was a once-beloved Shan-descended Burmese singer/songwriter whose ostensibly simple, sweet songs from the ’70s passed by Myanmar’s Press Scrutiny Board even though they often contained anti-governmental political messages. Siang started his career in the early ’70s as a member of an widely popular ethnic Shan band called The Wild Ones and embarked on a solo career in the ’80s. (Saing sung and played guitar while Sai Khamlek wrote most of the songs.) Saing and The Wild Ones sang in the Burmese language of an idyllic and ideal Shan people, helping both define the Shan as “the other” and infusing Shan ethnic and political consciousness into mainstream Burmese popular culture. After the failed ’88 rebellion Saing succumbed to the ruling junta and even began to sing songs written by a member of the Burmese military. As Saing gained privilege in Myanmar he lost popularity, though many still did appreciate his early material and especially extolled his virtues after his 2008 passing. In class we’re going to sing Saing’s “Chit Te Shan Yoe Ma.”

More information:
Watch Sai Htee Saing perform live at the Strand  Hotel in Yangon | The Wild Ones perform live in 1982 (thought the wildest thing about them is that they seem to have gone jumpsuit shopping together)

— “DayWi Nut Myo Nwe” by Sai Sai Khan Hlaing
Sai Sai Khan Hlaing is Myanmar’s most popular ethnic Shan hip hip artist/model/novelist/actor. His great-grandfather, Sao San Tun, was one of the signatories to the February 12, 1949 Panglong agreement that originated the modern state of Myanmar (and also one of the first objects of Myanmar political assassination, on July 19, 1949). Sai Sai grew up in relative privilege, majored in English at Dagon University and earned a graduate degree in English from the University of Foreign Languages. He has since become a celebrity in Myanmar, and an object of much gossip.

More information:
Wikipedia on Sai Sai | Sai Sai and his crew on YouTube…in a boxing ring?<b

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