A Day in the Life of a Burmese Monk

Every time you think about dropping all this modern-life mumbo jumbo, shaving your head, trading your fancy schmancy clothes for a uni-colored robe and adopting the meditatively peaceful life of a Burmese monk you may want to first take a look at this lovingly created account of the daily life of three twelve year old Burmese nuns. You may say to yourself, “being a monk or nun would be groovy in theory, but in practice it’s not for me,” then remember to appreciate your life where you are and get on with it. If you look at their daily life and sigh, “that would be wonderful,” maybe you should book your flight to Yangon.

Sai Htee Saing’s Wild Ones didn’t stay wild

“Chit Tae Shan Yoe Ma” is a song by Shan rock star Sai Htee Saing, who, in his time, along with his band, the Wild Ones, was one of Myanmar’s best-known musicians. Saing started his career by defying the ruling dictatorship and ended it kowtowing to the military junta, even singing songs written by the propaganda minister. He was from the Shan ethnic group but sang mainly in Burmese. In “Chit Tae Shan Yoe Ma” Saing sings longingly about his Shan homeland. Because the ruling Bamar-majority government’s promise of independence for the Shan never came to be and the Shan remain outside the mainstream, songs by Shan singers — especially those sung in Burmese –always come with a tinge of politics.

A “crocodile zither” is a thing

The Burmese crocodile zither really exists. This six-stringed instrument — the “mi-gyuang” — originated with Burma’s Mon people. Why is it shaped like a crocodile? We at All Around This World don’t usually quote YouTube comments, but we want a comment by Soe San Aung on this crocodile zither video to be true: “Because it was based on a traditional folk story of Mon people,…In the story, a prince went across a river daily with boat to meet his lover. When his father knew that, he wasn’t allowed to go. But he tried to cross the river with his friend crocodile called Nga-moe-rait. His planned to hide in the mouth of a crocodile and cross through the river . His idea became succeed but one day the crocodile forgot to float on water and became swim in the water.He even forgot that he was carrying the prince. So the prince died in his mouth. When the crocodile apologized the king, he forgave and let knew the princess in other river bank. When she knew the news,she became confused and very sad about her lover and she died with her sadness. The people from two kingdom held funeral in the same day and they burned them and let them to go far away. The smokes appeared from the two funerals in each bank of the river combined at the sky and a rainbow was appeared in the sky. The king of the prince very sad and he made an instrument with the shape of crocodile and he listened the song of these instrument whenever he missed his son.” True? Let’s say, true.

When we go to Burma we also go to Myanmar

All Around This World map of East and Southeast Asia featuring Myanmar
This week our online music class travels to the oh-so-complicated nation of Myanmar. Life has been particularly rough in Burma-Myanmar for the last century or so (why two names for the country? It’s complicated), especially for the last fifty years since the country has been beneath the thumb of one autocratic ruling party or another. Through it all the Burmese people keep hope alive that one day they may attain political freedom, even occasionally rising up in conjunction with the many Theravada Buddhist Monks who maintain a position of some respect in Burmese society. While we note that Myanmar has seen a turn of its fortunes as of late (how? It’s complicated), there’s still a long way to go.

Thailand’s Thirteen Smiles

A common nickname Thailand is “The Land of Smiles.” — a fact that Thailand’s travel industry will not let you forget. True, the Thai are known for their frequent smiling, but in Thailand a smile is not just a simple expression of happiness; Thai smiles do express joy, but they also appear as the Thai way of reacting to many circumstances, from happy to sad. In Working With The Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand, Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy describe, and try to analyze the the meaning of, 13 kinds of Thai smiles, including Yim cheun chom, a smile that expresses admiration, Yim chuead chuean, a smile of gloating, and Yim sao, a smile that masks sadness.

Let’s try a “Smile of Being Happy That We Spent a Week in Class Exploring Thai Music but Sadness That We Have to Move On,” and prepare ourselves for next week’s class.

Fong Naam at Bangkok Banana

Fong Naam is an ambitious East/West collaboration between Thai classical musician Boonyong Kaethong and American Vietnam War conscientious objector Bruce Gaston. Already an accomplished musician, Gaston arrived in Thailand in the late 1960s and became a student of Kaethong, learning the khong wong, a circular gong that is a staple of the Thai piphat orchestra. Gaston and Kaethong formed Fong Naan to, according to their website, “to provide a stage and artistic opportunities for musicians who are not only sophisticated in classical Thai arts but also have a commitment to contemporary Thai art.” Kaethong had a special purpose: “Instead of ending up as an old drunken musician complaining that things were not what they used to be, as tragically many of his colleagues did, he fought to forge new future for Thai society through his compositions and performances with Fong Naan….” Fong Naan has spent the last thirty years performing Thai classical and jazz compositions and compiling collections of ancient Thai music in order to simultaneously preserve and advance the form. In this video we see Fong Naam performing at the Bangkok Banana Contemporary Arts Festival in 2009.

We can also Love Loy Krathong

Whether or not we and our kids in class are Thai, we can certainly enjoy Loy Krathong. the Thai Festival of Lights. If you’re a teacher, introduce the holiday to your students, prepare Thai music, clear the clas room so you have enough space to celebrate, and away we go.

1) Make a KRATHONG. With any available craft supplies (or, if there are none, pure imagination), have each student craft a krathong that is chock full of the year’s memories. Write memories on scraps of paper . . . bring in photos from the year’s adventures . . . pick objects to symbolize events or happenings . . . . Place the objects into some sort of vessel that could conceivably float down a river.

2) Time to LOY (float) your KRATHONGs. Clear a space in the center of the room that could simulate a river. Place a scarf or piece of fabric “in the river.”Each student will put a krathong on the scarf and either s/he or you will pull it gently down the river, wiping last year’s memories away.

3) Look forward to a brand new day.

Lanterns Fly on Loy Krathong

In Thailand Loy Krathong, a yearly festival of renewal, takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar — usually some time in November. During this festival Thai people will celebrate by creating a “krathong” — traditionally a banana leaf adorned with flowers and candles — and “loy” (float) it down a river, sending the previous year’s troubles away. They also sned candle-powered lanterns up into the air. As we see in this video, that can be glorious.

Songs for Life

Phleng pheua chiwit — Thai “Songs for Life” — is a Thai form of protest music that started in the ’70s to address the issues of the working class and blended Thai traditional instruments with Western folk, rock and reggae. The first popular phleng pheua chiwit band, Caravan, was an integral part of the mid ’70s movement for democracy. In 1976 Caravan and students from Thammasat University fled to the rural hills when police and right wing activists attacked them. In the ’80s the government granted amnesty to the students, helping phleng pheua chiwit to become mainstream. By the 1990s, phleng pheua chiwit, in its classic form, was no longer as popular, though there are few phleng pheua chiwit artists remain like Pongsit Kamphee, who we see in this video.

Piphat is a Thai Classic

Piphat, Thailand classical music, is performed by a lively orchestra that includes xylophones (ranat), barrel drums (klong), circular sets of tuned horizontal gong-chimes (khong wong) and an oboe (pi) .  Thailand’s relatively central geographic position in Southeast Asia placed it at the hub of trade routes involving Persian, African, Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian travelers. Thai classical music reflects these influences, most obviously in the Persian, Indian, Chinese and Indonesian origins of many of its instruments, yet it is still a very distinctly Thai form. Today’s Thai classical musicians play compositions similar to those performed in the Thai royal court nearly a millennium ago.