Burmese Hsaing and Anyein

Hsaing Waing Ensemble
Hsaing Waing Ensemble

by Robert Garfias, Professor of Music
University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

While many of the elements found in the music and dance traditions of Burma find earlier counterparts in ancient India, Burmese music and dance styles also show clear parallels to traditions in other parts of South East Asia. Ancient India fostered and developed a concept of music based on a combination of several different types of instruments played together in an ensemble. While India chose to develop its music with an emphasis on the soloist (vocal and instrumental) accompanied by a drummer, those cultures of South East Asia which had formal contact with ancient India retained the ensemble idea. Within this large ensemble context each area of culture developed its own style and form, adapting the music and dance to local tastes and incorporating increasingly large numbers of new works and forms which further delineated the national style.

Burmese music and dance can thus be thought of as a distinctly Burmese development which arose out of the South East Asian setting of an ancient Indian culture. Compared with the musical style of neighboring cultures, Burmese music and dance are lively yet graceful, frequently relying on sudden contrasts and touches of whimsey. Burmese dance, like its counterparts in other Asian cultures, is depicted as a stylization of the motions and postures of everyday life. These movements are strung together in slowly executed turns interspersed with rapid movements and leaps. The head, arms, and upper torso are employed more consistently than the lower limbs except in those styles which incorporate the kicking away of dancer’s train or the execution of leaps.

The music of the Burmese hsaing ensemble moves in a manner which closely parallels that of dance. Music and dance interact in an equal partnership. The orchestra frequently introduces a theme with the expectation that the audience will recognize the melody and then begins modifying it with its own unique contrasts and variants. Much of the repertoire is drawn either from folk forms or from the vast body of classical songs of the Burmese court. Many of the folk songs, court songs, and much of the special theatre music have, for Burmese audiences, come to be associated with specific contexts because of their regular usage at festivals and celebrations as well as at certain specific moments in Burmese drama. If for example the hsaing ensemble begins to play the myin gin, a special composition used in the days of the court to make the horses dance, everyone knows that the action on the stage portrays something about horses, whether it be a group of noblemen on horseback or someone riding a hobbyhorse. There are special pieces played when the action takes place in the dark or when someone is moving stealthily on the stage, and other selections when there is a chase. There is even special music for combat with specific phrases for the use of swords or the bow and arrow. The noble rhythm of the byo indicates a joyous occasion or a Buddhist festival or it may signal the end of a performance. The use of the ye gin or the sido gyi indicates a setting in the royal court. The lively ozi and dophat rhythms conjure up a village festival.

All of these elements may be used as complete pieces in a concert setting or may be blended into other compositions which create a specific color or contrast. For example, in a scene in the drama during which a pilgrim is walking through the forest, the hsaing may play Shwei Boun Pyan, a song indicating such a scene. As the royal city is approached, the hsaing might then begin to play the sido gyi and thus, without any visual or verbal reference, the audience knows by hearing the sido gyi that the capital is either in sight or is merely figuring in the thoughts of the traveler. The same composition might be performed in a concert setting, and the musicians might decide to intersperse fragments of the sido gyi melody into the performance simply to give the piece a royal atmosphere.

The main source for the music of the hsaing ensemble is the rich repertoire of songs used in the days of the Burmese kings. The texts of these songs are compiled into a collection known as the Mahagita, the great or royal songs. The Mahagita contains a number of different song types of which the Co, Bwe, and Tahein ghan are the oldest. Also included are the Patt Pyou and Yodaya songs. The Patt Pyou songs were popular at court during the last few hundred years. Yodaya songs are those modeled on the style of music introduced into Burma from the Kingdom of Ayuthia in Thailand. There are numerous other categories of songs in the Mahagita.

In addition to all of the Mahagita songs, there is a special repertory of instrumental pieces for the hsaing ensemble generally called hsaing ti loun. These compositions are almost always unique to the particular hsaing, usually having been composed by the leader of the group or, at times, by one of the other musicians. The hsaing ti loun are often used to open concerts or to end the performance when the hsaing accompanies a drama or a puppet show. In this context they may be referred to as panama ti loun, “beginnings,” or “opening music,” but in fact either of the terms hsaing ti loun or panama ti loun indicates an instrumental composition intended to demonstrate the dexterity of the musicians in the ensemble, their cohesive organization, and the imagination of the composer.

There are a few compositions based on songs in the Mahagita which are most often performed instrumentally, for example, the ye gin, “Music of the Royal Watch,” and the myin gin “Music of Horsemanship.” These may appear on a concert program as slow instrumental pieces like the hsaing ti loun, but they differ in that they follow the form of the original Mahagita composition. In the case of the ye gin, a number of composers have found the structure so fascinating that there are several different instrumental compositions now in the ye gin form.

In essence the hsaing ensemble plays not only to provide a particular music for a function, but to draw attention to the skill and creativity of their particular group. Each group is defined by: the talent of its leader and supporting musicians; the originality of its compositions; the skill with which it executes dramatic changes of tonality and tempo; and its deft integration of material from the broad spectrum of Burmese music.

Frequently in Burmese entertainments one or two persons stand in the orchestra for the purpose of engaging in comic dialogue during the breaks between compositions, or between the phrases of a single piece. These men, called Nau hta (“those who stand behind”), ask the musicians foolish questions or make comments on what is being played, thereby giving the audience a greater appreciation and awareness of the subtleties of the performance. Thus, a traditional Burmese hsaing performance appears as a series of compositions, some brilliant ensemble works, some songs interspersed with instrumental interludes, and all heavily intertwined with interruptions, questions, and slapstick antics of the Nau hta as well as joyful outbursts from the audience. The practice of interrupting the composition for dialogue even after only a single phrase of the melody has been heard often makes it difficult for the uninitiated to know clearly when one composition has ended and another begun.

The hsaing ensemble contains a richly varied set of instruments. The leader of the ensemble is always the player of the drum circle, patt waing. This is a set of 21 drums hanging inside a circular and ornately decorated frame. Each drum is carefully tuned by the application of a bit of tuning paste to the center of the drum. The tuning is frequently altered during a performance according to the requirements of the particular composition being played. The player evokes a variety of sounds from the patt waing by several different types of deft strokes with the bare fingers on the head of the drum.

The strong contrasting instrumental voice in the hsaing ensemble is that of the small double reed instrument called hne. For certain ceremonial compositions such as the sido gyi, a larger version of this instrument, the hne gyi is employed. The patt waing and hne frequently work together, often going into a kind of musical game of tag in which the player of the drum circle improvises a short phrase which must be imitated precisely by the hne player with the audience passing judgment throughout. Two other melody instruments, the kyi waing and the maung hsaing, fill out the ensemble, usually supporting the drum circle but often switching sides to play with the hne for purposes of contrast. The kyi waing is a high-pitched set of bronze gongs played with mallets and set in a gilded wooden circular frame similar to, but lower than that of the patt waing. The maung hsaing is a set of bronze gongs lower and more mellow in tone than those of the kyi waing. The gongs of the maung hsaing are set in a rectangular frame.

The foundation of the musical structure of hsaing music is provided by these instruments. The hcau loun patt by name means six drums but is, in fact, a set of eight drums played by a single musician. Two large double-headed drums dominate and are used to set the underlying patterns of the music. In addition, a row of six smaller drums sit in front of the player and with these he creates patterns of contrasting high pitches to offset the basic patterns played on the large drums. The bell and clapper, his and wa, each played by a different musician, provide the main beats of the music with the stroke of the bamboo or wooden clapper maintaining the synchronization of any rhythmic or melodic phrase. In addition to these instrumentalists, there is often another musician in the group who plays whatever other drums may be required to create to a particular atmosphere for a special composition. There may also be a singer with the ensemble, but frequently the bell or clapper whether accompanying the voice or playing as solo instruments.

Two other instruments not traditionally part of the hsaing ensemble may be used to accompany songs in the more intimate court singing style. These are the saung gauk, a beautiful wooden harp with silk strings, elaborately gilded with the sound-body covered with deer skin. The patala is a xylophone with bamboo keys also used to accompany the voice. Both the harp and xylophone require the addition of the bell and clapper whether accompanying the voice or playing as solo instruments.

The Burmese musical system is based on a series of seven notes arranged in a number of different patterns of strong and weak notes to provide a rich variety of modes. When the hsaing performs a purely musical concert, it usually begins by playing in the ceremonial mode Hkun Hnathan Gyi. The principal portion of the performance requires that the drums be returned for playing in the Than You mode. The hsaing may play this way until midnight at which point the drums are returned for Nga Bauk. In the early hours of the morning the musicians will begin the last portion of the performance playing in Patt Sa Bou. However, when the hsaing accompanies either dance or drama, the tunings must be changed frequently in accordance with the compositions required by the action on the stage.

Anyein is a dance form closely resembling popular theater. The name of this form is drawn from a Burmese word meaning “gentle,” which is a fitting description. Although its origins are somewhat unclear, Anyein is popular in Burma today, and is frequently encountered as one of the entertainments provided in connection with the numerous festivals which are an important part in Burmese life. One of the basic concepts of Burmese festivals is that the festivals themselves re offerings of good will and pleasure to the community. In this way a performance by an Anyein troupe may figure in both religious and secular celebrations. At times, as for example in the case of a small family festival such as the cradling of a new baby to which the neighborhood is invited, the Anyein may be the only entertainment offered. For other events, such as the cremation of an illustrious monk or the occasion of a pagoda festival, several types of entertainments may be offered along with Anyein, such as a Pwe theatrical performance or a hsaing concert.

The Anyein performance as it is known today consists of two distinct yet complimentary elements. These are the singing and dancing of the Anyein herself and the dialogue and slapstick of the clowns, Lu bye’. There is a loose alternation of the formal singing and dancing of the Anyein with the comic interludes of the clowns. Some Anyein troupes are large and elaborate, Such troupes may also present formal, dramatic scenes mixed with song and dances, and may at times, follow the pattern of the traditional Pwe theatricals by staging an interlude, hnapa tawa, in which the entire cast appears for a series of solo and group dances interspersed with continuous dialogue and commentary by the clowns.

The style of Anyein dancing is closely related to other forms of Burmese dance. The same basic postures are used. The body is slightly arched while the knees are partially bent. The wrists are held close to the waist with the elbows back. From this stylized position, which is an exaggerated imitation of Burmese puppets, the Anyein moves with small steps, sometimes deftly kicking her train to the side. As the music intensifies, the movements may include vigorous leaps and even acrobatic turns which always stop at the end of the musical phrase as signaled by the beat of the clapper. But even in the most vigorous and rapid movements, the Anyein style retains the gentle, graceful quality characterized by the name.

In modern times Anyein performances are most frequently encountered with the Anyein in the company of a troupe of clowns and the performance accompanied by the full hsaing ensemble. In older and more classical styles, two Anyein dancers may appear on stage accompanied by the Burmese harp or the xylophone, while another musician keeps time with the bell and clappers. In such performances the emphasis is placed on the more formal elements of the dance itself. This small group of dancers and accompanists is considerably less theatrical than most of the troupes seen in Burma today.