Contemporary Burmese Za’ Pwè

L to R: Za’ Pwe’ dancers U Win Maung, Tin Maung San Min Win, Marla Htay Bu, Lillianne Fan, and Su Htun. (Jack Vartoogian)
L to R: Za’ Pwe’ dancers U Win Maung, Tin Maung San Min Win, Marla Htay Bu, Lillianne Fan, and Su Htun. (Jack Vartoogian)

By Ward Keeler

NEW YORK, November 30, 2003 - Many Southeast Asian societies have developed elaborate performing arts traditions, and Burmese za’ pwè (zat\ p∑´`) performances resemble many other genres in neighboring societies. Like Javanese shadow play or Thai folk drama performances, for example, za’ pwè usually take place under the stars, attract spectators from far and near, reaffirm and augment the sponsors’ reputation for generosity, and last all night (from about 9 till dawn, or maybe beyond). Nevertheless, in a region of the world where people’s taste for performances seems well-nigh insatiable, Burma still arouses awe: a za’ pwè troupe will often be engaged to perform not one but rather three, seven or ten or more nights running. The stamina this requires of the troupe’s members, especially of its male lead, is beyond imagining. But even for spectators this would appear to approach a kind of aesthetic assault, or even death by decibel.

Not that Burmese fans of za’ pwè feel that way. On the contrary, many Burmese happily go back night after night to watch a troupe’s performances. Troupe members know this, and they must be careful to keep a large body of material in repertoire so that if they are called upon to present a long run they will not arouse their audience’s ire by running out of new material to perform. They do this by presenting an eclectic mix of melodrama, music, dance, and clowning. What matters is not that a single night’s performance form some coherent whole but rather that it always be entertaining.

An aesthetic of vivid contrasts
It is useful in fact to think of a Burmese za’ pwè (zat\ p∑´`) performance as a big smorgasbord of staged events, because Burmese meals and Burmese performances are both based on vivid, even startling, contrasts. A proper Burmese meal should include among its tastes and textures rich and oily meat curries, very sour soups, salads redolent of ripe (Westerners would say rotting) fish, crunchy crackers, and some condiments, ferociously hot or salty or both. Burmese music, by the same token, is characterized by highly diverse kinds of sound. Among instruments, the outrageously loud and reedy Burmese oboe (hne) contrasts with the velvet-toned wooden xylophone (pa’tala), the shrilly metallic cymbals, and the delicate bamboo flute. Musical ensembles also differ radically. The group of instruments called the hsain wain that is usually assembled to play at festive events is immensely loud and often raucous. In contrast to its terrific volume and frenzied tempos, the chamber instruments that play singly or in small groups, including the xylophone and the Burmese harp, exhibit subtlety and restraint. And that’s only naming instruments indigenous to Burma. Burmese have happily incorporated Western instruments into their performances (see Kit Young’s notes), as well, further expanding the range and (with the help of electricity) volume of musical performances.

Like Burmese cuisine and Burmese music, za’ pwè are based on vivid contrasts. Usually performed in conjunction with a temple festival, or to mark some other important public or private occasion, they consist of a number of distinct parts, differing by movement style, costume, musical genre, and types of language. What binds them together is the troupe of performers who take on any number of different roles in the course of the night, and the urgent aim of keeping audience members from going home or falling asleep.

A typical performance
Burmese performances of all types have long opened with a woman dancing and making offerings to local spirits to assure the performance’s success. Reformist religious ideas now make it necessary to demonstrate greater allegiance to the Buddha than to spirits, so obeisance is currently made to both as a performance opens. Soon after this opening, members of the troupe come out on stage, one by one, to sing Burmese pop songs for an hour or so. The songs date back to the 1960s and are accompanied by a combination of Burmese and Western instruments. The singers wear very luxurious, contemporary Burmese clothes: the men in silk longyis (ankle-length tubes of cloth wrapped like a skirt), and long-sleeved shirts with a cotton jacket; the women also in full-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses. Next comes the “opera:” a morality play based on some historical legend or other story. It includes the star of the troupe dressed as a Burmese prince and other troupe members, including servants, in old-fashioned attire. The play lasts till about midnight, when the “stage show” starts. Now the heart of many performances, the stage show is the Burmese equivalent of a rock concert cum fashion show: electric guitars and synthesizer provide the musical accompaniment—with a pounding beat and at huge volume—while troupe members appear to sing rock songs. This time they are dressed in the latest Western rock star fashion: the guys wear the baggy shorts, running shoes, baseball caps and muscle shirts of hip hop, or at other points Mafioso-style dark suits and shades. In fact, the star of the troupe, who appears last in the series and performs the most songs, changes his clothes constantly, even from one verse of a song to the next. Women appear relatively little in this section of a performance, but when they do they, too, transgress all norms of Burmese attire, appearing in scandalously short skirts and halter-tops, apparel that is still rarely seen on the streets of Rangoon or Mandalay.

The stage show goes on until about two in the morning, at which point a modern-day play is performed. This is invariably melodramatic, filled with heart-rending scenes, although the comedians in the troupe will also do some cutting up along the way. Once it ends, the “duet” starts. Classically, this scene would portray a prince and his beloved engaging in song and dance routines as they console each other in some remote forest which they must travel through. Today, in most troupes, the duet puts a number of male dancers on stage, each of them performing brief dance turns but interspersing these by singing pop love songs, while a group of women troupe members sit in a semi-circle behind them.

Youth culture triumphant
A classical performance would continue with the “last section” of a performance. This would relate the sort of story now performed in the “opera” earlier in the night, often on a Buddhist or historical theme, but in an abstruse, poetic language, with slow, often mournful songs, and highly stylized gestures. Few troupes in Burma today maintain this practice. In light of how long the stage show and melodrama last, little time remains in which to perform this older-style segment—and young people have no interest in it in any case.

It is ironic that the Southeast Asian society that has in many ways most adamantly resisted modernization has gone particularly far in abandoning its popular performances to the tastes of young spectators. Older people express regrets for the old-fashioned performances of their younger days, but few Burmese under the age of thirty know what it is they’re talking about.