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The Strange, The Familiar: Foreign Musical Instruments in Myanmar/Burma

Burmese xylophone

Burmese xylophone

by Kit Young

Myanmar/Burmese musicians’ use of foreign instruments in the last 150 years has enchanted the ear of many newcomers to the music of lowland Myanmar/Burma.

Foreign listeners recognize familiar timbres - piano, violin, mandolin, Hawaiian slide guitar, Chinese lute (byat saun), concertina, euphonium, banjo, trombone -and delight in a totally new character of sound introduced by necessity: the need to adapt these instruments to complement and merge with the Myanmar/Burmese hsaing waing (percussion ensemble which includes the circle of 21 drums known as the pat waing), pattela (xylophone), saung gauk (harp) and hhne (oboe). Each new instrument went through an adaptive evolution which adjusted to the soundscapes of musicians in the Burmese Royal Court (1800’s), the outdoor village theatre known throughout
Myanmar/Burma as Za’ Pwe and Na’ Pwes, marionette performances (yokthee pwe) and both silent and sound movies from the 1920’s to the present day.

U Khin Zaw, a pioneering and lively writer on Myanmar/Burmese music described seeing, in the early 1950’s, a Za’ Pwe performance which combined a hsaing waing group on the right hand side of the stage with a piano, violin, clarinet, brass instruments and a jazz trap set on the left hand side of the stage (a practice that is still in use today at outdoor za’ pews. Nowadays, there is an addition of amplification for younger generation rock bands and an introduction of Hip Hop and Rap songs in Myanmar/Burmese which is sometimes accompanied by the hsaing,). He lovingly describes the blending of instruments:

“Would the two mix well? It depended on the discretion with which the mixture was arranged. Tone, resonance, timbre, capacities and limitations of western instruments are quite different from Burmese instruments. The former might have precision, the latter might have grace. Would there be a sensitive understanding of the nature of the different instruments to exploit their use with discretion? Well, I listened to the overture attentively and enjoyed it from beginning to end.

And he adds, “ The voluminous statement of the brass was retaliated by the eloquence of the hnai (Myanmar/Burmese oboe). The accents of the piano were echoed by the impact of the drums with gusto. The traps were overwhelmed by the bamboo clappers. If this judicious mixture could be extended to the traditional marionette and modern stage, all would be well.”