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Burmese culture, at the court level, has not had an easy time since the collapse of the last kingdom - architecture and art were both royal activities which, without royal support, have floundered faded. On the other hand, at the street level, Burmese culture is vibrant and thriving, as you'll see at the first pwe (show) you visit.

Dance & Drama

Myanmar's truly indigenous dance forms are those that pay homage to the nats (spirits). In special nat pwe, one or more nats is invited to posses the body and mind of a medium; sometimes members of the audience are possessed instead, an event greatly feared by most Burmese. Nat dancing styles are very fluid and adaptable, and are handed down from older pwe dancers to their offspring or apprentices.

In contrast, few of Myanmar's classical dance-drama styles are entirely indigenous. Most arrived from Thailand during periods of Burmese conquest of Thai kingdoms. Today the dances most obviously taken from Thailands are known as yodaya zat (Ayuthaya theatre), as taught to the Burmese by Thai theatrical artists taken sa war captives from Ayuthaya by King Hisnbyushin in the late 18th century. So thorough is the public perception that Thailand was the primary source for all court arts that the term yodaya can be applied loosely to describe any 'elite' art form even today. Around this same period Zinme pannatha (Chian Mai plays) were translated into Burmese, providing the text for another entire dance-drama genre.
The most Burmese dances features solo performances by female dancers who wear dresses with long white trains, which they kick into the air with their heels during the foot movements - some outside observers see a Chinese influence in these movements (they do seem to resemble certain aspects of Chinese opera). A zat pwe involves a recreation of an ancient legend or Buddhist jataka (life story of the Buddha) while the yamazat picks a tale from the Indian epic Ramayana. The arm and head movements often seek to mimic those of Burmese marionette theatre. Burmese dance scholars have catalogued around 2000 dance movements, including 13 head movements, 24 ways of moving only one hand plus 23 using both hands, 38 leg movements, eight body postures and 10 walking movements.

Classical dance-dram is currently enjoying a revival in Myanmar and is occasionally performed at the National Theatre in Yangon, where around a dozen amateur theatre groups regularly practice and perform yamazat. Traditional yamazat can also be seen in Mandalay, Amarapura and Sagaing. In Mandalay, yamazat performers even have their own shrine, where masks of the principal Ramayana characters receive offerings of fruit and flowers. Shorter, excerpted performances may be seen at large banquet-style restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay. Since Burmese classical dancing emphasises pose reather than ensemble performances, it can soon become a little boring for TV-hyped western tastes. By contrast the less common, but more lively, yein pwe features singing and dancing performed by a chorus ensemble.

Most popular of all is the a-nyeint pwe, a traditional-variety pwe somewhat akin to early American vaudeville or Thai likay; see the boxed text 'A-Nyeint Pwe - From Slapstick to Satire' in the Mandalay chapter for details. One of the easiest ways to tell a-nyeint pwe from zat pwe or yamarzat is that in both of the latter the musical instruments sit on the floor (or on the ground in an outdoor performance), while in a-nyeint pwe the instruments are placed on a stage with the dancers and actors.

Marionette Theatre

Youq-the pwe (Burmese marionette theatre) presents colourful puppets up to a metre high in a spectacle that many aesthetes consider the most expressive of all the Burmese arts. Developed during the reign of King Bagyidaw in the Konbaung period, it was so influential that it became the forerunner to zat pwe as later performed by actors rather than marionettes. As with dance-drama, the genre's 'golden age' began with the Mandalay kingdoms of the late 18th century and ran through to the advent of cinema in the 1930s.

The Burmese have great respect for an expert puppeteer; indeed a youq-the pwe is thought to demand a more skilled and artistic performance than a zat pwe. Some marionettes may be manipulated by a dozen or more strings; certain nats may sport up to 60 strings, including one for each eyebrow. The marionette master's standard repertoire requires a troupe of 28 puppets including Thagyamin (king of the gods); a Burmese king, queen, prince and princess; a regent; two court pages; an old man and an old woman; a villain; a hermit; four ministers; two clowns; one good and one evil nat; a Brahmin astrologer; two ogres; a zawgyi (alchemist); a horse; a monkey; a makara (mythical sea serpent); and an elephant. These figures bring together the talents of singers, puppeteers, musicians, woodcarvers, embroideres and set designers.
Marionette theatre declined following WWII and is now mostly confined to tourist venues in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. Rather less frequently it appears at pwes sponsored by wealthy patrons.

Music

Burmese music, which features strongly in any pwe, can be rather hard for unaccustomed westren ears to enjoy. As with other Asian music, it is very short on the harmony so important in western music and tends to sound 'harsh, tinkly and repetitive', as one early observer described it. The perceived harshness is probably due to the fact that Burmese scales are not 'tempered' as western scales have been since Batch. As in western music, the Burmese diatonic scale has seven tones, but they are arranged equidistantly within the octave, and there is no tempering or retuning of the 4th and 7th intervals as with western scales.

Traditional Burmese music is primarily two dimensional in the sense that rhythm and melody provide much of the musical structure, while repetition is a key element in developing this structure. Subtle shifts in rhythm and tonality provide the modulation usually supplied by the harmonic dimension in western music. These techniques have been 'rediscovered' in western musical trends, as in the minimalism of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Brian Eno. There is also a significant amount of improvisation in live performance, an element traditional Burmese music shares with jazz.

Classical Music

The original inspiration for much of Myanmar's current musical tradition came from Thailand (then Siam) during the reign of Khin Hisnbyushin, particularly after the second conquest of Thailand in 1767. During this period, Siamese court musicians, dancers and entertainers from Ayuthaya were brought to Myanmar by the hundreds in order to effect 'cultural augmentation'. Myanmar's kings were very good at 'capturing' culture (the same was done with Mon culture from Thaton). Burmese classical music as played today was codified by Po Sein, a colonial-era musician, composer and drummer who also designed the hsaing waing (the circle of tuned drums, also known as paq waing) and formalised classical dancing styles. Such music is meant to be played as an accompaniment to classical dance-dramas which enact scenes from the jatakas or from the Indian epic Ramayana.

Musical instruments are predominantly percussive, but even hsaing waing may carry the melody. These drums are tuned by placing a wad of paq-sa (drum food) - made from a kneaded paste of rice and wood-ash - onto the centre of the drum head, then adding or subtracting a pinch at a time till the desired drum tone is attained. By the use of multiple hand and stick strokes, Burmese percussionists can create melodic and chordal patterns on the large banks of drums employed in a typical performance.

In addition to the hsaing waing, the traditional hsaing (Burmese ensemble) of seven to 10 musicans will usually play: the kye-saung (a circle of tuned brass gongs); the saung gauq (a boat-shaped harp with 13 strings); the pattala (a sort of xylophone); the hneh (an oboe-type instruments related to the Indian shanai); the pa-lwe (a bamboo flute); the mi-gyaung (crocodile lute); the (small cymbals) and wa-leq-hkouq (bamboo clappers), which are purely rhythmic in nature and are often played by Burmese vocalists. It is also common to see a violin or two in a hsaing, and even the Dobro (an American acoustic slide guitar played on the lap) is occasionally used. Solo piano music has also become part of the traditional Burmese musical repertoire. At the National Museum in Yangon you can view an exhibit of Burmese musical instruments, including old Mon violins, the use of which may predate that of violins in Europe.

An older performance mode features duets of two female musicians playing Burmese harp and crocodile lute. This style of playing originated during the reign of King Badominrara in the late 18th century, when court maidens were trained on these instruments.

A1997 CD entitled White Elephants & Golden Ducks, recorded in Myanmar using a DAT recorder and issued on the Shanachie label, offers a good sampler of traditional Burmese instrumental and vocal music. A 1998 follow-up CD, Pat Waing; The Magic Drum Circle of Burma, does a beautiful job of rendering the hard-to-reproduce paq waing drum sounds. To hear how the Burmese have been translating their traditional music into piano performance for the last hundred years or so, listen to the equally high-quality Sandaya: The Spellbinding Piano of Burma (Shanachie, 1998). Shanachie has plans to release two more CDs of digitally recorded Burmese music, one devoted to the saung gauq and another to western stringed instruments played in Myanmar - slide guitar, mandolin, zither, banji and violin.

Folk & Pop

Older still is an enchanting vocal folk music tradition still heard in rural areas where the Burmese may sing without instrumental accompaniment while working. Such folk songs set the work cadence and provide a distraction from the physical strain and monotony of puundin rice, clearing fields, weaving and so on. You'll hear this most readily in the Ayeyarwady Delta between Twante and Pathein. Myanmar's urban ears are fed via radio and casette tapes by a huge pop music industry based in Yangon. The older generation prefer a pop sound created in the 1950s and 1960s by combining traditional Burmese melodies and rhythms with western instrumental settings. Younger Burmese listen to heavily western-influenced sounds - the pervasive music (except for lyrics, which must always be sung in Burmese).

Modern Burmese pop borrows from many sources - Burmese folk melodies and old Scottish reels, as well as modern tunes taken directly from international pop hits. Burmese heavy metal groups with names like Iron Cross, Wild Ones and Emperor have become very successful in recent years. Other than bans on non-Burmese lyrics, headbangers are restricted by the regulation (not very well enforced) that hair not fall below the shoulders.

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