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Reviewed by:
  • Mahagitá Harp and Vocal Music of Burma, and: Nai Htaw Paing Ensemble: Mon Music of Burma, and: Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma)
  • Gavin Douglas
Mahagitá Harp and Vocal Music of Burma, 2003. Produced and compiled by Ward Keeler and Rick Heizman, annotated by Ward Keeler. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, CD (1), SFW CD 40492.
Nai Htaw Paing Ensemble: Mon Music of Burma, 2006. Recorded and produced by Rick Heizman, online notes by Rick Heizman. Fire Museum Records, CD (1), MF-02CD.
Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma), 2003. Sublime Frequencies, CD (1), SF006.

There is reason to celebrate whenever a recording of Burmese music is released. Musical access to this hermit country has been limited since travel restrictions were imposed following a 1962 military coup. Controversially renamed Myanmar in 1989—a name that has yet to find international acceptance—the country began opening its doors to outsiders in the early 1990s. However, with the brutally suppressed 1988 pro-democracy uprising still in public memory and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under continued house arrest, the country remains troubled. Political conditions have discouraged fieldwork and recording projects, preventing Burmese music from receiving much recognition outside the country. The three CDs reviewed here are therefore welcome additions to a limited catalogue and are, in their own right, interesting collections of some rarely heard traditions.

Each of these recordings fulfills different objectives, making comparison difficult. The first documents the most revered instrument of the royal court, the second is one of the first available recordings of Mon ethnic minority music and the third is a re-release of 1980s cassette recordings made for local Burmese. Together these CDs hint at Burma’s musical diversity—a diversity that no single recording could represent.

Mahagitá: Harp and Vocal Music of Burma, distributed by Smithsonian Folkways, focuses on a single artist, U Myint Maung, one of the most accomplished Burmese harp (saung gauk or saùn gau’) players of the twentieth century. Originally from the Inle Lake hill country east of Mandalay, U Myint Maung spent his life notating and teaching the music of the royal court in the model of his famous teacher, U Ba Than. These recordings were made in 2000, shortly before U Myint Maung’s death in September 2001. Not only do they provide valuable documentation of the venerated court repertoire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they are also a testimony to the commitment of a single artist who has gone to great lengths to preserve and transmit a tradition that struggles to remain relevant.

Joining U Myint Maung on this recording is his former student and vocalist, Daw Yi Yi Thant. While it is quite common for a vocalist to apprentice under an instrumentalist in Burma, the two are generally considered equal partners in performance. Daw Yi Yi Thant is one of the most esteemed singers in the classical tradition and is praised for her diction and pitch control. Because the Burmese language is tonal—that is, the same syllable has different meanings when produced with different pitches—the setting of Burmese text to music is a highly nuanced art, as is the performance of that music. Active on Burmese radio and television since the 1970s, Daw Yi Yi Thant currently performs pieces from a wide variety of repertoires, from the classical thachìn gyì heard on this recording to contemporary popular songs.

Thachìn gyì or “great songs” were cultivated in the royal courts of central Burma. Throughout [End Page 113] the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thachìn gyì texts were documented in a variety of songbooks collectively known as the Mahagitá. As the monarchy fell to British colonists at the end of the nineteenth century, official patronage for much of this art dissolved. For the past 120 years, then, thachìn gyì have been preserved by private clubs, traveling drama troupes, foreign record companies, and state schools. Annual competitions and recent efforts by the government to establish a national University of Culture for dance, music, and theater may revive interest in this refined art, but much of the tradition, lamentably, is dying off with senior masters like U...


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