Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

The Burmese Classical Music Tradition: An Introduction

Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

The Burmese Classical Music Tradition: An Introduction

Article excerpt

Introduction

Like many other musics in Southeast Asia, Burmese (2) classical music today is held in high national regard as a sophisticated art form. It not only remains a living tradition at home but also represents the country to great acclaim abroad. However, its infrastructure and musicians have received little ethnographic attention. In particular, from 1962 to 1988, when General Ne Win's regime was in control, Burma held tightly onto its xenophobic policies and long-term political isolationism. As a result, field-sites and the length of time permitted for non-Burmese people to conduct field research were severely restricted. Given this inaccessibility and the paucity of materials, the first-hand findings collected from the field research of pioneering non-Burmese ethnomusicologists/anthropologists (e.g., John Okell, Judith Becker, Muriel Williamson, Robert Garfias, Tokumaru Yoshihiko) are extremely valuable. In the years since 1988 under the current regime, more liberal policies have boosted the number of these "outsider" ethnographers. More scholars have dedicated long-term study to this subject (e.g., Ward Keeler, Gavin Douglas, Kit Young, Christopher Miller, Jane Ferguson, and myself). I should note here that the names listed above only account for the contributors who primarily publish in English. In fact, aside from the rich indigenous sources written in Burmese, scholarly publications based on field research can be also found in many other languages, such as Japanese, Chinese, French, German, and so on. (3) In addition, we should not forget that all ethnographic projects are situated in particular temporal, spatial, and humanly-relational contexts. The research results are thus inevitably somewhat subjective, dependent on the ethnographer's personal experience.

Taking these two facts into consideration, I do not intend to survey this music in an exhaustive manner in this article. Rather, I offer research findings from my extensive fieldwork and review existing literature, with the aim of providing an updated introduction to this musical tradition. The majority of the information was collected through personal interviews, conversations, and instrumental studies with Burmese musicians in Rangoon (now Yangon) between 1998 and 2009 (15 months in total). The extant literature on Burmese music published in English, Chinese, and Burmese also helped form the basis of this article.

Thachin Gyi: Ethnomusical Integration, Two Types of Ensemble

Burmese classical music is the court tradition passed down by the ethnic Burman, the predominant ethnic group constituting two-thirds of Burma's total population. Although its ethnicity is today associated exclusively with Burmans, the music is an amalgamation of ethnic cultures that had necessitated certain degrees of assimilation and indigenization. (4) An overview of Burma's geocultural layout and ethnic composition can help us better comprehend the intensity of cultural integration. On the one hand, Burma is nested at the intersection of three civilizations: India, China, and Thailand/Siam. The inter-regional exchange of trade, information, and culture speaks to its locus as a significant crossroads in southeastern Asia. Meanwhile, large-scale warfare between Burmese kingdoms and these external powers also enriched artistic practices remarkably. For example, Thai/ Siamese theatrical plays and music were adopted within the Burman artistic tradition after the Burmans' triumph in the Thai-Burman battles of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. In these two military victories, Burmans brought thousands of captives back to their court, among whom were numerous Thai musicians and dancers from the Thai court, Ayutthaya. This artistic infusion generated a new style, yodaya, which has been one of the most popular musical styles in Burma since the second half of the eighteenth century. (5) On the other hand, Burma's ancient ethnoscape also shows that many kingdoms, organized around major ethnic groups, peppered the extensive fertile plains, before the British took over the rule of these local settlements in 1886. …

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