Natural tunes of Myanmar

instrumental

Natural tunes of Myanmar

Recently, during our Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Myanmar, all the newspapers flashed photos of him enjoying the notes played by a young musician on a Myanmarese instrument.

These pictures transported me back in time, to my holiday in Myanmar, when I had the good fortune of visiting the home of a music enthusiast, who had introduced me to some traditional musical instruments of Myanmar. The musical knowledge I had gained then came in handy now — I could immediately recognise the instrument in the picture of PM Modi as that of Myanmarese xylophone, locally called patala.

Like in any xylophone, patala has bars, made of either copper or bamboo, which are struck to play the desired notes. Since the notes that can be played on it can be varied from high to low and vice versa, it is a popular instrument that accompanies most traditional music and dance performances. According to my friend Htoo Aung Kyaw, music plays an important role in the lives of Myanmarese and so musical instruments like patala, saung (harp) and oozi (drums) are almost indispensable to any music or dance performance. “Especially so during a dance performance we call anyein, a theatre genre that came into existence in the erstwhile royal court and enjoyed much royal patronage,” he says.

This is not all. More interesting stories starting tumbling out during my brief introduction to patala. The people of Myanmar give a lot of importance on interactions with the natural spirit world. No wonder, spirit festivals, locally called nat pwe, are quite common in Myanmar and, again, it’s the patala that is played in full volume at such festivals to attract nats, or friendly spirits of natural elements like trees and water. Locals believe music played on the patala appeases these spirits who, in turn, bless them with health, wealth and happiness!

Another interesting instrument that caught my eye was the saung, which is arched, and regarded as the national musical instrument of Myanmar. And, according to Kyaw, it is the only surviving harp in the whole of Asia. The best part, as far as I was concerned, was the belief that it was introduced to Myanmar from India (Bengal, to be specific).

Till recently, saung was played only in the royal court, as it was considered to be the most appreciated of all the musical instruments. Watching musicians play the saung is fascinating, as the musical instrument is almost revered in Myanmar. Made of wood and covered with deer hide, saung has nylon or silk strings, and is heavily ornated. Musical instruments never fail to arouse interest, do they?

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