Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mahagita: Harp and Vocal Music of Burma

On first approach, this remarkable release from Smithsonian Folkways of Burmese harp music reminded this listener of the amazing kora music from western Africa.  That is, until the vocals come in and then there is something very different--a gorgeous and haunting way of using the voice as an instrument to complement the harp playing.

Inle Mint Maung is astonishing on the 16-string harp and is beautifully accompanied by vocalist Daw Yi Yi Thant, whose enunciation is precise and singing highly accomplished.  Their performances on the nine pieces, ranging from a little over 6 to 12 minutes in length, are given plenty of room to develop their strengths.

Ward Keeler's excellent introduction in the liners points out that this music has never been popular, "but to those willing to listen, Burma's classical soings are ravishingly beautiful."  He noted that the music was refined over a long period, with the royal Burmese court as major patron, until the British takeover in 1885 of "Mandalay."  Ironically, the brutal regime of "Myanmar"claimed to support the country's heritage, which seemed to bode well for the survival of what is called "thachin gyi."

Keeler described that "saun gau" or arched harp as being held in the lap of the performer who sits cross-legged on the floor.  The player generally uses the thumb and index finger of the right hand on the strings, but Inle Myint Maung did not play this way.  Still, the virtuosity of this master is undisputed, with improvisation forming a significant part of the playing.

The singer, Daw Yi Yi Thant, holds two small bells held together by a string, as well as a bamboo or wood clapper.  The former, the "si," and the latter, the "wa" are used in place of larger percussion instruments, gongs and drums, heard in larger groups.

Biographical information about Maung and Thant adds to the understanding of the precision and skill they brought to this remarkable recording.  Keeler added that, while this music has recently been heard usually on the radio or television, past performance could take place overnight at a home, with a meal in between.  The writer stated that in 1987-88 he was able to hear the two musicians perform some songs at the Maung's home, giving a taste of what these domestic performances entailed.

Detailed notes for each piece explain the poetic meaning of the lyrics, as well as give information on the instrumental performance.  Befitting many Smithsonian Folkways releases, the liner notes really help newcomers to the music understand and enjoy the experience better.

While this album was in production, Inle Myint Maung died at the relatively young age of 64, so the release of the recording was even more important for preserving the work of this master musician, whose harp playing is so spectacular.

Just after this post was completed, a news item was read about a major earthquake in Burma (Myanmar) that took place today.  The 6.8 quake took place more than 50 miles below the earth's surface, so the damage could have been far worse, though some historic pagodas were damaged.

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