Myanmar's Music and Performing Arts
Music, dance and drama in Myanmar are very much a part of everyday life in the country, performed on makeshift stages by the side of the road rather than in elegant theatres or concert halls, and with an audience of chattering and cheering locals gathered for the occasion. Fairs and festivals are often cultural as much as religious in appeal, with travelling troupes of artists performing pwe, a distinctive Burmese blend of theatre, song and dance, mixing slapstick comedy with stories from the great Buddhist and Hindu epics.
The local pwe is divided into several categories and accompanied by music created using an ensemble of percussive instruments. Popular instruments include a set of small gongs (maung-hsaing), horizontally suspended t-gongs (kyi-waing), an oboe-like hne, and 21 tuned drums (pat-waing).
The traditional style of music is quite melodious and can lack a harmony; this for the western travellers can sound loud and harsh. Repetition is a major aspect of this type of music. Also, there are several types of classical and folk traditions that make use of several instruments, including wind, string and drums.
Beyond the interest in traditional music in Myanmar, there is an increased interest in Western styles, such as hip-hop, rock and pop, which is most favoured by the younger generation. Yangon is one region of Myanmar that is developing a popular music scene with the emergence of several highly-rated bands.
Various types of music in Myanmar make use of a variety of traditional musical instruments. This can include the individual instruments to the assembled group to create the hsaing-waing, which is an orchestra. One style of instrument that is unique to the country is the arched harp which is called the saung-gauk and dates as far back as the pre-Hittite times.
Popular performance arts in Myanmar include the pwe ("show") which combines drama, dance and music. This type of show is common at religious festivals, sporting events, funerals, weddings and fairs. The majority take place in the evening and continue through the night.
It’s possible to make a loose classification of different types of pwe:
▪ Zat pwe is a religious performance based on the various Jataka, or Buddha life-cycle stories.
▪ Yama-zat pwe is based on the great Hindu epic, Ramayana.
▪ Anyein pwe are plays without plots, usually accompanied by clowning, ironic repartee and dancing.
▪ Yein pwe feature group singing and dancing.
Burmese dance reached its zenith in Mandalay during the late Konbaung dynasty era. Burmese dance emphasises double-jointed suppleness. Wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, fingers and toes are bent in stylised directions with seeming effortlessness. Efforts have been made to revive the theatrical arts, and while the programme has been quite successful, it’s also been very inward-looking.
An exception to all other forms of theatre is the yok-thei pwe, or marionette theatre. A single master puppeteer manipulates 28 dolls, some with as many as 60 strings. He presents the dialogue simultaneously, while getting help from only two stage assistants.