By Jonathan Lim
It’s immediately apparent on the cover of this postcard that there’s something of a festivity going on. Women are dancing, flowers adorned in their hair. People are playing a variety of traditional folk instruments. The two young men in the center of the image are doing something that I can only guess and hope to be dancing, otherwise the conjured image would be very awkward.
There are five main categories of traditional Burmese musical instruments, being Thayei (leather drums), Kyey (metal bells, cymbals, and gongs), Kyo (literally translating to string), Lei (wind instruments), and the Let Khote (percussion).
The three men in the background are playing the Hne, a woodwind instrument that’s known for being crooked.
The man in the smaller wood circle is playing the Si Waing, which means a gong circle. There are 21 metal gongs that surround the player, who uses mallets to beat all but the higher pitched keys.
His bigger counterpart on the right is the Pat Waing, which means a drum circle. The leader and director of the entire ensemble plays this instrument, using his hands to very quickly beat the 21 drums around him.
The man in front of the bigger wood ring is playing the Wa Let Khote, which literally translates to bamboo clap. As the translation suggests, it’s a percussion that produces a sound by clapping the two bamboo parts of the instrument.
This complete ensemble in the photo is called the Hsaing Waing, and can often be seen in theatre and festivals. Known to be lively, unpredictable, and full of improvisation, it’s often accompanied by dancers, marionette puppet performances, and is even involved in events of religious worship, namely Nat Gadaw (spirit worship).
An opinion piece from The New York Times states that, “Burmese music is an exhilarating tease, defying expectations of symmetry or steady tempo. A phrase might be repeated like a big-band riff or never heard again; a terse line is followed by one that just keeps on going. Tunes that start out as stately as fanfares wind up scampering at top speed, while melodic lines may be staggered between instruments, bounced around like question-answer exchanges or suddenly played in precise unison, accelerating as they go.”
It’s also a part of Anyeint performances today. The art form is a seamless combination of formal singing and dancing, and a spoken comedic performance, both conducted by the backdrop of a Hsaing Waing musical ensemble. The scale of these performances’ ranges from modest and small to elaborate and grand, the latter often bearing a cast several dozen in size.
The Hsaing Waing is a ubiquitous piece of importance in Burmese culture that has continued to be (mostly) unaffected by the passage of time. The few notable changes today consist of the occasional involvement of the piano or violin, and the increasingly theatrical nature of newer performances.
Jonathan is a freelance graphic designer who specializes in logos and brand identity, and a freelance writer currently working with Myanmar Photo Archive. His greatest achievement to date is being able to sit through five long, boring Transformers movies and still manage to be entertained.