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Pone Pa Mar

Myanmar Traditional Hsaing Waing Ensemble

Hsaing waing is a traditional Burmese folk ensemble consisting of a battery of percussion instruments (including both wooden and metallic tuned drums) and a strident double reed called a hne, which is related to Indian instruments such as the shehnai and nadaswaram. Traditionally, the hsaing waing it an outdoor ensemble whose function is to accompany dance and drama as part of Buddhist ceremonial performances. More recently, it has been presented as concert music, separated from its ritualistic origins.

Musicologist Tasaw Hsin-Chin Lu confirms my slack-jawed first impressions of this music when she states that "to Western ears, this music challenges the expectations of steady tempo and symmetry, being marked rather by musical twitches and abruptness. Particularly in the hsaing performance, what characterizes the music are vivid contrasts of rhythm and melody, and a unique style of deliberate virtuosity."

This music seems to exist in a state of chaotic self-organization, changing shape before our ears but never dissolving into sheer disorder. Lu explains that the improvisatory flights of the musicians are held together by the presence of traditional melodies which the musicians refer to as "backbones." These melodies provide the foundation for improvised variations described by terms such as yaw ti ("playing complementary notes") and kwet pyauk ("divergent playing"). The resulting musical texture is a lively example of heterophony, in which the various voices seem to all be playing parallel, differentiated versions of the same basic melodic shape.

This recording comes from Gita Yadana, a recent anthology of traditional music from Myanmar overseen by the musician and producer Diramore. In addition to the hsaing waing ensemble music represented here, this huge collection includes the categories of folk music, spiritual music, traditional contemporary song, classical music, dramatic music, and instrumental solos.

Photograph of a hsaing ensemble (undated), from Robert Garifas, "The Development of the Modern Burmese Hsaing Ensemble," Asian Music, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1985), p. 17

Further reading: Tasaw Hsin-Chun Lu, "The Burmese Classical Music Tradition: An Introduction," Fontes Artis Musicae, Vol. 56, No. 3 (200), pp. 254-271.


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