Saung Gauk (BURMA)
February 16, 2010, 11:22 am
Filed under: Burma

It’s been about a year since we left Chinese music behind and began a musical tour of the rest of Asia. It’s been slow going as we made our way from Japan down to Vietnam, Cambodia and then Thailand. There’s plenty more good stuff from Thailand, but I think it’s time to move on. We skipped Korea and Laos, but I hope to hit those on the way back.

I’m a huge, huge fan of Burmese music (not to mention Burmese food!) and I’m lucky enough to live near a fellow named Rick Heizman. Rick is a great musician from San Francisco who has a real passion for Burma, it’s music, culture and people. For years he’s been traveling to Burma and documenting the music, releasing some of it on his own Earthview label as well as Shanachie and Folkways. Rick and his wife Su Wai (a well known Burmese harp player) have been kind enough to help me out with translations and other musical information on the next few posts.

The first Burmese recordings were made by the Gramophone Company’s Fred Gaisberg on his incredible 1902 Asian recording expedition. Starting in Calcutta, he managed to make hundred’s of recordings in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Rangoon. Recordings were made in Rangoon on GC’s second expedition in 1904 by William Sinkler Darby and again in 1905-06 by Fred’s younger brother Will. Of course, the Gramophone Company wasn’t the only label recording in Burma. The German label Beka recorded in Rangoon as early as 1905.

Burmese 78s tend to come in one of three basic varieties; chamber music (music for indoors), drama and “modern music.” Our first record is of the chamber music variety, on the HMV label, and features the wonderful singing of Yadana Myit, backed by a saung-gauk (harp) and violin.

The suang-gauk is an ancient harp, some of the earliest depictions of it date from the 7th century AD and it was most likely brought from India as a court instrument. There are depictions of harps in other Southeast Asian cultures as well, such as at Angkor, but the instrument has not survived in those cultures. The boat shaped resonator is constructed of wood and covered with deer skin. The modern saung-gauk has sixteen strings and uses four basic classical tunings, all of which are pentatonic.

The harp is often played by women and is used to accompany singing for indoor chamber music, as opposed to the drum and gong based outdoor ensembles. Sometimes the harp is paired with a guitar, piano, xylophone or violin.

This record was recorded in 1928 or 1929. The title is Sone Nant Tha Myaing or “The Fragrant Forest.”

>HMV P 14579, BX 6022

Thanks to Jonathan Ward of Excavated Shellac for some audio work on this post. It’s still plenty scratchy, but he pulled it back from the brink of pure noise!


8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

ah man, fantastic!
thanks as always!!

Comment by peter

Beautiful record. And the postcard is a beauty. And the label! Great to see you back.

Comment by gracenotes

This record is much earlier than the 1940s date you offer. It was actually recorded in 1929!

Comment by Ross Laird

I like this one. Can’t wait to here more.

Comment by icastico

Dave- thanks for another great post! looking forward to anything else you might have coming up from Burma. Absolutely lovely.

Comment by will Hancock

Thanks for all the comments everybody! It’s gratifying to hear some feedback on this stuff.
Stay tuned, there’s a lot more Burmese stuff coming up, and hopefully some other projects will be announced soon that I’m sure you’ll all be interested (I know, I keep saying that, but this time I mean it!).
Haji Maji

Comment by HAJI MAJI

This blog is amazing, congrats!

I am very interested in the history of South East Asian music, especially since the first recordings, the blend of Western imports etc. But I’m no expert (I’ve been studying Japan for some time) and can’t be there at the moment.

Do you know, by any chance, a book that might deal with the issue?

Thanks in advance

Comment by Jaime

Hi Jaime,
Anyone interested in Southeast Asian music should own a copy of the Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music.


Comment by HAJI MAJI

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