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!