I listened to this album for the first time on September 28th. Burma was in the headlines. “More deaths in Myanmar, and defiance”, said the New York Times. “Burma seals off key monasteries”, said the BBC. “Troops open fire in Rangoon reprisal”, said The Age. The Guardian had a rolling report on its newsblog: “Irrawaddy, which is back up again, reports that protesters were fired at in Rangoon’s Tamwee townships after being sealed in by a pincer movement. It also has a grim picture of blood-stained sandals abandoned on the street today.”
Then on the same blog there was a man in Rangoon, or Yangon, who told us that life around the area where he lived seemed normal. People were going about their everyday business. They weren’t running through the streets, trying to shield monks from thugs, or flattening themselves against the ground dodging bullets fired at them by their fellow Burmese. This is the side of Burma we don’t often hear about in the news and it’s the Burma that Sublime Frequencies gives us in its Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar CDs, a series that has now reached its third iteration.
On this compilation we’re listening to a religious festivity, the nat pwe, the fruit of a merger between old animism and the latecomer, Buddhism. The nat in nat pwe is a reference to the nat spirits, powerful supernatural creatures who attach themselves to places, families, natural forces, objects, or activities like travel or business. “Business is Better Now Because of the Nats”, claims a translation of one of this album’s song titles. The pwe is the ceremony through which the nats are summoned and asked to help, or at least not harm, the living. There are 37 greater nats and uncounted lesser ones. The king who decided on the exact number of greater nats was also the man who introduced Buddhism to his Bamar kingdom, which was roughly at the centre of what is now the broader part of Burma. His name was Anawratha. The introduction of a hierarchy was not only a clever religious move, making animism more conceptual and therefore closer to the Buddhism he wanted his people to adopt, it was also a good Machiavellian idea. Kingdoms thrive on hierarchies. It meant that dead kings could be incorporated into the list of 37 important nats, lending some of that beyond-the-grave gravitas to their living descendents.
A nat pwe is led by a nat kadaw, or gadaw, someone who has ceremonially married the spirit. Nat pwe are accompanied by musical groups known as hsiang waing. Those are what we’re listening to on Music of Nat Pwe.
Most of the instruments here are percussive. Gongs, drums, and xylophones bang around at the forefront of the songs. There’s also what sounds like an end-blown wind instrument of some kind. It has a febrile buzz, as if there’s a reed involved. The inlay refers to it as an “oboe”, and it does sound rather like an oboe, though more cantankerous and ludic than the western instrument, more like a cranky young bee.
All of the tracks feature singing, sometimes male, sometimes female. The inlay offers us some translations. “I am a nat khadaw and I am surrounded by all the nats!” sings a woman on “Kyama Nat Khadaw”. “There is no one who does not fear Mother Jhan!” they tell us on “Mother Jhan Who Curses People”, naming a bad-tempered nat, a “rough, bitter woman” who refuses to be pleasant. The nats, like the old Greek and Roman gods, come with character flaws. The nat Father Kyaw, the subject of three songs here, is a notorious drunk.
The compiler, Alan Bishop, calls the music “jarring and intense … orchestral bedlam blazing like a runaway freight train” and so the songs must sound when you see them live, but despite the piercing oboe-things and the clashing of gongs, the music on Music of Nat Pwe is sweet and catchy at heart, less jarring than the Isan music this label gave us in August on their Thai Country Groove compilation. “Mother Jhan Who Curses People” starts off with a screaming oboe but once the singer comes in the song begins to grow hooks. There’s a nice one in the chorus, something like, “Jhan bon” sung on an arching pair of notes, the first syllable going up and the second down.
Even the oboe-scream is catchy, in a shrill, winding way. It squiggles up and down as if it’s riding a rollercoaster along a strand of DNA. The lullaby “Tuangbyone Min Lay” is intriguing, like a Lata Mangeshkar romance track crossed with the sound of a western neoclassical minimalist composer experimenting with Balinese gongs. Songs are raced through with relish. The xylophone in “Business is Better Now Because of the Nats” moves at a skipping gallop and when the oboe comes in then the whole racket starts to remind me weirdly of a Hollywood musical, a big production number, with a call and response between the hero and the chorus. Sein Moota’s female singer rocks all over “Small Nat Celebration in Our Neighborhood”, and Muang Maw’s duet glide and shriek through “Yo-Yar Nat Pwe” with raucous joy.
The CD cannons forward like someone running downstairs off-balance, unwilling to stop because they’re afraid that they’ll fall over. It’s rowdy, happy music. If you haven’t listened to folk songs from this region before then Music of Nat Pwe is a good place to start, and if you’re already enamored of the first two Myanmar CDs or in love with the Thai ones, then this is a good place to continue on from.