You recently played with the Shwe Man Thabin ensemble at an event commemorating the troupe’s founder Shwe Man U Tin Maung. How did the event go?
The 80th year celebration of Shwe Man Thabin Zat Performing Troupe and its founder – Shwe Man Tin Maung – was an extraordinary event. This was a very carefully-planned series of performances which took place on three nights – from 7pm to 5:30am in the all-night theater tradition of Burmese Zat Pwe. Moreover, this was the first time that the Shwe Man Thabin Theater Troupe was allowed by the Myanmar government to perform in the National Theater in Yangon since it was built in 1990. The hall was packed with older fans of Shwe Man U Tin Maung and younger generations who know the performances of his sons and grandsons. Each night was amazing.
Shwe Man Chan Thar directs the Shwe Man Thabin Troupe. His older brothers have retired from the troupe, but a new generation of grandsons have attracted younger audiences and tour with the troupe. In these performances – August 7, 9, 10 – all the sons, daughters and grandchildren contributed ideas to the making of this commemorating event. In particular, Chan Thar used old recordings of his father singing and reciting lines from the original plays the troupe performed in the 1940′s and ’50s and inserted these audio recordings and photo images in contemporary renditions of the plays (Zat Tote or Pya Zat). This year used multi-media set design, acrobatic wonders and lighting effects to bring Shwe Man U Tin Maung’s vision into the 21st century.
I think many ASEAM readers may have never heard of the Zat Pwe art form, can you tell us a bit about it?
The word “Pwe” in Burmese means performance. “Zat” has been linked to the Jatakas which were performed in outside theater settings in Myanmar for centuries. In addition to the dramatic telling of the Jataka tales through puppetry and acting were performances of dance, singing, folk-tales, comedy and commentary on contemporary life by a group of clowns – termed “A Ngyeint” which has seen a revived popularity in recent years. Many Zat troupes – including musicians, integral to performances – would travel to pagoda festivals during the cool season all over rural and urban Myanmar. The performances last all night. The inclusion of amplification in the last six decades has ensured that rural audiences on a quiet country night can hear when the Pwe is starting.
How did you become involved in traditional Burmese music?
I am a pianist and composer. I lived in Thailand as a child. Listening to Thai and Lao music was as interesting to me as learning western classical and contemporary music. When later I discovered that Burmese musicians played the piano using their own techniques from Burmese instruments, and also loving Burmese singing, I decided to learn Burmese language and to play “sandaya” – the Burmese style of playing the piano.
Who / what are your major influences in Burmese music?
My teachers Gita Lulin U Ko Ko, Sandaya U Yi Nwe, Sandaya U Ni Ni, Singers Daw Hta, Mar Mar Aye, Daw Yi Yi Thant, Tayaw (violinist) U Tin Yi, Slide Guitar U Tin, Hsaing Waing (percussion/gong ensemble) Sayas Thiri Maung Maung and Myanmar Pyi Kyauk Sein.
What are some your favourite recordings (LPs, CDs, etc.) of traditional Burmese music?
There are so many old cassette recordings of music from the 1930′s onward – too many to be named - that I love. Gita Lu Lin U Ko Ko’s Sandaya playing can be found on an out-of-print recording from 1995 “Burmese Piano.” Several Japanese and French labels have issued recordings of Burmese harp and hsaing waing. Smithsonian Folkways has issued “Mahagita: Harp and Vocal Music of Burma, Inle Myint Maung and Yi Yi Thant which is a great introduction to the songs from the classical canon “Mahagita.”
Any recommendations on contemporary performers from Burma that ASEAM readers should know about?
Younger traditional players are branching out and feeling their way with their traditional background. Myanmar Pyi Kyauk Sein explores improvisation with jazz musicians from other countries. Hlaing Win Maung, Saung Gauk (harp) player has composed music which adapts traditional Burmese music to more minimalist structures. Hip Hop singer Thar Soe includes Burmese instruments and drums from the Nat Pwe (Spirit worship performances) in some of his stage shows. University of Culture faculty musician Diya Moe has just finished two cd’s of “fusion” music.
I see that you were involved in founding the Gitameit Music Center, can you tell us about this project?
When I was a pianist on the faculty of Payap University in Chiangmai in the late 1990′s, I would visit Yangon to study with my sandaya teachers. At the time, younger Burmese musicians wanted to study western music theory and piano. When I moved to Myanmar in 2003, my students, colleagues and I decided to start a music school which would embrace all music, open to students of different ethnic groups and religions and focus on a secular choir as the uniting core of the school. We are celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2013 with many concerts in Yangon.