Category Archives: Music From South Asia

Ancient Harp Music From BURMA

The Burmese Harp

The mainstay of Burmese chamber music is the saun: or saun:gau?. It is made from bedau? wood (Pterocarpus macrocarpus). A strip of deer hide is stretched across the open top, and along the middle of this is a wooden bridge. There are two sound holes, one on each side of the bridge. The arch is of sa: wood (Acacia catechu). The strings are of spun silk.
In the days of the Burmese kings, the saun: was the most popular instrument in the palace, called the “king of instruments.” Proficiency was highly regarded; a master harpist is called Deiwa-einda ‘celestial musician’.
The last court harpist, U Maung Maung Gyi (1855-1933) added 14th string; it has since become 16 string.

Description: Body is boat shaped, carved wood, painted and decorated. 14 string lap harp with a long curved neck which rests on the left shoulder. Black with gold and thayo work decoration. Strings are of silk strengthen with varnish and attached to the neck by red cotton cord with hanging tassels.
strings clearly distinctive gauges; original strings, silk

The harp is one of the earliest musical instruments of the world. World musicologists believe that the harp was a musical instrument used by ancient man who hunted with bows and arrows. Harps now being used by peoples of the contemporary world fall into two types: the bow shaped type and the triangle shape type. Of the two the bow shaped harps are said to be the earlier type.
There are stories about bow shaped harps being used by Arabians, Egyptians, Indians and Java and about such harps being in used in about 3000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia where Suzerains flourished and about Egyptians playing single-stringed harps in ware and in pursuing their foes Egyptian harps are said to have developed into eightstringed instruments by the year 1500 BC.
n Myanmar, ancient chronicles say that harps were being played as early as in the Pyu Period. In February of 802 AD, Sri Khettra despatched a Pyu music and dance ensemble to Chan-ann, the city of the Tang Dynasty of China. Tang Dynasty chronicles say that the Pyu musicians had with them two harps with pheasant’s head shapes, two harps with crocodile head shapes, one flat harp in the shape of a dragon’s head, one flat harp in the shape of rain clouds, two flat harps of big gourds, one flat gourd-harp with a single string and one small flat gourd-harp.Among stone relief sculptures found on the walls of the Anandar Temple built by King Kyansittha, is a harp which indicates that the harp was in general used in those days.The Veluva harp, the Gottila harp, the Uteinna harp and the Kusa harp of Myanmar classical writings were presumably not the present Myanmar type of harps. They were perhaps called ‘Winar’ that is still being used in India today.

Myanmar musicians of the old days acknowledged that the harp music the more prominent and more prestigious than drum music, xylophone music and the ‘migyaung’ guitar music.Myanmar royal harpists were organised in two groups: the left group and the right group. The King of Toungoo Nat Shin Naung who ascended the throne in the year 971, King Bagyidaw who ascended the throne in the year 971, the throne in the year 971, King Bagyidaw who ascended the throne in the year 1181, King Tharrawaddy, also known as Shwebo Min who ascended the throne in the year 1199, Western Palace Queen Ma Mya Lay and Myawaddy Wungyi U Sa played harps. This means that from kings right down the royalty and court officials played harps in Inwa Period and Konbaung Period.

Harp strings have to be tuned to differing scales to play differing music. With he ‘hnyinnlon’ scale a harp plays ‘kyo’ songs, ‘bwai’ songs and ‘thachingan’ songs: with the ‘aukpyan’ scale it plays ‘patpyo’, ‘Layhtawy thangat’, ‘myinnkhinn’, ‘lawka nat-than’ and ‘nat chins’; with the ‘pale’ scale it plays ‘yodaya songs’, ‘mon’ songs, ‘bawle’ songs and ‘thanhsann’ songs, and with the ‘myinsaing’ scale it plays taytat songs, ‘shitsaibaw’ songs and ‘deinthan’s songs.

Myanmar harps began with seven strings and then acquired six more strings. It is said that Harpist U Nyein added the fourteenth string. In fact, U Nyein is said to have added two more strings. And in the recent past, Harpist U Ba Than played harps with sixteen strings.

Harp strings are strung and fastened to the arm of the harp by means of fastening cords or by means of keys pushed through the arm. In the old days, fastening cords were tied to the arm in a special kind of knot to prevent the cords slowly slipping down. The present way of making such a knot is of a reef-knot method. Old harps found in neighbouring countries are mostly those whose strings are fastened to the arms with fastening cords. In Myanmar, Sgaw Kayins living around the Bago Yoma and Shans in a number of Shan regions play harps with strings tied to keys fitted to the arms of the harps.

Today, harps are being used not merely as musical instruments: they are also being used as artifacts to decorate the top room of dwellings. This is being done by way of honouring a musical instrument that has played an important role in development of Myanmar culture. More sophisticated musical gadgets may emerge as time passes, but the harp will ever remain as a heritage of Myanmar musical traditions.