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White Elephants and Golden Ducks

Here is a thoughtful, sometimes clever look at the modern, living traditions of Burma. Burma, now called Myanmar, is a country bordering India, China, Laos and Thailand. It has been a country of great myth in the west, with cities like Mandalay and Rangoon being the scene for many movies and novels seeking "exotic" locale, and also used as a pawn in many an international political scheme. But like most places that are just dots on the map to most of us, this is a unique and vital culture, one that has been only lightly explored in this century.

What this recording presents is an interesting and contemporary look at the musical nation. The performers here are neither classical court musicians, westernized pop artists or folk revivalists and preservationists. Rather, what we get here is a collection of music by a music scene that has assimilated and co-opted influences and instruments from its neighbors and invaders and made them their own. Two tracks point out this amazing ability to conquer the cultural invasion. "Mya Man Giri" is sung by a duo of male and female vocalists, accompanied by small hand cymbals and an electric piano. The effect of the local music on the piano playing is quite stunning, leaving an impression of ancient melodies, but at the same time giving an almost avant garde approach. "Sabe" brings together bamboo flute, tuned drums and siwa with violin and slide guitar. It's a remarkable tune, gentle and yet challenging the ear, hinting at Indonesian string music, Thai folk and even a touch of what could be called blues.

Throughout the record are further proofs of the vitality of the Burmese musical landscape, a reminder that no folk tradition should go untouched and preserved, but nurtured, revitalized and given lots of room for growth. - CF

U Yee Nwe
Sandaya: The Spellbinding Piano of Burma

This is a truly strange one, featuring a weird style of piano playing that seems to be shamelessly naive on one hand and almost avant garde on the other. The pianist mixes Mozart with Burmese tradition, Burmese pop with Chinese classical and the totality of this thing can either be heard as brilliant openness or just a mess. Many of these pieces include chauk lon bak and pat waing (various sets of tuned drums) and some wonderful singing. Possibly because they lean to the more traditional side of things they tend to be less aggressive and sweeter to the ear. This is a record that lies in the middle of some impossible intersection of The Incredible String Band and Harry Partch. - CF

Pat Waing: The Magic Drum Circle of Burma
featuring Kyaw Kya Naing
Shanachie (

Rick Heizman has captured the sounds of a very unique percussion instrument rarely heard on record. The pat waing is a set of 21 tuned drums played by Burmese virtuoso percussionist Kyaw Kyaw Naing. Naing leads small ensembles of Burmese musicians with the pat waing. Together they play magical and enchanting music with a delicate touch and astonishing rhythmic accuracy. All the pieces performed are either traditional or improvised and are played on drum, gong, xylophone, and reed instruments native to Burma with one exception. Adapted to Burmese playing style, the piano makes a delightful appearance in "Powerful King of Thunder and Lightning" blending quite well with the pat waing. The pat waing and piano trade off staccato patterns like an unexpected crash of lightning and the chauk lon bat, a set of tuned low drums, sounds like the low rumbling of distant thunder reflecting the song's title. The performances really capture the playful and inventive nature of this Burmese music. - Trevor Healy CD available from cdRoots

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