Mr. Ward Keeler, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas who researches the performing arts, language and culture in Myanmar and Indonesia, wrapped up his recent visit to Mandalay with a guest talk at Count Basic Hall in the Yangon American Center on June 29.
The program, titled “What Do Myanmar Want In Their Pop Music?”, was a shift away from Mr. Keeler’s usual focus on the Myanmar classical performance arts, such as thachin-gee, or maha-gita, which Mr. Keeler argued are becoming less popular among young Myanmar.
Mr. Keeler’s talk focused on the evolution of Myanmar pop music over the past few decades. “I want to remind you of what [Myanmar] pop music used to be like”, he said as he played a short excerpt from the song “Gandawin Chithu Myar”, “there is a very distinctive Myanmar singing style with some Western pop influence.”
“Since then, Myanmar instruments and Myanmar aesthetic values have been abandoned. There is now a skillful imitation of Western genres, and shiftings and distortions of Myanmar sounds to sound Western. Authenticity counts for nothing.”
Mr. Keeler went on the say that Myanmar lyrics don’t fit well with Western musical styles, but on a positive note, added that Myanmar lyricists, notably singer-songwriter Lay Phyu, are becoming better at making the melody, text and feeling tone of a song work together.
To Myanmar singers, the effort to fit lyrics to the melody is not important, the professor pointed out, showing that Myanmar pop songs don’t have to be intelligible. What people do want in their pop music, however, is the fulfillment of conventional expectations.
“With conventions, there are no surprises; what you expect becomes what you want.”
The presence of the keyboard and drum set are also important in Myanmar pop. Mr. Keeler said: “For most people in Asia the keyboard is what the heart of the music is. People love the range of effects that can be created by one person but this ‘range’ has limited effects. As a consequence, there is a ‘sameness’ to all Myanmar pop music, and a consistency in feeling tone and mood, regardless of the content and topic of the song.”
Music and the arts are always tied to social relations, he said. He sees the consistency of mood and tone and lack of variation in Myanmar pop music a as reflection of this culture’s preference for a moderate degree of emotional closeness, respect for people’s emotional autonomy, and need for smoothness in social relations.
Mr. Keeler, who first visited Myanmar for a week in 1970 and again in 1987, 1988, and 2007, arrived in Myanmar at the end of May this year with his daughter. He spent time in Mandalay, talking to people about pop music. He told The Myanmar Times, “I want to look now at Indonesian pop music. I also hope to come back [to Myanmar[ next year for a longer period of time.
Source: By Edward Xu, The Myanmar Times Volume 27, No. 530
I attended that seminar (which befell on my birthday) after my classes. Compared to other seminars I attended at AC, there were lesser attendants. I must admit that although I did understand the presentation at first, but I couldn’t remember what was being said afterward. Which is why, I decided not to blog about it until now. Luckily, the event was covered in the Myanmar Times journal. Sorry for my delay in posting the news since I only got back the journal from my sister last week. I was hoping to find it on the journal’s website, but it wasn’t posted there.
At the seminar, I was hoping to hear the comments from the listeners, but there weren’t much comments from them. I actually wanted to hear the point of view of the singers or lyricists, but there was only three of them (I won’t name them), and they came in late, just 15 minutes before the presentation ended. They pretty much missed most of the presentation.