ZAYATUT  (the booklet) 
Songs of blessing

Mandalay was founded by king Mindon Min, in 1857, in a historical context of troubles and upheaval. The Burmese kingdom had been in decline since the 18
th Century. At the time, the country was torn by secessionist ethnic wars and its riches were coveted by colonial powers, particularly the British. Several Anglo-Burmese wars had already impoverished and split up the country and considerably reduced the Burmese capacity for resistance. Although deprived of the resources of the central and coastal regions administered by the British since their military victories, the North nevertheless attempted to reorganize itself. The functional, Chinese-style layout of the new capital, and the construction of a powerful fortress, strategically placed near the Ayeyarwady river, kept up the illusion during Mindon Min's reign. The court's move from the old capital of Amarapura towards the new city didn't take place until 1861, when the new palace and the impressive fortress at the centre of which it is situated, were finished. The huge defensive enclosure, surrounded by a deep moat and protected by thick crenellated walls, contained a city within the city. In 1885, under the reign of king Thibaw, Mindon Min's successor, Mandalay, the "golden city", the "centre of the universe", fell into the hands of the English without really having put up any resistance. First it was pillaged, then the city became a provincial garrison for the British and Indian Raj troops. As for the last Burmese king, he was exiled to India where he died forgotten and destitute.

From a purely political point of view, the influence of the new capital was of short duration. On the cultural level however, its influence was to enjoy hitherto unequalled expansion. In effect, while the economic and cultural pole of Myanmar has, today, moved to the current capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), some seven hundred kilometres to the south, Mandalay has remained the uncontested centre of traditional arts and of ancient Burmese culture. Mandalay owes this status to the numerous Buddhist communities living in its monasteries, among the most prestigious in the country, but also to the fact that, in a way, it embodies the Burmese soul and all its struggles.

The border between so-called popular music and highbrow or classical music is often very subtle. In the Myanmar, music to be played inside, in privacy, on instruments such as the harp or the flute, solo or accompanied by songs, is distinguished from music to be played outside by big orchestras like the hsaing waing. These ensembles, composed mainly of drums (paq-waing), of sets of gongs (kye-waing), of flutes (pa-lwé), of oboes (hneh), a xylophone (pattala) and string instruments (lute, ...), often, in the past, played a court repertory in the enclosure of the royal palace. Today, the hsaing waing perform at religious festivities, theatrical performances or official ceremonies, and their rich repertory is somewhat adapted to demand. In the same way, the ancient tradition of sung duets with harp and lute, or harp and percussion, originally reserved for a social élite and the nobility have, since the 20th Century, been strongly popularized for the middle-class city dwellers, becoming paradoxically symbolic of "popular" traditional culture, identifying with the north of the country and in particular the ancient capital of Mandalay.

The Burmese harp saung gauk
The classic Burmese repertory includes several hundred songs listed in two collections: the Maha gita and the Gita wi htou theni.
The musicians dip freely into these invaluable resources, either to interpret ancient songs or to use them for inspiration to develop new compositions based on tradition. As far as chamber music is concerned, these songs are generally accompanied by the famous Burmese harp saung gauk, but also by the xylophone pattala, or the flute pa-lwé, and, more recently by instruments imported from the West, violin, electric piano, ...

The origins of the Asian harp date back to the 2nd Century BC, when it appeared in India, probably imported from Egypt or Assyria. The arched harp spread throughout the whole of Asia perhaps until the 10th Century, before disappearing definitively from musical practices, except in the Myanmar, where it happily survived until the present day.

This magnificent instrument, with very gentle tones, has a bow shaped resonator, above which is a strongly arched and decorated string arm with thirteen silk strings. Highly refined, it has the advantage of being light and therefore easily transportable. Representations of the saung gauk harp, among others, can be found on the frescoes of Pagan and those of Angkor in Cambodia1. Originally, the harp had only seven strings, but over the centuries, and particularly since the 20th Century, the instrument has undergone qualitative changes: its resonator has been perfected and the number of strings increased (16 in the case of the instruments recorded here). This solo instrument par excellence, generally accompanies the singing and, as is the case for this recording, can itself be accompanied by the beat of small metallic cymbals (hsi) and wooden clappers (wa).

Saung Mu Mu Thien and her daughter Saung Ma Cho Mu Winn regularly play during festivities for births, engagements, religious rites or funeral ceremonies. Depending on the circumstances, the repertory is sometimes personal, sometimes composed of old songs dating from the colonial wars or popular melodies. The musicians perform on request, generally as a duet, one playing the harp and singing, the other providing the beat. Harp duets are much rarer. Such performances, given their cost and the critical economic situation in which the great majority of Burmese find themselves today, are however reserved for the city-dwelling and privileged middle classes.

Saung Ma Cho Mu Winn was just fifteen years old at the time of these recordings and was still at secondary school. Her mother, Saung Mu Mu Thien teaches harp and also sells musical instruments in her stall in the much-frequented neighbourhood of Paya Setkyathiha in Mandalay.

  1. In the same collection, Plôw Tcha – Village melodies by the community of Rohal and the areas around the temples of Angkor – Cambodia. Ref. Col.CD110.
CD tracks
  1.  Zaya Tut  - "Blessing"
    Saung Mu Mu Thien begins her performance by blessing her listeners and the population of Mandalay. She uses the ancient sacred language, Pali, still used by the monks. This song of good omen wishes success and prosperity. It is usually sung during noviciate and engagement ceremonies.

    All the songs on this record are performed by Saung Mu Mu Thien, except tracks 3 and 7 which are sung by her daughter Saung Ma Cho Mu Winn.
    Track 4 is performed by both musicians.

  2. Swedaw Kyo  - "Buddha's tooth"
    Kyo designates string instruments, but also this musical genre. On this occasion, a long instrumental introduction precedes the song.
    In Buddhist culture, exceptional power is attributed to relics of the Buddha. The tooth in this song shines brightly.

  3. Wayzayanta  - "The royal palace"
    The evocation and description of the royal palace is in fact a direct allusion to heaven. The river (the Ayeyarwady) and the palace are magnified here, and the city of Mandalay is not lacking in praise either.

    "From the palace to the horizon, all is perfect".
    This song is composed by Mu Mu Thien.

  4. Aungzay Paingzay  - "To our success"
    This recent song proclaims success and prosperity. Mother and daughter sing the song together, which is a rare occurrence, but the harp alone accompanies them.

  5. Mandalay Taung  - "The hill of Mandalay"
    This song evokes the beauty of the panorama and of the pagodas built at the foot of the hill of Mandalay.

  6. San Nwae U  - "The beginning of summer"
    This old song reminds that at the beginning of summer (end of February, beginning of March), a slight wind delicately carries the scent of the flowers. The songs of the birds mingle together. It is a wonderful time for lovers.

  7. Naan Bon Tiha Bwe  - "The royal throne"
    This throne is priceless, for it is covered with many rubies and diamonds. In fact, this song is about the pedestal of a statue of the Buddha. The song evokes the sumptuous gifts offered to the king by his court.
    This song is performed by Ma Cho Mu Winn. 

  8. Ananda Napia  - "The five Buddhas"
    This old song is educational: it explains how to honour and pray to the Buddha, one's teachers, the monks, one's parents.

  9. Htuang Yaung Nay  - "Darkness"
    This song evokes the depths of the palace moats.

  10. Lumanaw  - "The imagination" (the creative spirit)

    "It is nice weather, not too hot, not too cold.
    The light is magnificent,
    water flows from the springs and waterfalls.
    The flowers are fragrant..."