The Golden Palace of Song: Burmese Tradition Rings True in International Collaboration on Voice Over the Bridge

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For seven hundred years, serpentine songs of glorious kings, ancient wealth, and deep love have echoed at weddings and social occasions in Myanmar (Burma). Though steeped in musical and literary tradition, these songs, called the Maha Gita (which means “great song”), speak with a voice that transcends personal gain, political tension, economic hardship, or cultural difference.

This is what the producers of Voice Over the Bridge (EarthSync; October 12, 2010) heard when they first encountered two striking—yet strikingly humble—vocalists in one of the world’s least understood countries. Capturing the age-old melodies and striking yet delicate vocals, producers Patrick Sebag and Yotam Agam then reframed the songs with the help of talented international musicians, hoping to bridge the gap in understanding of both the music and the Burmese people.

“Our first meeting was a magical moment,” Sebag reminisces. “We heard them singing a traditional song from far away and went to find them.” They met Khing Zin Shwe and Shwe Shwe Khaing, two talented singers who made their living performing and teaching at a local university, and who wanted to be discreet about their contribution. Sebag, Agam, researcher Ernest Hariyanto and crew were searching Myanmar for musicians  as part of the Laya Project, a multi-country, multimedia homage to the cultures affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami.

The young women they met and began to record have a subtle yet intense timbre to their voices, effortlessly evoking the palaces and teak trees, the heartbreak and desire these songs chronicle. “These classical Maha Gita songs are about the power and glory of the ancient kings, the prosperity of the cities, and the beauty of nature with jungles and forests,” notes vocalist Khing Zin Shwe. “It is also about the way of life of the people in the olden days, so we can learn about their beliefs and customs.”

Yet these songs do far more than simply retell past wonders and mores. They are meant to move, and it is the singer’s job to make sure these ancient strains still resonate. “When I sing, I do my best to have the right mood. For example, take a sentimental poem, a longing song,” Shwe Shwe Khaing explains. “To sing that song tastefully, you need to know what the composer actually had in mind and the vocalist needs to share it by having the right mood.”

Sebag and Yotam went searching for what they felt was a sonic essence, the precious treasure at the heart of the pieces that could form a bridge to carry the music to new ears. To find it, they found themselves taking some musical risks.

”Lots of Western musicians are afraid to deal with the music of Burma,” Sebag reflects. “African and Indian music, for example, lend themselves more easily to collaboration. It took us a long time to understand the structure of traditional Burmese music. Like looking for gold, you need to dig very deep.”

Though the singers’ voices weave like veins of gold through a meditative and ethereal accompaniment, neither Shwe nor Khaing wanted any credit for their work—or any obvious clues to their identity on the album or in the accompanying documentary short. Mazumdar says, “They told us, ‘We don’t want any credit; we just want the music to reach more people.’ They were concerned what some might think of their collaboration, but mostly just hoped the music would be enjoyed and preserved.”

The sensitive nature of working in Burma shaped the producers’ approach to the Maha Gita material. Not content to follow the official channels by which the government usually assigns performers, the EarthSync crew had to find impromptu spaces to record the two singers. Though the government in Myanmar is supportive of traditional arts, it was wise for the crew to keep a low profile. They opted to record the singers’ performances on site, then create a new musical frame for them outside of Burma.

“We had to collaborate remotely, as it’s not the easiest place to produce music or film,” recounts Sonya Mazumdar, EarthSync’s director. “Even finding a studio is difficult. But it was amazing how so many people went out of their way to help us record. They were so happy that a crew came who were really interested in the music and culture.”

This willingness to provide help and find happiness even in difficult situations made a lasting impression on the crew and eased them through what experienced cross-cultural collaborator Sebag calls “the most challenging project we have ever done.”

“Myanmar is a very poor country, and the unbelievable beauty and grace of the country and the people was something I never expected,” Mazumdar muses. “People had so much grace living very meagerly, even in the way they walked and talked. It’s very touching, the way they put Buddhism into practice. It’s not like anywhere else in the world and you can hear it in the music.”

Flowing from a place of peace and unexpected contentment, the voices echoing from Myanmar suggest a path to greater calm and deeper engagement. As singer Shwe gently puts it, “Whether or not we have material possessions, there is no issue which can make us troubled in mind. We are not rich, but we have peace of mind.”

Guest post via World Music News Wire.