The song “Shwe Byone Maung” by the maestro Sein Moot Tar
Throughout his long and prolific musical career, the great (hsaing saya) maestro Sein Moot Tar from Mandalay was the author of several spirit songs (nat chin). Mostly composed during the 1970s, many of these gained national success; today they are regularly performed in spirit possession ceremonies (nat pwe). Over the years some of his songs have taken the place of more traditional nat songs (yoya nat chin), thus establishing a new standard. In writing these new songs, Sein Moot Tar drew inspiration from traditional songs. The result is the creation of a song repertoire characterised by a mix of old and new, of innovation based on tradition.
“Shwe Byone Maung”, presented in the video, is one of these songs. It celebrates the two Muslim brothers of Taungbyone. The title instantly recalls the importance of the village of Taungbyone for the spirit cult: Taungbyone is called “golden” (“shwe”), a royal attribute referring to the display of power still evident today during the celebration of the annual festival for the two spirits. The references to the greatness and power of the two nat continue in the sung lyrics:
Dazzling and shining [like] diamonds and gold
They are better than anyone else
[Like] the tide, your riches will increase by thousands of millions
The two Brothers will lift you up / The colours [of your] glory, power [and] pride will increase
The [two] Brothers [from the] Golden [village of] Byone who provide luck and prizes
The [two] Brothers [from the] Golden [village of] Byone who fulfil anything you wish
All your wishes are fulfilled, the Brothers take care…
The [two from] the Golden Taungbyone, the Golden Byone Brothers!
The lyrics are characterised by poetic formulas (“Dazzling and shining [like] diamonds and gold”) that emphasise the royal origin of the two spirits and their village, and figures of speech that more directly point out the benefits obtained through the two nat (“[Like] the tide, your riches will increase by thousands of millions / The two Brothers will lift you up”). The lyrics sung during the ritual do not always correspond to those written by Sein Moot Tar though. During the ceremony the singers interpret the song’s verses with variations that keep more or less to the original version, following the inspiration of the moment or their memory.
Analysis of the musical form
As for other songs of Burmese music culture, the song “Shwe Byone Maung” is constructed by alternating sung and instrumental sections. The singer performs one or more sections, supported by the ensemble; then the instruments play the same sections without the singer, elaborating on the melody according to the nature of their instrument. This organisation of the musical material can also be found in repertoires dating back to the Burmese royal court.
Alongside these more “traditional” features, the “modernity” of the “Shwe Byone Maung” immediately becomes clear when observing the aesthetic nature and formal organisation of the piece.
Firstly, the lyrics of “Shwe Byone Maung” are based on a simple but effective melodic line. This is typical of other modern spirit songs composed by Sein Moot Tar, and can probably be ascribed to a major influence of the Western popular song form. Traditional songs usually have more elaborate melodic lines, aesthetically closer to the Burmese court musical culture.
This similarity to the popular song form is even more evident in the formal organisation. The alternation of the two sections A and B corresponds to the typical song form alternation of verse and chorus. The succession and repetition of sections A (verse) and B (chorus), first sung and then played only by the hsaing waing instruments, does not occur in traditional spirit songs (yoya nat chin). These usually follow an alternating sequence of sung and instrumental sections, without the characteristic of a modern “chorus”. Although such formal structure may be partly altered during the ritual performance, in this case it is clearly defined, as shown in the video.