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Musician fears beloved Burmese bamboo xylophone will be a casualty of COVID, coup

Kyaw Myint, an 83-year-old musician from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and culture center, fears that among the country’s many losses to from the military coup and covid-19 pandemic will be the pattala, a teak-and-bamboo xylophone that he has played his whole life.

Caught between the pandemic and the political turmoil following the February 2021 military coup, pattala artists have lost their jobs, with many forced to take up casual labor.
“We aging artists are facing a lot of hardship. For a long time, the theatrical troupes have not had a chance to give any performances,” he said, echoing a lament heard from musicians around the world as gigs dried up during pandemic lockdowns.

“Some of them have become vendors in the market because they cannot play their music anymore. Some even have become rickshaw drivers and some are selling vegetables,” Kyaw Myint told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Kyaw Myint studied with a who’s who of top Burmese classical musicians, including Saw Mya Aye Kyi, Ba Lay, and Ohn Maung and made a living playing the pattala for his entire adult life.

But as musicians worldwide have been increasingly able to return to performing as the pandemic eases in many countries, the violence, political unrest and outright warfare that has engulfed Myanmar since the military overthrew the country’s elected government have brought nighttime curfews and the suspension of theatrical performances.

The political conflict has also undercut the efforts by the poorest country in Southeast Asia to roll out vaccines and other measures to combat the pandemic.

The pattala, developed more than 500 years ago for use in court music and chamber ensembles, has a teak resonating chamber shaped like a rowboat, over which 24 bamboo slats are suspended. It is played with padded hardwood mallets and tuned along lines similar the diatonic scale. Southeast Asian neighbors Thailand and Cambodia have similar versions of the ancient instrument.

San San Nwe, a 67-year-old retired schoolteacher, is not a musician, but her traditional craft has also been collateral damage from the violence and turmoil. She learned the craft the art of making pattala mallets from her father, Saing Sayar Gyi Sein Tun Kyi, carrying on his tradition for almost 50 years.

“In the past, while I worked as a schoolteacher, I would do this job if we had orders. But now we hardly have any orders,” she said.

Nyunt Win Tun, 57,  San San Nwe’s brother, hopes pattala performances will return when peace returns to the multi-ethnic country of 54 million people.

“We can only hope that these activities will return to normal when there is peace and tranquility. When normalcy returns, we will be able to do our work happily again. It’s been over two and a half years now. Things are not going well at all,” he told RFA.

Even before the coup which has claimed thousands of lives and led to the jailing of hundreds of beloved writers, actors and musicians, traditional folk instruments like the hardwood-and-bamboo pattala were swimming against the tide of modern technology.

Electronic pianos and organs that can play a variety of sounds are getting more and more popular while traditional instruments like the pattala are now becoming less and less popular among younger Burmese people.

Kyaw Mint says there are now very few people in Myanmar who can play the pattala as it should be played, he said.

And more ominously for the ancient tradition, there are thought to be only about a dozen people left who make pattalas in Myanmar.

“There are a lot of reasons that the traditional music industry is disappearing,” said Kyaw Myint..

I’m trying to keep it alive. But I am saddened that there are very few young people who want to inherit this rare old tradition.”

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Edited by Paul Eckert.