Reshmi Banerjee reviews Andrew Selth’s book on popular music in colonial Burma.
Music has always been considered as a powerful tool of expression. It not only stirs the soul with its melodious tunes and rhythms but can bring about social change if it is used as a catalyst for reflection. Popular music can change the way a society comprehends and responds to a specific culture, how masses might connect to a foreign land. Take, for example, Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 ballad ‘Mandalay’, which is taken as an important reference by Andrew Selth to explore how music influenced the western perceptions of Burma.
The book captures the reader’s attention by taking them not only through a gripping narrative of Burma’s place in popular imagination, but also the changes witnessed over the passage of time, from the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1826 to the country achieving its independence in 1948 and after. It covers a vast soundscape extending from the colonial music scene to the technological strides made in the music recording industry; from hymns composed by the Christian missionaries about Burma in colonial times to the restrictions imposed later by the military regime; to, finally, the emerging vibrant music setting of today. The book’s strength is in the fact that it does not see music in a vacuum but links it to the socio-political landscape and engages with it as a creative medium. Thus, Selth is able to help us understand the power of music to construct images, shape opinions, and inform audiences through different categories of music – individual and collective, vocal and instrumental, classical and pop, beautifully knitting Burmese studies and musicology together.
The author begins by noting how for centuries, the eastern part of the world (which included Burma) was seen by western literature as exotic, with an aura of mystery and romance. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, oriental stereotypes of dreams and desires were popular. Foreign writers described Burma, its wealth, and its charming but sexually liberated women (sometimes meant in a derogatory fashion). This readily acceptable, romanticized image of Burma by the West (especially of demure Burmese girls waiting for their white men/lovers) was seen as a profitable venture to be used through music by songwriters and composers. However, the 19th century was important also for the hymns (religious music) produced by Christian missionaries with Burma in mind (Millennial Dawn written in 1832, Burman Mission Hymn composed in 1836, Rangoon in 1900). Conversion and communal hymn singing by the hill tribes (Chins, Karens and Kachins) inspired hymn writers in the UK and US to compose, even though the Buddhist community remained deeply suspicious.
While Burma did appear in western literature pre-1890, whether it was through military music bands or Burmese themes finding place in stage productions and shows in the West, notable changed occurred after Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’ appeared in 1890. Mandalay rapidly prompted imitations and adaptations in both verse and music. Images of Burma started emerging in ballets, classical musical works, advertising jingles, soldiers’ songs, works written for music halls and theatre venues, variety shows and musical comedies. The birth of cinemas, professional music publishers, the rise of illustrated covers and clipper trade with Burma – all connected popular music of that era with the country.
The book delves into several such adaptations visible in every genre, like the show The Blue Moon (produced first in 1905), the musical comedy called The Road to Mandalay (staged in 1916) and the theatre production The Pagoda of Flowers: A Burmese Story in Song. The author also discusses the patterns in the 180 or so compositions surveyed with Burma related themes, where love and longing were popular themes with ‘Burma’ and ‘Mandalay’ cited in the titles. There was an inability to capture Burmese culture and society although the songs laid stress on using stereotypical imagery in lyrics, such as like bells, Buddha statues, pagodas, sunsets and moonlight, rose and lotus flowers. A certain amount of naivety, along with patronizing and sexist overtones in the lyrics, abounded, but they appealed to the audiences and to the colonial rulers; the songs provided both entertainment as well as reassurance of the continuity of control. Thus, references to rural and communal violence or rising forces of nationalism were absent .
The book also studies the colonial expatriate elite society along with the Burmese educated urban middle class of the 1930s, with their sources of entertainment and leisure. Private clubs, live music in restaurants/hotels, nightclubs became popular with local musicians using foreign instruments like banjos and mandolins. The grim period of the Second World War is covered too, with the author exploring the scope of music in the war torn China-Burma-India Theatre. Independence, followed by the resultant chaos, led to culture and performing arts slipping in the priority list. Nonetheless an absorbing relationship between the local population and western music continued even when General Ne Win’s military rule imposed restrictions on the music industry (for example, the import of western musical instruments was not allowed). The rise of an underground pop culture was a result of such turbulent times. The book covers the post-1988 era and the strict rules imposed by authorities on music and on musical renditions such as, for example, when, in 2009, the SPDC ordered the removal of western musical instruments from Burmese saing waing orchestras. The country has come a long way with today’s Myanmar seeing the existence of both traditional and western music, with the internet age exposing everyone to music of all kinds across borders.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and the 1913 Nobel laureate in literature said, “Music fills the infinite between two souls”. A country’s soul is often exhibited by its culture and music constitutes a big part of it. Andrew Selth captures this thought well in his book by showing how music served as a connecting bridge between two different worlds even though a certain amount of commodification and standardization of Burmese culture was occurring. Yet, the book, by attempting to delineate the western world’s impressions of Burma, also shows how Burma responded to western influence and incorporated it in its society. Selth achieves this successfully without the resort of hard political reasoning and reveals how western music encompassed every sphere, ranging from religion to the military. The book, by using a much more powerful and emotional instrument, which speaks not necessarily always with words— that is, music— provides an innovative way of looking at cross-cultural relationships and the development of mass culture.
Photo credit: Cover page, sheet music for “On the Road to Mandalay” (public domain, via Creative Commons)