Musicians Kit Young, Alex Peh, Ne Myo Aung, and Kyaw Kyaw Naing joined inDialogue, ACC's online public programs, to discuss their 2020 ACC Fellowship and virtual exchange: the Gitameit-SUNY Myanmar Spirit Worship Project. With nat pwe (spirit worship) as the focus, this project has enabled artists in the U.S. and Myanmar to come together to explore the diversity of Myanmar's religious expression, gain practical training in traditional music technique, and learn ethnographic skills. Full conversation can be viewed here

Kit Young, co-founder of Gitameit Music Institute (ACC 2005, 2020), brings us one step further into the experience with this special blog post. Here she reflects on the nature of online connectionbeyond its necessity in crossing physical dividesand its role in breaking down the traditional formalities and social boundaries...

One of the pandemic silver ONLINEings in our Myanmar Spirit Worship explorations of Nat Pwe is the shaping of SUNY New Paltz and Gitameit communities for this project via Facebook/Messenger/Zoom meetings with mediums (Nat gadaw), artisans, musicians, worshippers, and writers in Myanmar.

Formerly, in Burmese society, a polite way of meeting someone new after an introduction—particularly an older person of status, but perhaps without means—was to invite them to one of the many street corner tea stalls called “laphet yay hsaing.” This was (and still can be) quite intimidating for a younger person, non-journalist or outsider. Fortunately, trends are forgiving and Facebook, despite some of its ills in Myanmar, has become a tea stall of its own.

This past August, Erle Thanwin, a Nat Pwe dancer friend of mine, who was raised in Myanmar and now lives in London, suggested that I reach out to Sayar Sein in Yangon. I vaguely knew that Sayar Sein was a mask-maker for the Yamayana, the Burmese Ramayana. But Erle said excitedly that as a sculptor and costume designer, Sayar Sein also carves images of the 37 inner and other “outside” Nat or Spirits. Sets of these are made for believers, Nat gadaw, and hosts of Nat Pwe rituals.

Above are some examples of his work. On the far left, we see the Bago Nat Medaw buffalo headdress. In the middle, Sayar Sein sits and carves behind his masks of Dathagiri (Ravana, the Demon King from the Yamayana) and an unfinished monkey warrior in the foreground. On the far right is Nat Ko Gyi Kyaw (aka Min Kyaw Zwa) riding his horse. As part of the Spirit Worship project, percussionist Kyaw Kyaw Naing taught SUNY students and faculty to play one of the Ko Gyi Kyaw propitiation songs in July/August, heard and seen in the video below with his wife, Thin Thin Hla as votary singer/dancer.

While the SUNY musicians were working incredibly hard on learning Kyaw Kyaw Naing’s hsaing waing (gong-drum ensemble) arrangement of this Ko Gyi Kyaw song, Kyaw Kyaw Naing was teaching me online a solo sandaya (piano) version combining these tunes. I was curious to find out more about Ko Gyi Kyaw to better “imbibe” when I played the intoxicating rhythms associated with this Nat. Also called “The Merry King of Pakhant," Ko Kyi Kyaw is known for his drinking, reveling, gambling (in his Dionysian aspect), and grants license and luck to believers who petition for money and success in business ventures.

A typical Nat Pwe begins with offerings to the pantheon of Nat represented by their sculpted images and an invitation for Ko Gyi Kyaw to join. Exciting the audience and shouting the iconic calls of “Hey, Hey, Hey,” dancers (in choreographed stage versions) and Nat gadaw (at a performance or pwe of Nat worship rituals) mime with their outstretched thumbs the slugging down of whole liquor bottles symbolizing a release/trance state that mediums/some worshippers may enter during the course of the Pwe (see SUNY video above at 2:21). The insistent stick beat cascade from the four si doe drums at Nat Pwe in Myanmar drown out the other tuned drum sets—the kyauk lon pat/sa’ hkun/pat ma and the pat waing 21 drum circle played with fists, palms and fingers. The “Nat doe” music drives the intoxicating rhythms of the whole hsaing waing ensemble that can channel both mediums and believers into altered states. 

After looking at Sayar Sein’s Facebook page, I felt a bit shy in the old style and insisted that my friend Erle introduce me via Messenger. Sayar Sein was delighted to talk with me about his studio, and cleared up my confusion about the regalia for Ko Gyi Kyaw. He was so generous with his time and expertise. He not only invited any participants from the ACC Spirit Worship project to call him on Messenger any time, but also was intrigued by our project.

With the expansion of virtual connections in Myanmar society, now acutely so in the pandemic, ongoing outreach to experts who are eager to share their wisdom is possible. As the Spirit Worship project continues, and collaborators Ne Myo Aung of Gitameit and Lauren Meeker of SUNY start to work together on materials for a SUNY class in 2021, they can consult Sayar Sein, gather images and videos of Sayar Sein’s stories of Nat troupes, musicians, Nat gadaw and most importantly learn about cultural and psychological meanings of individual Nat, and their songs among believers in Myanmar society.

Video above: Kyaw Kyaw Naing's rehearsal of his arrangement of "Ko Kyi Kyaw" with SUNY New Paltz Naing Ensemble musicians and Thin Thin Hla, dancer/singer. Naing Ensemble members: Kyaw Kyaw Naing, pat waing; Thin Thin Hla, dancer/singer; Alex Endres, six side drums; Bianca Checa, square gongs; Ryan Diener, 4 large drums;  Alyson Hummer, cymbals; Mark Laaninen, circle gongs; Tim Melvin, large gongs; Noah Wurster, wood block; Lois Hicks-Wozniak, saxophone; Christiana Fortune-Reader, violin; Alex Peh, piano. Video by Dr. Lauren Meeker, ethnographic videographer.