From Eastern Burma, the Music of Karen Refugees

Karen refugee with Thana

In Mae La refugee camp, Sein Tin Aye sits on a flattened bamboo floor, surrounded by about 15 kids and teenagers, eager to learn traditional Karen songs from the old man.

A Student of Sein Tin Aye playing Thana

Sein Tin Aye is keeping Karen music alive against the odds, enduring decades of exile from eastern Burma, where the Karen people lived as hill tribe farmers before being pushed into Thailand by the Burmese military.  It’s actually the longest running civil war in the world now, over sixty years, but you won’t hear about it much in the mainstream news.  It’s a rather dire situation, not just for the Karen, but for the plethora of other ethnic groups and even the Burman majority living under one of the world’s most oppressive and least understood regimes.

The folk music of the Karen is beautiful and simple, with melodies and storytelling reflecting life in the thick tropical jungles of the region.  Instruments include the Kana, a homemade mandolin, the Gweh, a reeded horn made from buffalo horn or bamboo, the occasional one-string violin, and the Ta Ki, a mouth harp through which young lovers whisper poetry to each other so that others can’t hear the words.  Clever huh?

There’s also a vibrant form of dance called Dohn, an intricate choreographed routine of men and women that can last for 20 minutes, accompanied by the dancer’s shouts and the beat of large drum.

But the instrument of choice is the Thana.  The Thana is a small harp, usually with at least 7 strings, adapted to several tunings, and generally used to accompany historic poetry, love songs, and storytelling.

68-year old Pu Tha Sin with his Thana

Whispered poetry on the Ta Ki (jaw harp)

The Buffalo Horn or Gweh

Melodies on the Kana mandolin

Karen Love Songs on Thana

This last song tells the tragic story of Naw Mu Aye, a young Karen woman.  She has two boyfriends, but one of them turns into a snake.  She marries the other boyfriend, but he goes to a foreign land to find a job.  He tells Mu Aye to stay at home.  But she goes outside and meets her first boyfriend the snake.  When the husband comes home, he looks around for Mu Aye.  The villagers tell him the snake has taken her and so he goes to the snake’s lair.  The snake asks for blood from his neck.  He gives his life for his wife.  When people go to his funeral, he is cremated, and Mu Aye walks into the fire to die together.

The Karen Thana

After decades in these refugee camps, many Karen and other Burmese ethnic groups are being resettled to western countries (the US accepted over 10,000 in 2007).  Lots of folks back on the Thai-Burma border are concerned that Karen culture will disappear soon, as a hill tribe becomes westernized in the diaspora.  As he passes these song and dance traditions to a new generation of Karen artists, Sein Tin Aye hopes they’ll keep a few of these songs around.  I hope so too.

Students of Sein Tin Aye sing a song about resettlement

And here’s a radio story: Blues for the Karen, broadcast on National Public Radio

Recording Notes: Since 2006 I’ve been lucky enough to meet several traditional Karen musicians in six of the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.  Special thanks to Outer Voices, ZOA Refugee Care and Tim Syrota for making the recordings on this blog possible.  Thanks to Hearing Voices and KGLT-FM for supporting Blues for the Karen.

Recordings made with Shure VP88 mic on Sound Devices 722.

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