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The Strange, The Familiar: Foreign Musical Instruments in Myanmar/Burma

Burmese xylophone

Burmese xylophone

Sandaya: The Piano in Myanmar/Burma

The pat waing and pattela players in the court of King Mindon at Mandalay (1850’s-1870’s) took immediately to the piano when it showed up at court as a present from the Italian Ambassador. King Mindon instructed one of his ministers, who was on a fact-finding trip to England, to report on various technological wonders of the West - among which was the piano. The King reputedly was interested in acquiring a piano. (Desai) (Hla Shwe)

Present day pianist and composer U Thein Maung of the Myoma Amateur Musicians’ Association suggests two speculative derivations for the word “Sandaya”. The first being the consequence of an elision of two words in Myanmar/Burmese ‘ se' ’ meaning ‘machine’ and ‘yandaya’ meaning ‘complicated parts’. Another suggested etymology was offered as “san de wa wa” or ‘feeling around with one’s hands like a blind person’ which was what the court musicians reputedly did in Mandalay and Ava when the piano first arrived.

But the musicians quickly regained “sight” as the white keys of the piano became equivalents for the keys of the pattela and the substitute pitches for the drums of the pat waing. One finger of each hand approximated the mallet strikes on a pattela or strokes on the pat waing. Musicians experimented with retuning the white keys to approximate their own familiar raised fourth and lowered seventh degrees making it easier to modulate among the Myanmar/Burmese modes.

A completely unique technique of interlocked fingering with both hands extending a single melodic line allowed for agogic embellishment, fleeting grace notes in syncopated spirals around a steady underlying beat found in the bell and clapper time keepers (si and wa). Rarely, in the early days of sandaya was the keyboard terrain divided into bass-left and treble-right hand configurations.

Immediately heard – as a result of this kinesthetic and aural adaptation – were the textures of quickly-released keys, abrupt entrances, sudden accents and decrescendos of sound delighting Myanmar/Burmese audiences with echoes of the pattela, pat waing and saung gauk. Percussive strikes on the keys were the equivalents of mallet dampening on the pattela or the palm dampening the head of the drum on the putt waing. And all of these textures imitated the expressive techniques (han) of Myanmar/Burmese singing.