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V/A - Music of Nat Pwe: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar Vol. 3

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Artist: V/A

Album: Music of Nat Pwe: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar Vol. 3

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Oct. 8, 2007

The story behind this music is pretty irresistible. In Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, Nats are ghost spirits who are summoned through ceremonies called Pwes, in order to ensure success in various human enterprises, or just to keep the spirits appeased. Pwes can get pretty wild, with some audience members going into trance and others pressing money and booze on the spirit mediums, called Kadaws, who function as masters of the ceremonies. Many Kadaws are cross-dressers who represent female Nats, and all are married to their Nat.

But one wonders how long this tradition, or anything else that involves people gathering in the streets, will go into hiding in light of the recent machine-gunning of pro-democracy protesters by Myanmar government troops. Certainly not many Dusted readers are likely to get into the country to check out a Pwe anytime soon. Videos and recordings will have to do.

This record, like many Sublime Frequencies releases, is culled from cassettes that SF proprietor (and ex-Sun City Girls vocalist) Alan Bishop has picked up during his travels. Significantly, he has departed from usual SF practice by penning informative liner notes that provide not just the back story, but a justification for putting the music out – apparently some Nats told him to do so.

Truth be told, this CD would be worth checking out even without the lurid background. Nat music is strong stuff, driven by massed drums that speed up and slow down at unlikely moments during a song, while gongs stitch startlingly catchy lines across the percussive patterns and oboes insert abrupt, fractured melodic phrases into the chaos. Imagine a gamelan ensemble playing pop songs that have been warped and refracted the way Captain Beefheart broke and recast the blues.

But it’s almost entirely acoustic; only the singers get amplified. The nine male and female vocalists featured on this collection all deliver their lines with vigor – they have to in order to be heard in ceremonies where the spirits are cranky, their mediums drunk, and the crowds are literally entranced. Here’s hoping that automatic gunfire doesn’t keep them down for long.

By Bill Meyer

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