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V/A - The Crying Princess: 78 rpm Records From Burma

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Crying Princess: 78 rpm Records From Burma

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Feb. 11, 2013

This is the fifth collection of Burmese music released by Sublime Frequencies, and the second to reference a princess. The first, Princess Nicotine, was sourced from cassettes; this one is drawn from 78s procured by SF CEO Alan Bishop and Robert Millis during more recent trips to the nation currently named Myanmar. If you think that 78 collectors here face challenges in their efforts to snatch shellac from the jaws of time, consider this; Millis saved one of the records compiled on The Crying Princess from a merchant who was preparing to scrub it clean under the town’s communal water faucet.

So why does the princess cry? The record’s liner notes lead off with this question, and suggest that her lover was turning his back on his religious practice. But it turns out that Burmese princesses in the early 20th century had plenty to cry about. When the British deposed Thibaw Min, the last Burmese king, in 1885, they thoroughly humiliated him by inducing him at bayonet point to beg for his life and then riding him and his young family out of town at bayonet point on an ox-cart. Then they bundled them all off to exile on the far side of India. Their treatment of his country wasn’t much better; the occupiers turned a once-proud nation into an adjunct of neighboring India and imported administrators from the subcontinent, effectively depriving Burma of any indigenous authority. Burmese didn’t get to run the country again until after WWII, and for much of the time since then, military leaders have kept the borders closed and mixing with other nations to a minimum.

So why does the princess cry? The title song of this set was recorded in 1911, around the time that a couple of the exiled Thibaw Min’s daughters ran off with members of the household’s help and a third went insane. Back home, people were marshaling art and religion as methods of cultural survival under colonialism. The LP leads off with a couple sides credited to Po Sein, who revitalized Burmese performance practice by taking folk and classical dance, drama, music and Jataka tales, which related stories of the Buddha’s exploits through his many lives, and integrating them into circus-like entertainments whose popularity cut across Burma’s social strata. This is the sound of people defining themselves and carrying on their lives, regardless of the creeps at the top.

It’s also remarkably similar to some of the tracks on Princess Nicotine; while evidence suggests that contemporary Myanmar has modernized the contents of radio broadcasts, the extravagant vocal swoops and drastically changing structures of Burmese music persisted across much of the 20th century. Early on, the instrumentation featured single-reed instruments that sound similar to those heard in Chinese music and a percussion ensemble that was heavy on the metallophones, much like Indonesian Gamelan music. That’s what you hear on side one, which was all recorded before WWI. The acrobatic vocals, clashing unisons and quick changes render this stuff quite unsuitable for passive listening, but if you like your music unstable and surprising, it’s thrilling stuff.

The music on side two covers a wider time frame, from 1929 to 1960; apparently the 78 died hard in Burma, as it did in parts of Africa. The backing on this side is more diverse, and the surface noise progressively less present as the source recordings get newer. Yadana Myt’s two-part “Perfumed Forest,” performed using female voice and Burmese harp, sounds remarkably like country blues; that’s what surface noise and the distorting effects of shellac and single-horn recording technology will do to a throaty voice and some plucked strings. Mae Nav’s “May Haw Wan” sets a somewhat more reined-in female vocal within a hybrid arrangement that combines Western brass with Burmese whistles and percussion, but still sounds pretty distant from anything you’d hear outside of Southeast Asia. The last tracks herald the arrival of the electric guitar, but once more the imported instrument is turned to Burmese ends. The combination of plucking and slide licks is as fiendishly complicated as anything that Captain Beefheart would hatch a decade down the road.

By Bill Meyer

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