Myanmar meets Europe Musical Communication

The project “Myanmar meets Europe” brings together western jazz and Myanmar Hsaing Waing musicians to play together as one ensemble on European and Myanmar stages. It began when Tim Isford, a German jazz musician and the initiator of the project, came to Myanmar in 2010 to learn about Myanmar music. Since then, the lively exchange between both groups of musicians has seen roughly a dozen concerts in Europe and Myanmar alike, with frequent visits on both sides. Johanna Neumann has accompanied the group from the beginning as a translator and reports on their experiences, the difficulties with their collaboration, and about how a saxophone and a pat waing can laugh together.

The first time I got in touch with the Myanmar meets Europe project was in 2011 after the initial concert with European and Myanmar musicians and music students had already taken place in Yangon. The next concert was planned as part of a major Jazz Festival in Germany. I was working for the Goethe-Institut in Yangon and was responsible for coordinating the organisation of bringing an entire Hsaing Waing Ensemble and their instruments to Germany. When a collaboration is attempted between two groups from cultures as disparate as those of Germany and Myanmar, communication is the key to everything.

One part of the task was establishing communication between institutions on both sides of the globe. At first it seemed that the German and the Myanmar bureaucracies had joined forces to prevent the project from taking place, with the worst each of them had to offer. But with patience and steady nerves even the most absurd obstacles were overcome. More interesting, however, were the artistic aspects of this preparation period. These I experienced as a rather tone-deaf interpreter, who was in charge of enabling communication about this music project between Tim Isford and the Myanmar musicians.

The rehearsals took place in the living room of an instrument maker and were set up with the aim of agreeing on a basic repertoire of songs to be played at the concert. The room was cramped, crammed with instruments and people, and everyone was excessively polite. The air was filled with the unease of not knowing what to expect from each other, and the fear of unknown cultural rules that might be accidently broken with a wrong phrase or gesture.

Getting started was the hardest part. The Germans preferred a systematic approach in which everyone should agree ahead on what should happen, and then that would be carried out step by step as discussed. The Burmese had a different way of proceeding in mind. Their approach was more pragmatic, they preferred to get started and sort things out on the way. The first careful attempts to find out about those different perceptions and agree upon one of them were tedious for both sides. And both sides asked me repeatedly to not only translate but also to explain the other side’s intentions, wishes and hidden thoughts. But once the music started I was not needed anymore. It was amazing to see how music works as a communication tool on its own.

One of the musicians would start to play a tune on his instrument and then another would pick it up on his own instrument and alter it, work with it and finally play it back to the sender. Quickly a lively conversation in tones was underway and the further the composition of the repertoire developed, the more the mutual shyness and otherness decreased. The people in the room were not so much Burmese and Germans any longer but had become a group of musicians.

The next time I got involved as interpreter in the Myanmar meets Europe project was in 2013. This time I met the Ensemble of four Burmese and four western musicians in Moers, a small town in Germany. It was their eleventh concert and the former unease between the two groups in their organisational communication had almost disappeared. That did not mean that minor misunderstandings and mutual amazement did not occur every day. Now, however, everything was taken much more calmly. When they started to talk in music I could hear that they had moved on. If the rehearsal I had witnessed back in 2011 had been a conversation of the instruments where everyone was introducing oneself to the others, asking polite questions about each other’s names and hometowns, in the 2013 concert the small talk was in full swing. The instruments still spoke with a certain amount of polite caution to each other, but every now and then I could hear the Pat Waing making a little joke and the sax giggling about it.

On the 9th of February 2014, the musicians of Myanmar meets Europe met again at the Institute Française to play a concert in celebration of the opening of the Goethe-Institut in Yangon. They played compositions from Western and Burmese composers, some of them composed by members of the ensemble themselves, and were even joined by a Min-thaa who contributed by singing, dancing, and introducing the individual musicians and their instruments to the audience. The small talk had moved on once more, the instruments were now conversing seriously and openly with each other. You could listen to them having a good time, joking away and making fun of each other in some tunes, while in others bringing forward more serious issues and developing an idea together, each instrument adding its own talent until it was complete. Having watched their music grow from my perspective as their interpreter, Myanmar meets Europe gave me a new access to music. I believe that they and their instruments still have plenty of things to talk about.