Only Karen people minority and specifically one of its three main tribes, he eastern Karreni or Red Karen, now Kayah, created and maintained a Burmese Bronze Drum Culture based on a fundamental animism. As reported in that nice popular “drum-legend”: “Pu Maw Taw, an early Karen ancestor, was desperate when he saw his grain continually stolen by a band of monkeys. He pretended to be dead, lying down, and the remorseful monkeys decided to organise his funeral with three of their drums, one in gold, one in silver, and the third white in appearance. As the monkeys were beating the drums, the old man sat up and began gazing around, causing the monkeys to flee in terror leaving their drums behind. Pu Maw Taw took them and they became the most sacred possessions of the Karen people, before being stolen and lost for all posterity”
Bronze drums remained alive in Myanmar in the Kayah province (ex-Karenni State), as a rare survival case in Indochina. Typed III, according to Heger classification, their litter bulbous bi-conic cylinders are ornamented into three distinct parts under a tympanum presenting a small protruding lip. With casting and design specificities to be first analyzed below, they are known as “frog drums”(pha si) because in-relief frog’s varying from one to four (rarely more) stack atop each other on four equidistant points around the circumference of the tympanum, on whose circular ranks include living or geometric designs. Other in-relief animal or vegetal often existed on the base, corresponding so well to the typical Burmese aquatic environment and its local “nats” animist spirits supposed to rule everything everywhere. (see annex nats below)
Strategically situated between Chinese mainland to the north and Indian Ocean to the south, door between Indochina Peninsula and India to the west, old Burma always played a major role as a way of passage for trades and beliefs. It remains to be discussed at the end of this chapter if, before the Karenni ce era, other kinds of bronze drums from early ages had existed under Chinese and/or Vietnamese influences; being imported if not possibly made from basic ores long discovered all over that rich country known from Antiquity as “Suvarnabhumi” (Golden Land) in the south and “Tanbradipa” (copper country) in the north.
Early Karenni drums’ bronze alloys could involve up to five metals, all found in Burma: copper, tin, zinc, traces of silver and gold, the latter generally visible at the level of the tympanum’s central star or sun.
Karenni themselves were never metalworkers, their first drums were probably influenced by Yu (or Jung) experts when their northern ancestors transited through Yunnan and/or Guangxi, not excluding a Vietnamese influence favored by some researchers. When settled in Burma at the end of the first millennium ce, they invented their typical Heger III model but the site of production, in the hands of metallurgist Shan craftsmen, remained Ngwe Taung (silver money mountain), twenty five kilometers from Loikaw, capital of eastern Kayah province.
In 1924, two attempts to cast drums failed for unknown reasons and it was the near end of their production in Ngwe Taung where the last original drum is said to have been made in 1967 by U Lonsan who died in 1975 without successors (interestingly, the father of U Lonsan was Karenni and his mother Shan).
Master craftsmen had to undergo purifications rites before casting a drum at a time predetermined by astrological calculations. After bathing the day before and making offerings of fruits and candles, they marked a circle where the casting was to be performed without wearing shoes or taking intoxicants. The old casting process itself, taking about one week in total, was well reported, from piece-mould to “one-piece lost wax” below:
Until the 20th century, as also reported by missionaries, buyers came from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, at the end of the rainy season, paying with elephants or precious metals before to resell them locally. Thus, the presence of so many Burmese (type III) pieces in Indochina could be explained.
After their long northern transit, and hundreds of years spent in their new territories, Karenni had time to adapt their ornamentation to better express local beliefs. The first Kayah bronze drums were possibly produced at the end of the first millennium ce and mainly since the 16th century. Variations in size, from 50 to 75 cm for the tympan’s diameter, the resonance case being slightly smaller from 40 to 50 cm height, never explained their age. The one frog (1x4) drums, often said to be the oldest, are generally the smallest, and the three frog (3x4) drums (and up) the largest and most elaborate. “Non playable mini drums” for tombs or other ritual purposes were added from the beginning.
Many question marks remain about the meanings of all the rich decorations examined below even if their basic animist references are clear. It must be added that due to technical difficulties to optimise temperature and/or to properly fill incised lines of the mould at times of casting late efforts to disguise defaults often fathered unexpected details of decoration. (Figs. 2 to 5)
A kind of star adorns the centre of the tympanum, with a number of rays generally from eight when smaller with simple frogs, to sixteen when bigger with triple frogs or more. Sometimes, between the rays, some engravings may be seen (animals or geometrics). Concentric rings surrounded the star dividing the entire surface of the tympan into bands for decoration, from about fourteen ones on the pieces with one frog to nineteen for the three frog’s ones.
Ornamentation for the largest bands, from three to five, consists of both geometric designs and stylized representations of plants or animals. The so-called “rosette” being possibly grains (rice? melon?) or flowers (lotus?), with stylized birds [ducks (?), owls (?) peacocks (?)], and fish of any type in pairs or not, in V shape-line or not. The outside band is generally left blank and usually bordered by a thin strip of braided decoration on the tympanum’s lip.
Frogs, the true signature of Burmese and Lao drums, are unanimously praised for their beauty and originality, often said to be in the act of coupling. Supposed to call for or prevent rain, they appear at each of the ninety-degree angles around the tympanum perimeter, often counter-clockwise (for funerals?) and following each other. Adjusted after casting, they were placed one foot in the last geometric band and the other one in the very last blank band.
About the number of designs or frogs (or toads) on the tympanum many theories have been elaborated without clear results and generating disputes among scholars. a remark also applicable to the resonance case components analyzed below. It can only be pointed out that the tendency along the ages was to “sophisticate” the decoration, from one to three or more frogs, from eight to sixteen rays for the star. Maybe only because such trends happened in any Art evolution in eastern and western continents, as from Roman to Gothic churches in Europe, artists always seeking innovative but often more complex improvements.
Cylindrical soundbox (body; mantle, etc.)
This part of the Karenni drum clearly differed from the other Heger types as they emerged in China and/or Vietnam. Here, the body with a less bulging upper portion has two or four vertical seams which could be purely decorative and may be inspired by other types.
Two pairs of handles, often with triangular holes at the top and bottom, are fastened mid-way between two opposite seams on the bulging portion. Marked with vertical lines and sometimes diamond shaped, the handles serve to move the drum and to suspend it by a rope swinging a few centimeters above the ground to optimise its resonance when played.
Four to five bands of decoration with concentric rays and often continuous lozenges adorn the body’s top. At the mid portion of the cylinder, other bands exist with occasionally rosettes wheel-like in their centre. Decorated lines also surround the base of the drum, the last one being lightly impressed, sometimes zigzagged to mark the end.
But the main originality of the Karenni drums’ cylinder, at least from later ones, is the placing of two dimensional plant/tree forms and/ or three-dimensional animals towards the base, respectively aligned under each of the two pairs of handles. The more popular in-relief items were elephants and snails, a procession from two to four often in accordance with the number of stacked frogs on the top, which seemed to walk down a tree or other flora on the cylinder. (Fig. 4)
If frogs or snails are clearly related to rain, the presence of elephants may refer not only to the great number of this beloved animal in Burma but also to the deep sounds they can emit, to possibly call gods. As frogs modeled on the tympanum, the tridimensional animals were cast separately and added to the drum at the very end.
In all types, the open inner side of the cylinder, not visible, was therefore not decorated.
After the forest is burned seeds are planted and require a lot of water, if not the plants will not be fertilized or insects will eat the seeds. In any case the fertility of the soil will not last more than six years and the Karen had to move to another site, beginning a new cycle...
Drought being a disaster, the bronze drums had a vital role in inducing the spirits (nats) to bring the rains, or not, in due course. They were played in the fields to make the frogs croak: “if the frogs croak the rain will fall” and a dance was performed in concentric rows.
From numerous missionaries’ records, drum sounds were also used to scare the enemies and more generally in funeral rituals to help to send the spirit of the deceased into an afterlife. Some small bits of a drum, the frogs or the handles particularly, could be cut to accompany the deceased in his or her tomb, if not for important individuals an entire drum. Apparently none were used for human remains in Burma, nor as a container for secondary burials.
Bronze drum sounds helped to entice the ancestors’ spirits and to attend important occasions as marriages or any ceremonies. Sometimes they were secretly buried with precious items inside supposed to be recuperated by their owner after his own death or/and used as containers to protect the precious seeds, a practice known to improve their fertility and to avoid any scavenger predation, rats and other predators being so numerous. In case of inter-tribal wars, drums were beaten before and after, becoming a precious part of the booty.
A spirit could supposedly reside within the drum, to be propitiated with bowls of liquor or rice, carefully cleaned, a candle lit on it. If not, misfortune or death could punish the owner and a ritual might be performed with the blood of a chicken to calm the “nats”. To be played, the heavy drums where strung up, using their handles, by a cord to a tree limb or the roof of a house, the tympanum hung at about a forty-five degree angle. The musician stabilises the drum with his toes while striking the centre (star) of the tympanum with a paddle mallet and the bulb with a wooden stick. A good drum could be heard for up to fifteen kilometers but its sounds should be appropriated to any event, loudly or brightly at any distance, depending on the needs. It was said that their tonal quality improved when played for several hours and they could be used continuously by a succession of drummers, each playing less than one hour.
In fact each drum centre gave only one note of music produced by chance. Impossible to plan before casting one of the five (pentatonic) or seven (diatonic) basic tonalities known to form a gamut. Usually with five drums, adequately chosen with different sounds, sophisticated melodies could be played with a mallet for the tympan and the help of bamboo sticks striking the body to give the appropriate cadence to the melody and to the dancers. Today, the drummers, despite their links to Animism, can be allowed to play inside a Catholic church for a wedding ceremony, with or not any dancing. (Figs. 6-7)
Flute players could be added but never cymbals or other gongs to not interfere with other percussion’s sounds. In case of funerals, bronze drums were and are until now strike down-up and not up-down as in general (Fig. 13).
Played at Court’s level, they were often offered by Burmese to other nations’ heads as a kind of magic instrument very much appreciated. The first known record of a Burmese drum’s royal utilisation is dated 1056 CE with an inscription in honor of the Mon King Manuha at Thaton southern capital: “People went into his (Manuha) presence and repeatedly saluted him by popular vote to the sound of frog drums and acclamations”. Manuha was captured with all his treasures by King Anawrahta of Pagan northern capital whose successor the Great Kyanzittha (1084-1112 CE) sent to India a lot of presents including “frog-drums, stringed and percussion instruments” (Pagan Inscription 1093 CE) to repair Bodh-Gaya, the place where Lord Buddha received “Illumination”.
During the reign of Shwebo-Min (1837-1846 CE) Karen Chief gave the King “a daughter as well as a frog-drum” with one piece missing because it was “put in a tomb”. Inauspicious funeral reasons why the “unpleasant drum was donated to the Shwezigon Buddhist pagoda at Pagan”, then placed in the Pagan museum, and now sent to the new capital Nay Pyi Taw for the future National Museum.
As a kind of currency, Burma’s bronze drums could be borrowed or traded for goods and services, particularly in marriage dowries and “sometimes to buy slaves” according to missionaries, becoming a kind of insurance in case of famine. Symbol of status, “just like possessing seven elephants”, wealthy Karen families needed at least one drum. During the 19th century an upper class family could own more than ten pieces, “up to thirty for a King”, and we can imagine the possible disputes about them in case of succession. In 1927, a British official wrote that “literally hundreds” of bronze drums existed in Burma with a large concentration in the region of the town of Loikaw.
This can explain, coupled with big political turmoil, how so many drums were recently sold abroad, not to mention the good or bad copies from the 20th century. Nowadays, in Mandalay (Myanmar) or near Chiang Mai (Thailand) quite perfect new bronze drums are built and sold for a few hundreds US-dollars, nicely “aged” after about three months, being sometimes buried in anthills to allow the acidic soil to confer on them a patina... similar to the popular set of drums used as tables in the lobby of the old Erawan Hotel in Bangkok. The heaviest drums are generally the youngest copies... metal costs being nowadays lower than labour costs required for a more “thin” metallurgy. In 2014, only a few villages and very rich families had original drums, or could acquire them in Myanmar, their price locally booming if older (in thousands of dollars) after a long period when they were sold for next to nothing and mainly exported.
Yangon National Museum
Seven bronze drums are displayed, with mallets and sticks to play them. From 45 to 60 cm in diameter and 30 to 45 cm height, they are archetypes of the Burmese “frog-drums” (also called Kalu in Karen language) or “rain-drums”. (Fig. 8)
From twelve to sixteen (for the biggest) rays’ central stars, and 4x1 to 4x3 frogs on the tympanum, at times with tridimensional elephants and snails (2 to 3) on the base, they wear generally four pairs of pierced handles. In very good condition (4th floor), they were supposedly cast from the 18th century ce or after, with concentric circular ranks on which small “rosettes” and fishes are featured as well as other geometric designs.
On the 2nd floor a collection of wooden drums from Shan and Khayah provinces is interesting to compare with the bronze drums that they possibly inspired in the past.
Loikaw provincial Kayah museum
Here is the “core” place for Karenni drums, so well maintained by the G.M. and Curator Mrs Tin Chan Myané, who may be their best expert in Myanmar.
Seven bronze drums displayed in the central room, more in the reserves, are supposed to be from the 17th century ce and they cover all the rich palette of their family as such:
Conversely, all the tympanums were richly adorned with designs giving them a kind of “water-model style” as suggested by the Curator and based on the joint presence of flying birds, rows of swimming fishes, and rice grains. These three components, nicely stylized, provided a perfect illustration of the local environment, but never copied the Chinese or Vietnamese old precedents. (Figs. 2 to 6 from Loikaw museum)
China/Vietnamese drums were cast around the turn of BCE and CE ages while Karenni (Heger III) were in majority built at least one millenary after when Karen definitely settled in Burma. Proof of influences, if not hypothetic filiations, had been found recently with the discovery in Burma of Heger early (I or IV) specimens, of which two described below are now displayed in Loikaw and Bagan museums respectively. (Figs. 9-10)
Demorso (cave) drum masterpiece, now in Loikaw Kayah provincial museum
In 1981, at about twenty kilometers from Loikaw, two hunters reached a cave from which their prey was escaping, and found, very well preserved because never unearthed, an antique “mushroom bronze drum” (D55 x H35 cm/four simple handles/tympanum without protuberant lip). Forgotten along the ages, it had possibly arrived with immigrant Karenni but more probably was an ancestral relic delivered before from the north and hidden in the cave. (Fig. 9).
It was adorned with:
All aspects in accordance with early “Red River drums production”.
Bagan Museum early drum may be contemporaneous of Demorso
Nobody seems to know the precise origin and date of discovery of this nice piece but the present and past curators agreed that it was found recently in the region. If really unearthed and not smuggled from abroad, we face, alike the Demorso drum, a new proof of old bronze drums’ presence in Burma before the Karenni. At hundreds of kilometers north of Kayah Province, wealthy Bagan and its old harbor on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river was the hub of ancestral commerce with China and India, also the source of its wealthy temples.
Observing the old “mushroom” drum on display (noticed Heger I), its very thin bronze looks green and eroded, with holes resulting from a long period in the earth. Its tympanum (D35 cm) without lip contains a ten rays central “star”, no frogs, and three wide ranks with too much borrowed designs between geometrical circles, edges included. (Fig. 10)
The 25 cm height cylinder is composed of three parts: a summit (6 cm), a large middle (13 cm), and a bottom (6 cm) all decorated with the same geometrics but including also designs looking like birds or dancers to be deciphered. Four single handles existed; the two that are missing may have been put in tombs.
“Fish drums prototypes” (?) in Loikaw Catholic Diocese Private Museum (LDPM)
With these three huge metallic probable “drums” (about H1 m /D30 cm), not seen anywhere else, we face a very curious “enigma”.
Big scaly fishes are supposed to have been collected by the first missionaries from the 18th century; they are placed in a bolted glass-case but reputed to have been played long before even if the sympathetic priest in charge had no idea about their local background (as it is the case for all the drums mentioned below). Their big eyes and scales, the frogs on the top and the dragons’ designs at the base of two of them, are clearly part of an animist world. They necessitate more studies (when taken out of their locked case) and first about their metals, one fish looking as made of silver, the two others of bronze. (Fig. 11)
Were they a prototype of a new drum specie? played or not in conjunction with other drums? or distinct from drums’ usages, and to do what? all hypothesis remain open...
The private museum also contain six old (said from 17th century) classical Karenni drums bearing from 4x4 to 4x1 frogs with 8 to 16 rays (star) on the tympanum (D30 to 50 cm with bases from H20 to 40 cm) with an aquatic decoration already reported in the Kayah Provincial Museum above.
The other important singularity of the Diocese’s collection is the presence of a half- dozen typically Karenni old “mini-drums” (D10 to 20 cm / H7 to 15 cm), with frogs (4x1) or not on their tympanum (Fig. 12). Probably the kind of specimen to be put in tombs or worshipped near ancestors’ altars at home, demonstration of their popularity along the ages. Finally the Catholic clergy must be thanked for having built and maintained this unique and precious collection despite its animism so far from their own religion...and sometimes to let bronze drummers play during festive ceremonies like marriages inside their Central Church.
For comprehensive reasons the paragraphs above have mainly concerned the Karenni/Shan (Heger III) productions: the only ones typically Burmese, numerous, beautiful, largely used until recently here and abroad. New discoveries of much older drums from the Chinese/ Vietnamese family (Heger I or IV) were mentioned only at the end.
Meanwhile, Burmese archaeologist U Win Maung (from Mandalay) recently reported the existence of at least three other Đông Sơn (or Dian) bronze drums: near Mandalay (Yetagoon Taung–Đông Sơn type), in Saggaing (Buddhist Museum–Đông Sơn type) and in Kachin State (Sin Co village/Wanjiaba type?). All these discoveries, largely spread in the national territory, favor an early bronze drum Age hypothesis at the verge of BCE/CE times.
Other researches will probably confirm that such great culture if not civilisation had existed in Burma two millenaries ago. For at least three main reasons:
Bronze drums successes albeit “Indianization” in Burma: a unique case
In all other parts of the east-Asian mainland, the coincidence between the end of old bronze drums’ cultures and the arrival from abroad of new beliefs extending their influence locally had been observed. It was notably the case when Hinduism and Buddhism came from the Indian sub-continent during the first millenary ce giving birth, for example, to Angkor (Cambodia) capital where bronze metal was beautifully utilized to make statues but never to cast drums. These trends are also explained by the wish of Kings and monks to restrict or replace the Animism and its tools in favor of coming religions.
Why, in that general context, did we face a kind of a unique “Burmese Case” welcoming in parallel the millenary success of local Heger III bronze drum’s beside the triumphal Buddhist (Theravada) achievements ?
Maybe because Karenni were only a small minority of pure and strong animists quite lost in their hills before being evangelized by foreign Christian missionaries. Much more powerful, numerous and rich, Buddhist Shan’s producers were probably seduced by the gains involved by the drum industry whatever be their religious status, protecting Karenni when necessary inside a “Buddhist world”.
A Few Parting Thoughts
Despite their originality, their beauty, and their fame, Karenni’s (Heger III) bronze drums, looks like a small but fascinating island in a very rich cultural universe. “Frog-drums” by essence, their decoration had been profoundly inspired by their environment and the local rituals of the people, but they have also been successfully adopted at Courts’ levels here and abroad, albeit never welcomed by official religions.
Note: Here or there, we must never forget that the present national frontiers did not exist at times when fluxes of migrations were permanent, complex, and always obscure for us with a lot of feedbacks between the south of China and Indochina, along the Mekong River particularly.
[Most of the Kayah meetings and photos where kindly permitted by Mrs Tin Chan Myané, General Manager and Curator of the Kayah Provincial Museum in Loikaw, with our deep gratitude.]
Kayah – Nats – Bronze drummers in 2014
Bronze drummers (Padaung) in Kayah province (ex-Karenni State)
From Yangon (Rangoon) to Loikaw it takes about twenty hours by winding but asphalted roads (no regular flights in 2014). Half day to visit “giraffe women for tourists” and much more to reach with permission the true natives, far distant along very bad but picturesque paths going to the Karenni and Shan Plateau.
In the Kayah provincial museum a bronze drummer specially invited by the curator tested and played several of the old bronze drums (from the 17th ce) sticking a mallet on the tympanum centre and a little bamboo on the upper base (Fig. 6). In case of funerals, drums are played down/up (Fig. 13).
Each drum is supposed to give only one specific note, an orchestra is created with five drums (pentatonic) based on Chinese habits. Possibly, three different sub-tones could be obtained from a single drum (tympan and base) as reported by Rev. H.I. Marshall (1922) or by Richard M. Cooler in his magisterial Ph.D. thesis in 1979.
The big wooden mallet on the tympanum gives the basic note and bamboo stems on the base can give the rhythm on which a nice Karenni lady was able to sketch a local dance in the Kayah Museum. With “asparas’” charming hand postures; with much sensuality but also strength at once reminding the foreigner of a form of far-away “Spanish flamenco”. In villages usually two hours of bronze drums’ music included thirty minutes of dances for both sexes with the possible help of wind or string instruments.
In a remote village one to five original bronze drums are played during happy festivities (up/down) or funerals (down/up), separately by males or females. There, each Kayah/ Karenni adult native woman wears copper bracelets of about three sviss (1 sviss = 3.6 English pounds in weight) on the neck, the arms, the legs (five kilos in total), apparently without everyday problems to walk or work or dance. A kind of status proudly affirmed also in their homes made of wood and thatch, clean and decently furnished.
Our curiosity and admiration don’t avoid a rude question: were these rites always played or were orchestras created more recently under other influences, of missionaries for example?