As one may know if he is interested about Myanmar culture and music, the country has its own traditional musical instruments and the Myanmar harp, called Saung in the Golden land, is one of them. It is a harp like no other you may have seen elsewhere, being different in shape and in style. This instrument has it’s own place in Myanmar culture as of course it produces a very sweet sound, but it also looks very aesthetic. Nowadays, not many people can play the Myanmar harp well, therefore it is also often use as a living room ornamental decoration. It is mostly only played during special events or by Myanmar traditional orchestras, it is however not so popular anymore.
As for traditional harp, Saung can be played alone without the traditional orchestra instruments and it produces a very pleasant melody. At the time of Myanmar Kingdom, the traditional harp was only played for the royal family; therefore, Saung players had a very specific status during this era. A belief that there are angels Saung players in heaven, playing for the King of angels, came out of the epoch.
According to the legend, there has been one very gifted Myanmar harp player called U Shin who went a on boat trip one day. As the journey was long, U Shin started to play his instrument to fight boredom and of course entertain other people on the boat. Unfortunately, or not, the boat was passing by Maing Ma Hla island, or pretty women island, while he was playing. The island was known for inhabiting women Nats (Myanmar ancient spirts) and as they heard the beautiful melody, the Nats were seduced and decided they would keep the lyrical player with them. They stopped the boat in the middle of the river, in order to get what they wanted. Only if one person from the boat stayed with them, would they let the boat go. A draw was then made to decide who had to stay behind. And as it would be expected, U Shin was drawn to stay on the island three times. He had no other choice to jump into the water, stay on the island with the Nats and become a Nat himself.
The size of the Saung is different according the size of the player, and the players need to wear traditional clothing to play the Saung.
Making of Saung
As said, not only its music is special but also its style and design. Making Myanmar harp requires high craftsmanship skills and it is a very complicated and unique process. Every single Saung is unique, of course by it’s design and because they are hand made, but also because the size of Saung is different depending on the size of the player, it is then customized.
These days professional artists, as we can call Myanmar harp players this way, use keys to tune the Saung, so that they can play more easily. The instrument is made of four main parts: a hollow body, an arm, a long curved neck and a set of silk strings running from the arm to the body. Keys are located on the neck of the Saung. The average dimensions of a Myanmar harp are 80*16*16 centimeters and Ma Oo wood (rosewood from padauk tree) is used to make Saung.
First, 28 inches of rosewood is cut by cross cut saw. The body is then shaped with a bow saw and two people are needed to curve the wood. The extra parts are cut off by knife, and then a plane is used to smoothen the body. The middle part of the body is curved out using wood curving chisel tools. And after finishing the raw shape of the body, the arm of the harp is curved. To make the neck, root of the tree are curved out and stuck to the arm. After that, the arm and the body of Saung are joined together with screws. Now one of the most important parts begins, attaching the strings to the harp. It is essential as the holes on the tail need to be even in order to get the correct melody. The bottom of the body has to be covered with goat leather before fixing the strings though. The skin is first placed into the water to soften it and small nails are then used to fix the leather to the body. When the leather is attached to the body, small holes are made to help produce that characteristic clear sound that Saung produces. Thirteen to sixteen strings are then attached on the lower part of the body to the neck.
Finally, the whole body of the Myanmar harp is decorated with pieces of Mandalay pearls, glass, gilt, and red and black lacquer, making it a beautiful piece of art that is worth having in your home as a decoration if you love traditional objects from all over the world, you could found Saung sold at Bogyoke market in Yangon for example or in traditional musical instrument shops. If you would like to hear the gracious melody of the Myanmar harp, try to attend a Myanmar traditional concert. It is really worth listening as it is unlike any other music you have ever heard in your life.