Traditions and Preservation

There are many noteworthy and dominant traditional icons within Karen culture: weaving, singing, t’nakus, hospitality, to name a few. Music is used to promote the preservation of traditions and is almost always part of ceremonies and celebrations.

The Karen have been living off the land for the extent of their known history. Methods of forest preservation are significant to the continuation of their ways of life. Swidden, crop rotation, and recycling are farming methods used by some Karen to keep the land healthy for continual use. Forest preservation ceremonies where Karen of various religious backgrounds gather are events that can be witnessed deep in the forests of Thailand.

As some Karen spread around the world, social media is used to maintain contact with the homeland. Karen in the far reaches of the world continue to practice celebrations and aspects of their culture.

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Weaving

Karen weavings are quite distinct. Handbags, shirts, longyis, dresses, and headwraps are some of the distinct items woven by the Karen. The patterns of the weaving are intentional and maintain different meanings.

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Singing and Dancing

Singing and dancing are highly regarded as key elements of Karen festivals and ceremonies. These may include Christian or ancient festivals, weddings, or funerals.

Karen Music

Music that is culturally traditional Karen music is identified by a sound or a melody. The main instruments associated with traditional Karen music are the t’naku, basic percussion, and voice. However, many other instruments are part of Karen music, both traditional and contemporary. It is common for Karen musicians to adopt foreign music and bring it into their canon, be it intentional or natural.1 The history of Karen music prior to western influence is not well documented. Pentatonicism is noted to have been a primary scale, similar to other Eastern nations.2 With the introduction of Christianity, a loss of music was found in specific Karen cultures.

“It is to be regretted that, with the acceptance of Christianity, the Karen have almost entirely dropped their own music for that of the West.”2

Instruments

Traditional Karen instruments vary from region to region. When speaking with a Karen musician from Karen State (“Kayin State” South Eastern Burma) they might not be aware of instruments that have been used by Karen for generations in a village in Northern Thailand. The diversity of the Karen ethnicity provides unique cultural differences within the population. Instruments include, but are not limited to: plucked strings (harps and lutes), percussion (xylophone, cymbals, drums - bronze, leather, bamboo, and wood), flutes, free-reed aerophones, and bowed string instruments.

Vocal Music

In a culture that is passionate about singing, the Karen, as a whole, have been known to absorb the musics of other cultures. Because of this trait and western proselytization, it is difficult to know the true nature of the ancient style of Karen singing. Harry Ignatius Marshall, while spreading western Christianity, had encouraged the preservation of traditional Karen music; “It’s a shame they are abandoning their own music, i urge them to preserve.”1 Choirs and solo singing are a key part of Karen celebrations and ceremonies but also part of everyday life. In the United States, there are Karen festivals where Karen groups get together and sing and celebrate. Christmas time is a prominent period where singing, dancing, and instrument playing, which has been rehearsed for months, takes place.

Hta, an ancient manner of singing among Karen, is being developed and preserved. Read the article "Mother Died and Time Passed" for more information regarding Hta.

Contemporary Music

Modernization has brought western instruments into the world of the Karen—especially Karen youth. The guitar and piano are very common in Christian Karen church services as well as other Christian events. Recording studios are found within refugee camps, villages in Thailand and Burma, and resettled populations of Karen around the globe. Many of these studios produce contemporary Karen music that is shaped around the modern garage band.

Karen music, like other musics in minority populations, is being preserved through the efforts of ethnomusicologists and, more importantly, by the Karen themselves.


1Stern, Theodore, and Theodore A. Stern. ""I Pluck My Harp": Musical Acculturation among the Karen of Western Thailand." Ethnomusicology 15, no. 2 (1971): 186-219.

2Marshall, Harry I. The Karen People of Burma: A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology. Columbus, OH: The University at Columbus 1922.

Hta

Understanding Hta from outside the Karen culture might pose some challenges. This sung text is ancient and often confusing to understand. Some intergenerational transmission regarding the meaning of the lyrics is interrupted and younger generations may not comprehend the meanings.1 Violet Cho elaborates on the use of Hta in the article below. Also in this article there is significant cultural information regarding other aspects of the Karen. Being a native Karen, she has strong insight into social issues and traditions pertaining to her people.

"Mother Died and Time Passed" by Violet Cho


1Karen singers in discussion with author, June 2016.

Karen Instruments

There are various instruments that might be said to be specific to the Karen people. With the mixing of cultures in Southeast Asia, it is very easy for the instrument of one people group to become adopted into another.1 This element of musical development is accompanied by the loss of use of specific instruments as well. It is also important to note that the Karen are diverse; two villages might use very different instruments and could be unaware of the instruments used in a village of another region.

Harry Ignatius Marshall writes about eight specific musical instruments used by the Karen with whom he was residing around the turn of the 20th century. They include various plucked, blown, and hit instruments.2 The main instrument that seems to be found throughout the Karen peoples is the t’naku.

Below are photos of several Karen Instruments associated with the Karen in the Tak and Chiang Mai Regions of Thailand and Karen State in Burma:

Card-kareninstruments1 T’naku 5-9 stringed arched harp. An iconic instrument for many Karen.

Card-kareninstruments2 Kana 4 stringed necked bowl lute.

Card-kareninstruments3 Cymbals

Card-kareninstruments4 Buffalo Horn Individual (single) free-reed aerophone made from water buffalo horn or wood.

Card-kareninstruments5 Bronze Drum Bronze drums are iconic to Karen culture. They are very similar if not identical to bronze drums found throughout various parts of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. Those attributed to the Karen have a few distinctions; specific carvings, number of rings, etc. They may hold significant meaning depending on the local religion or if traditions are being maintained. These drums, to some Karen, have sacred significance.(2)

Card-kareninstruments6 Drums

Card-kareninstruments7 Gong


1Stern, Theodore, and Theodore A. Stern. ""I Pluck My Harp": Musical Acculturation among the Karen of Western Thailand." Ethnomusicology 15, no. 2 (1971): 186-219. doi:10.2307/850465.

2Marshall, Harry I. The Karen People of Burma: A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology. Columbus, OH: The University at Columbus 1922.

Ethnic Identity

The ethnic identity of the Karen is not universal. Diversity can be observed in politics, religion, music, language, and even agriculture. Outside influences have increased the diversity. While the KNU (Karen National Union) is a very strong political voice and promotes the preservation of Karen, it does not represent all Karen people.

Resettlement has caused a diaspora and the lack of a politically recognized homeland further inhibits a unifying ethnic identity. The push by some Karen to be recognized as a unified people is a recent phenomenon.1


1Karen in discussion with author. July 2010.

Bi Ni & Ble's Story

Bi Ni and Ble sing while sitting in their home in Klo Mae Ta, Thailand.
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A tea kettle sits over fire in a dirt pit in the center of the bamboo house.

Bi Ni & Ble

Bi Ni and Ble have been singing together their entire lives. Their knowledge of Karen songs has made them frequent performers at Karen festivals and ceremonies. The songs they sing are not merely love songs but songs that contain history, philosophy, and deeply meaningful aspects of Karen ways of life. These women also write their own songs which are passed down to their children. They are propagators of Karen culture and music is one of their methods of preservation and continuation.

The Noted project | Bi Ni & Ble | part 1 of 4

Bi Ni and Ble sing while sitting in their home.

Singing is a central part of Karen music.

Bi Ni sings while holding her child in her lap.

Singing

Singing is a central part of Karen music. It can be heard in not just daily life but also festivals, weddings, celebrations, funerals, and religious ceremonies. The songs Bi Ni and Ble sing are about preserving the ways of the Karen. Hta is the name of the poetry that contains the history, moral guidelines, and the laws of the Karen. Prior to written text, all things pertinent to the central ways of the Karen ethnicities were passed down orally through hta. Singing requires no instruments but at times can be accompanied with t’nakus, drums, and other instruments.

The Noted project | Bi Ni & Ble | part 2 of 4

Ble on the porch of a home in Klo Mae Ta.

“A woman is like the shade for people in the house.”

Bi Ni

A Karen woman distills rice whiskey at a forest preservation ceremony.

Women's Roles

The Karen have a long history of female empowerment. To an outside observer the gender roles might seem oppressive; women cooking and maintaining the home, men in the fields. However, the Karen are matriarchal—lineage is passed through female Karen. A home belongs to the woman and when she passes away her husband must leave the house.

The Noted project | Bi Ni & Ble | part 3 of 4

Waw Kaw, older cousin of Bi Ni & Ble, poses for a portrait.

The Karen diaspora has spread the Karen people around the world.

Karen women in Mohsaree, Burma perform a traditional dance.

The Necessity of Tradition

“When I go to meetings, I notice other races. [...] Hmong people dress in Hmong clothing, Lahu people dress in Lahu clothing, Akha people dress in Akha clothing. [...] But Karen people dress in Thai clothing. They do not dress like Karen people.”

Bi Ni and Ble both look forward to coming generations of Karen. They understand the necessity of transmitting traditions in order to preserve Karen culture. The Karen diaspora has not only spread the people around the world, but dispersed the traditions as well. A result of migration is exposure to foreign cultures and therefore changes in tradition are likely to be observed. They wish to see the younger generations make the choice to not abandon the ways of their people.

The Noted project | Bi Ni & Ble | part 4 of 4

A baby rests in the hands of Waw Kaw, cousin of Bi Ni & Ble.

“I sing as my mother sang for me. I sing for my children.”

Ble

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