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.

Food

The gastronomy of the Karen is primarily dependent on their yearly agricultural production. With modernization in parts of Southeast Asia, the use of electricity to preserve food is becoming more common.

“Food plays a central role in Karen culture. A common Karen greeting is Aw mee wee lee ar – “Have you finished eating?””1

Primary foods are rice, vegetables, chicken, pork, curries, chillies, and fishpaste. White rice is heavily consumed. Many Karen, especially in Burma, eat with their right hand while Thai influence has encouraged the use of forks and spoons. During festivals, pig skin and fat is served. In some cases, canine might be consumed as a delicacy or during unique celebrations.


1The Karen People: culture, faith, and history. Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation, 2011.

Northern Thailand

The northwestern region of Thailand is a well-known tourist destination. The area is rich in culture with multiple ethnic minorities. Among these people groups are the Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Yao, Hmong, Karen, and Lawa. Each of these hill tribes has unique foods, clothing, and traditions that attract visitors from around the world. The area is surrounded by mountains and is popular for trekking and jungle expeditions.1


1"Northern Thailand - Wikitravel." Accessed June 28, 2018. https://wikitravel.org/en/Northern_Thailand.

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.

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.

Deepunu plucks the strings of his handcrafted t’naku.
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Karen homes in the village of Pa Pae, Thailand, home to Deepunu.

Life and Tradition

Deepunu grew up in Northern Thailand within a vibrant Karen community. His primary education in life was conducted through the traditions of his ancestors. He is an adherent to the preservation of not only the natural environment but also his own culture. Many of the visible traditions have been part of the Karen culture for generations past; singing and music, weaving, distilling rice whiskey, recycling and preservation, and living peacefully with other people, to name a few.

The Noted project | Deepunu | part 1 of 4

Deepunu sings while playing the t’naku.

The Karen are at times seen as unwanted guests in Burma and Thailand.

A Karen woman in traditional dress walks home from a forest preservation ceremony.

Crossing Cultures

Northern Thailand is not unlike many areas of the world where multiple ethnicities exist and intermix. Discrimination is very evident to someone from the western world. Blatant uncovered racism can be observed throughout regions where minorities reside. Checkpoints are stationed along key roads to keep certain ethnicities or persons without the proper paperwork in designated zones. The Karen maintain no politically accepted homeland and thus are at times seen as visitors or unwanted guests in Burma and Thailand. Deepunu learned to work past this dissonance through the wisdom of his community.

The Noted project | Deepunu | part 2 of 4

Deepunu plays his t’naku inside a Catholic church in Pa Pae.

Karen traditions are maintained through the ancient poetic recitation of hta.

Deepunu’s t’naku, carved in the shape of a kok bird, rests on its case.

It's All About the Hta

Hta seems to be a central cohesive element within many Karen communities. This ancient poetic recitation maintains histories, moralities, wisdom, and stories that carry on Karen traditions. Old and new, hta can be spoken or recited musically. Because of the antiquated nature of the lyrics, it is often difficult for younger generations to understand the meaning behind the text of the hta.

The Noted project | Deepunu | part 3 of 4

A girl in traditional Karen dress laughs with friends at a forest preservation ceremony in Pa Pae.

Deepunu is an activist working to encourage the message of peaceful living.

Deepunu poses for a portrait in his home village of Pae Pae.

Peace with Neighbors and Nature

Deepunu is an activist, working to encourage the message of peaceful living with neighbors and nature. Forest preservation remains a central part of the message he shares. His participation in Karen festivals and gatherings make him a prominent part of the younger Karen generations that seek to propagate the traditions of old while evolving in the modern world.

The Noted project | Deepunu | part 4 of 4

Karen Buddhist monks chanting as a part of a forest preservation ceremony in Pa Pae.

When our hearts are respectful towards nature we will respect our fellow man.

Deepunu

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