Chiang Mai, Thailand

Card-chiangmai1 Chiang Mai Province is located in northwestern Thailand. The province borders Burma to the west and the region acts as a cross cultural experience for both locals and tourists. The city, while being over 700 years old, is very modern and similar to Bangkok. The preservation of history is not shirked, however, as there are many historical landmarks and customs being preserved. The center of Chiang Mai City is a moat-encircled “old city” that was once fortified with walls protecting the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Today, a visitor can experience a fantastic dichotomy of old and new traditions.1 The presence of various hill tribes and their customs can be seen while exploring the city and surrounding region. The city is home to the Hill Tribe Museum which offers visitors many educational resources into the life of many northern Thailand hill tribes.2

Additional Resources

1"Chiang Mai - The official website of Tourism Authority of Thailand." Accessed February 15, 2018.

2Museum Attendants in conversation with the author, June 2016.

Music Industry

Music in Diaspora

Despite the distance, oceans, and continents between, the Karen have been preserving their cultural identities through social media, film, and music in their communities throughout the world. Singing, dancing, and playing instruments in traditional Karen and contemporary styles is found being celebrated all over the globe. This can be witnessed through the advertisement of Karen culture celebrations via various media outlets.

Recording Studios

Along the Thai/Burma border, many Karen have been establishing small recording studios inside refugee camps, in border towns, and even in locations where the predominant ethnicity is not Karen, such as in Chiang Mai, Thailand. These studios are not unique to Thailand and Burma but can be found in Karen communities throughout the world; Australia and the United States, for example.1

The accessibility to the internet, and consequently social media, allow the Karen to remain connected and share their cultural growth.

“[...]the Karen can be regarded as one of the transnational communities that informs and is informed by a sense of multi-locality and of dual/multiple political and cultural orientations, or 'diaspora consciousness'[...]”2

A New Kind of K-Pop

Traditional music only represents a portion of all Karen music. Karen pop music is a huge part of the identity of younger Karen generations, especially among refugees. The use of writing pop music to deal with loss and displacement can be found in Karen communities around the globe.

Specifically in refugee communities, the Karen individuals producing this music are predominantly Christian and male. This can be recognized by financial support coming from Christian organizations, which make up a large portion of the resettlement and aid organizations. Similar to the rest of the world, women are not able to exercise the same opportunity due to many constraints: social injustice, gender roles, as well as stressors from displacement.2

1Multiple Karen musicians in discussion with author, May - July 2016.

2Mr. Manoch Chummuangpak, “The Sound of Loss and Hope: Pop Music of Karen Refugees from Burma/Myanmar.” Paper presented at the Asia Pacific Sociological Association (APSA) Conference, Chiang Mai, Thailand, February 2014

Education in Thailand

Thai Education - Primary and Secondary

The education system in Thailand is controlled by The Ministry of Education. All children residing in Thailand, regardless of nationality, are guaranteed up to 15 years of free education. However, the quality of this education is not equal among all children. Organizations such as Unicef are working to spread education to children in remote rural areas to aid in the fulfillment of the Ministry of Education’s mission.1

Thai Education - Post-Secondary

Tertiary and other post-secondary education is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of University Affairs. These institutions number close to 200 and are both public and private.2 Many of the Institutions are called Rajabhat Universities (Royal Universities). They were developed by the Thai government to provide citizens a high level of education for vocational purposes, research, producing teachers, and promoting and maintaining culture.3

Karen Schools

Depending on the village, region, and religion, a Karen child might attend Karen school. Many of the Karen schools are associated with Christian Karen communities but are not specific to Christian Karen. The education might be considered superior to the level of education provided to similarly aged pupils in other cultures. These schools are not mandated by the Thai Government but the education is respected. Within the refugee camps there are several educational systems; Karen schools, college, and seminaries.4

Additional Resources

1"UNICEF Thailand - Education - Overview." Accessed February 13, 2018.

2"Education in Thailand - Wikipedia." Accessed February 15, 2018.

3"พระราชบัญญัติสถาบันราชภัฏ พ.ศ.2538 - thailawonline." Accessed February 15, 2018.

4Multiple Karen in discussion with author, June 2016


The t’naku (also spelled t’na, tenaku, tehnagoo, tena, or tehna) is the instrument most associated with Karen music. It is grouped as an arched-harp under the chordophone classification according to the Hornbostel-Sachs System.1

The instrument has three main parts: the neck, the strings, and the body. The neck is made of wood and provides the location of the tuning pegs, to which the strings are attached. The strings are made of metal (previously cotton or bamboo) and run from the neck to the body where they are attached to a sound board. The body consists of a resonating chamber and a sound board. The resonating chamber is constructed out of wood while the sound board could be metal, wood, or fabric (previously animal skin). They generally have between five to seven strings, however t’nakus with nine or more occasionally appear. Modern variations can have tuners similar to those on guitars or mandolins, as well as an electronic pickup for amplification.2

The t’naku is the center of most Karen instrumental music. It can be seen at almost all traditional festivals. The tuning is typically western based and often one finds mixolydian mode on the Thai-Burma border between Umphang and Mae Sariang. A musician will play the instrument with both hands; one hand playing a tonal center and the other playing a melody.3

1Fairfield, Benjamin. 2013. “I am Tehnaku: The Reification and Textuality of “Chi” Suwichan’s Karen Harp.” Ethnomusicology Review 18.

2Deepunu in discussion with author, June 2016.

3Jack Chance in discussion with author, December 2017.

The Karen

Who are the Karen? This answer is anything but straightforward. The population count discrepancies, language and cultural diversities, diaspora, third-party ignorance, and lack of a politically accepted homeland leave this ethnic identification open to interpretation. After gathering information from multiple sources, including people who work with and have lived among the Karen1-3 as well as literary and personal dialogue with several Karen themselves, one might come to a definition similar to this one by Benjamin Fairfield:

“The Karen” are a consolidated conglomeration of people groups numbering between 4-6 million in Burma and around 400,000 in Thailand, historically classified into “Pwo,” “Sgaw,” and “Red” (or “Karenni”) sub-groups according to language, dress, elevation, and even arbitrary mislabeling.4

The term “Karen” is not a word from any of the Karen languages. It comes from Burmese and the etymology is debated. The term was adopted into the English language during British colonization. The name that the Karen call themselves in Sgaw Karen is b~a ga-nyaw. Which, translated to English, means “human.” The Karen use the word “Karen” when they are speaking English.5

In regards to the Karen languages, there has been significant research into this branch of languages. Pwo and Sgaw seem to be the two languages most associated with research about the Karen.

Additional Resources on Karen Languages:

Additional Resources on Karen Identity and Origin:

1Jeff Rutherford in discussion with the author, July 2016.

2Miles Jury in discussion with the author, May 2016.

3Jeff Warner in discussion with the author, June 2016.

4"The Map that Christmas Carols Made: A Case of ... - Rian Thai Journal." Accessed January 12, 2018.

5T. F. Rhoden, Karen language phrasebook basics of Sgaw dialect (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2015), 25.

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.


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.

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.



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.


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.

Eh Klo Moo's Story

Eh Klo plays guitar at his home studio in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Watch the Video
A keyboard in Eh Klo’s home studio in Chiang Mai.

Eh Klo Moo

Eh Klo Moo lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he is a prominent member of the Karen music community. Driven by a love for his culture and musical training he received in his youth, Eh Klo is building a recording studio and the beginnings of a Karen music center. In addition to playing traditional Karen instruments, he is a classically trained guitarist who took piano lessons when he was young.

The Noted project | Eh Klo Moo | part 1 of 4

Eh Klo plays one of his own compositions on guitar.

Eh Klo creates beautiful guitar compositions that maintain the traditional Karen sound.

A friend of Eh Klo plays keyboard at Eh Klo’s home studio.

Musical Training

Not many Karen, especially those in Thailand, have bachelor degrees in western music, as does Eh Klo. He earned a Bachelor of Music from Rajabhat University in Chiang Mai. Educated on the theoretical aspects of western music and first-hand experience growing up with both western and traditional Karen musics, Eh Klo has a unique perspective. His well earned skills allow him to intelligently create beautiful guitar compositions that maintain the traditional Karen sound, usually heard on the t’naku.

The Noted project | Eh Klo Moo | part 2 of 4

A busy outdoor tea shop in a market in downtown Yangon, Burma.

With an estimated population around 6 million, the Karen have been progressing in the modern world.

A harp engraved with the Karen flag rests in front of a photo of Eh Klo and his wife.

Building for the Future

With an estimated population around 6 million, the Karen have been progressing in the modern world. A population of this quantity encourages the expansion of small industries and institutions. Music and film are media industries experiencing significant growth within the Karen community. Eh Klo has a home recording studio that he has been building for the past decade. Many studios like this can be found within the Karen community around the world. His educational background aids in the recording process of both traditional and contemporary Karen music and various types of instruments including the electric guitar, drums, bass, t’naku, kana, Karen drums, and voice are integral to his recordings.

The Noted project | Eh Klo Moo | part 3 of 4

Eh Klo being interviewed in his home studio.

Eh Klo is one of many Karen that hold tight to their ethnic identity.

Eh Klo’s neighborhood in the suburbs of Chiang Mai.

Music Unites

Eh Klo is one of many Karen that hold tight to their ethnic identity, which he seeks to cultivate through music. Social media plays a significant role. Eh Klo can remain in contact with Karen in distant parts of Thailand or other countries and use music as the strong tool that it is, to continue to promote, preserve, and reinforce the Karen identity. The building of a Karen music center is underway. Eh Klo says it will be a place where Karen can come together to be united as a culture, people, and continue the Karen traditions.

The Noted project | Eh Klo Moo | part 4 of 4

Eh Klo plays guitar in his home studio.

Many studios like Eh Klo’s can be found within the Karen community around the world.

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