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
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.
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.
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.