Keri McCarthy, associate professor of music, traveled to Burma [the Republic of Myanmar] last summer on a project to bring reed instruments to a country that had been politically and economically isolated for many decades. The largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, Burma is a mix of large cities, lush river valleys, steep mountains in the north, spectacular landscapes throughout, and a wealth of distinct cultures.

Political changes in the past three years have caused the country to slowly open to visitors and western culture. With help from a grant from WSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, McCarthy not only took advantage of this to take oboes to Burma, she brought home a deeper understanding of a rich and complex musical culture and many great details to share with her students in Pullman.

“What a privilege,” I thought as I was performing. “I am in rural Burma playing my oboe for people who have never heard this instrument before.” I had just a couple of minutes with this thought before the skies opened up and rain came pouring down, drumming on the metal roof of our small shelter and drowning out the sounds of our Baroque duet.

My colleague Michael Garza, my husband Andy, and I had arrived at the Yangon [Rangoon] airport the previous afternoon. The streets were packed with cars and flooded with rainwater, the sidewalks were wildly uneven and sometimes suddenly interrupted by open drainage areas. We were continually soaked as street water splashed up from passing cars. Food carts filled the air with the smells of a variety of Burmese dishes with lots of pickled vegetables, sprouted beans, fried eggs, springrolls and tofu, and various meats.

Bagan, Burma
Burma’s stunning landscapes include the pagodas and temples of Bagan. Photo Wikimedia

As we explored our new surroundings, we wondered how we were ever going to find the music center we had come to Yangon to support. Our plan was to spend six days teaching students about western double reed instruments. We had developed lesson plans for teaching oboe and bassoon techniques, reed making, and repertoire, and on our first morning we were excited to get started.

But instead of heading to the music center, we were packed into the back of a small, canvas-covered jeep and we spent the next three hours protecting our instrument cases and our heads as we bumped along rut-covered roads out of the city. We were on our way to a rural Protestant boarding school, where students were learning to play western string and wind instruments. As we arrived the sounds of Mozart Symphony No. 40 greeted us from an open-air gymnasium. And I knew then this trip was going to be extraordinary.

Burma is a country poised for major cultural and structural changes. Until recently, the country has been almost entirely isolated from western culture as well as from its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.

In 2004, I taught oboe at the Mahidol University College of Music, located just outside of Bangkok, Thailand. There my husband and I made friends with several Burmese music students. ThetSu Oo, a Burmese violinist with a gift for teaching, was returning home to Yangon to help build a music center called Gitameit (meaning “music” and “friendship” in Burmese). The goal of the center was to offer music instruction (including Burmese traditional, western Classical, and western and Burmese popular styles). She asked if we would come help after the school had become more established. I remember feeling a bit guilty saying that we would try. Burma was ruled by a repressive junta that had held political leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years; the government was responsible for heinous human rights abuses. Any travel to Burma was widely seen as financial support for this government and its crimes against its people. Over 50 years of history seemed to indicate that nothing would be improving for the people of Burma in the near future. But by 2010 the outside world began to see signs of change, and I watched with hope. Finally, in 2013, everything seemed to come together.

The day after our rural excursion we found Gitameit, which exists in an old three-story home. The music floats from open windows and fills the small compound. The faculty members teach six or seven days each week and students from around the country make music in the eight rooms, on stairway landings, and even in the open-air courtyard. The center recently started a scholarship program for students from rural areas, and the cultural exchange between Burmese students of various regions (the country has over 135 identified ethnic groups) was evident.

One of the new oboists, Margaret (named Ja Htoi Bu by her parents), had come from a far-northern rural province where her family had 11 children. She played flute, sang in the choir, and took theory and history classes. She was very enthusiastic about the oboe, and relished the idea of being Burma’s first oboe teacher. It was easy to draw parallels between this 24-year-old student and some of my own students at WSU.

I have spent a fair amount of time trying to understand and reconcile my trip to Burma with my understanding of world culture and politics in general. The people there live simply. There aren’t many days off, creature comforts, or extravagant celebrations. But there is a tremendous amount of joy in everyday activities and in sharing those activities with people from other cultures. People were open about the country’s current difficulties—an opaque government that could easily return to old habits and a government-sponsored discrimination against Muslims, who have been community members and good neighbors for centuries.

They were cautiously optimistic about the country’s future. I am too. What I know for certain about my trip is that it has changed the way I view my own space in the world. I am ready to return to Yangon in March, ready to play oboe and teach oboists, to encourage the love of western music, and to learn more about the traditions of Burmese music.

McCarthy is looking for oboes to bring on her next trip to Burma. Anyone willing to donate an old instrument from their attic or coat closet is encouraged to contact her at kmccarthy@wsu.edu.