The Instrument as Instrumental: Pgaz k’Nyau Bamboo Musicking and Karen Eco-Friendliness

  • Suwichan "Chi" Phattanaphraiwan Bodhivijjalaya College, Srinakharinwirot University
  • Benjamin Stuart Fairfield University of Hawaii at Manoa
Keywords: ecomusicology, thailand, bamboo musical instruments, pgaz k'nyau, sgaw karen


While the tehnaku, the iconic six-string curved neck harp of the Pgaz k’Nyau (Sgaw Karen) people has made a strong comeback after 19th and 20th century, scholars lamented its demise, many other traditional bamboo instruments of the Pgaz k’Nyau still remain little-known, not only in academia but increasingly within Pgaz k’Nyau communities themselves, due in part to national forestry laws, resettlement and evictions, modernisation campaigns, and an increasing scarcity of, or restricted access to, certain natural and cultural resources. This ethnographic study investigates the various uses of bamboo in two Pgaz k’Nyau communities in Thailand, illustrating the importance of local knowledge of natural resources and the place of bamboo in shaping Pgaz k’Nyau music, ethics, aesthetics, ecological activity, beliefs and social relations. Bamboo musical instruments, in legends and in everyday application, are co-created with help from rodents and insects, lure wild pigs from the forest, bookend human lifecycles, help to confine spirits to the forest and the afterlife and are reworked from pig troughs into slit-drums used to drum up communal action. This research discusses how these increasingly rare bamboo musical instruments speak to a variety of contemporary contextual issues faced in Pgaz k’Nyau communities. We argue that Pgaz k’Nyau bamboo is instrumental in reflecting and perpetuating long-standing eco-friendly cultural practices embodied in a five-part Pgaz k'Nyau prescription for managing ecological relations within the self, between self and other, between the human and animal world, between human and forest, and between human society and the supernatural world; and it does so in response to Thai political narratives that have inappropriately labelled the Pgaz k’Nyau as destroyers of national forests.


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Author Biographies

Suwichan "Chi" Phattanaphraiwan, Bodhivijjalaya College, Srinakharinwirot University

‘Chi’Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan received his PhD in Art and Culture Research from Srinakharinwirot University. He is an internationally-renown musician, activist, and assistant professor of Geo-Cultural Management at Bodhivijjalaya College, Srinakharinwirot University in Mae Sod, Tak. He has published two books on Pgaz k'Nyau music, Rao Khue Tehnaku (2011) and Phleng Tong Haam Khong Pga k'Nyau (2014), is actively involved in the Karen Network for Culture and the Environment, serves as vice president of the Foundation for Culture and Environment, Southeast Asian chapter (FCESA), Chairperson of ASEAN Ethnic Creative Foundation (AEC) and recently cofounded the Karen Community Eco museum.

Benjamin Stuart Fairfield, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Benjamin Fairfield received his PhD and MA in Ethnomusicology from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer (community-based organizational development) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from 2007-2009, where he lived in a Karen (Pgaz k’Nyau) village. His current research focuses on ethnic identity in northern Thailand as mediated by music with particular emphases on participatory genres and religion. He has collaborated with Chi Suwichan on two book translations and currently serves as affiliate faculty at the University of Hawai‘i Music department and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.


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How to Cite
Phattanaphraiwan, S., & Fairfield, B. S. (2019). The Instrument as Instrumental: Pgaz k’Nyau Bamboo Musicking and Karen Eco-Friendliness. Malaysian Journal of Music, 8, 68-85.