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Chiarofonte, Lorenzo (2020) Powerful sounds: Music, dance and ritual efficacy in Burmese nat kana pwe spirit possession ceremonies. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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In the highly urbanised centres of Yangon and Mandalay, people pay homage to the Thirty-seven Lords, an official pantheon of tutelary spirits of central Burma, through the organisation and performance of nat kana pwe, private spirit ceremonies in their honour. In these possession rituals, professional spirit mediums (the nat kadaws) and nat devotees embody the nats and other spiritual beings, dancing while possessed by the spirits, and supported by the fast and vital sounds of the Burmese nat hsaing ensemble. Through the performance of ritually effective musical sounds and dance movements constituting a network of performative meanings, the spirits come-into-presence, dancing with and through the possessed human bodies. Based on ethnographic data from multiple fieldwork trips in the region, this study aims to provide indepth analysis of the ritual efficacy of the musical sounds and dance movements in Burmese spirit possession ceremonies. Focusing on the relationship between sounds, movements and spirit embodiment, and through musical, performance and experiential analysis, this dissertation considers the ritual efficacy of nat hsaing musical sounds and possession dances. Drawing on other research in ethnomusicology and anthropology, this study explores the sonic dimension of nat kana pwe possession ceremonies, considering how sounds contribute to the interaction between human and spirit persons. Starting from the life experiences of the protagonists, and analysing their social relationships, this research presents the forms of spirit embodiment characterising the experience of professional mediums, devotees, and musicians. Finally, this study analyses the nat hsaing performance practice, contextualising its particular musical idiom and transformational dynamics within the larger frame of Burmese performing arts and of the neighbouring Southeast Asian musical cultures. This research contributes to the study of the relationship between music and spirit possession, and to the understanding of Burmese music and of performing arts – a field of study that has so far not received much attention from ethnomusicological scholarship.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: Departments and Subunits > School of Arts > Department of Music
SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Nick Gray, Rachel Harris and Richard Widdess
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 26 Aug 2022 08:44
Funders: Other

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