Photo by author
That High Lonesome Sound
By Josina Guess
In jeans, blue flip-flops, and a gray windbreaker, Mya Thay cradles a wooden instrument on his lap. He’s perched on a metal folding chair addressing a few dozen people spread out on a green meadow in northeast Georgia. Speaking through an interpreter he repeats how thankful he is to be there.
He turns his attention to the instrument in his hands: a thana, or Karen harp, carved from the branch of a nearby tree. A microphone leans precariously toward him to catch the sound. With his left hand, Mya Thay keeps a steady downbeat on the longer strings. He plays a high melody from the shorter strings close to his body. Unless the light hits the thana just right, it looks like he’s dancing with his fingers, just painting a tune from the springtime breeze.
Mya Thay begins to sing in a way that seems plaintive to my western ears. I don’t speak Karen, and the translator doesn’t interpret the song. There is a familiarity to the music, played in a minor key. Somewhere between the blues and bluegrass. These comparisons fall flat since the sound predates both. He carried this sound with him from Myanmar to Thailand to the southern Appalachian foothills. Radio producer Jack Chance, who recorded the music of Karen refugees in Thailand and the United States, describes the thana as “a small wooden harp with this haunting bluesy tone.” This isn’t new music. This is, as Alabama sings in their 1982 country anthem, “mountain music,” like the singers’ “grandpa used to play.” The notes of the thana settled into these ancient mountains worn down to nubs and found their way home.
I was living and working at Jubilee Partners, a community that offers short-term housing and English classes to refugees from around the world, when Mya Thay arrived with his three children and his parents in January 2016. His sister and nephew had arrived a few years earlier, and he came to Georgia to be close to them. I drove Mya Thay’s family to dentist appointments and helped keep a small used clothing store stocked with fleece jackets, socks, and warm hats for residents unaccustomed to winter weather. Appalachian music was born from the memories of music and instruments that African, European, and displaced Indigenous people carried with them into the hills. Listening to Mya Thay play his new instrument, just months after his arrival in the United States, was like witnessing the birth and evolution of mountain music in real time.
The thana is about arm’s length, with a resonator the size of a newborn baby. The whole thing weighs the same as an infant, but it feels heavier. It curls like a tadpole or a comma, holding space between what was and what is to come.
Mya Thay is part of the S’gaw Karen ethnic group, from the mountains that straddle the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The Karen trace their origin to a journey across “a river of sand,” possibly from Mongolia through the Gobi desert or maybe down the silty Yellow River in China. They are the earliest known inhabitants of what is now called Myanmar, settling in the area around 700 BCE. Over the ensuing centuries, the Karen were pushed into the hills and oppressed under the Burmese feudal system. Under British colonial rule, ethnic tensions were amplified and the Karen sided with the British. Since the end of World War II, the Karen people have been engaged in an ongoing civil war with Myanmar.
Mya Thay started playing the thana when he was ten years old and living in what he and his family still call Burma. His father, Maung Ngal, plays the thana, but Mya Thay was also taught by community grandfathers and from watching the young men “go from house to house,” the Karen phrase for dating. When I worked at Jubilee, we learned not to ask a refugee why they left. Documented cases of ongoing human rights violations including sexual violence, enslavement, and systematic burning of villages by Burmese soldiers created a refugee crisis causing thousands of Karen people to cross the border or live as internally displaced people in Myanmar. Instead, I ask Mya Thay about what happened to his music. When he had to leave home, Mya Thay’s uncle gave him a thana to take with him, and he was able to carry it safely into a refugee camp in Thailand.
People in the Thai refugee camp thanked Mya Thay for bringing them a familiar sound. He doesn’t remember seeing very many people who could play and make thanas. In his spare time, Mya Thay played his thana and taught it to anyone who asked. The thanas from back home had fiber strings, but he used steel guitar strings for the two he made in Thailand. He made his first thana when he was seventeen. He played and sang at festivals, parties, and church services. After a long day working in Thailand, Mya Thay said, he would feel so tired, but playing the music gave him energy.
In the camp, Mya Thay’s family, like thousands of other displaced people around the world, applied for refugee status through the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. In the early 2000s, Karen refugees began resettling in other countries, like the United States, Australia, Canada, and Norway. When Mya Thay learned that he and his family would resettle in the U.S., he began learning some customs and rules of his new homeland. He was disappointed to learn that you could not just cut down a tree whenever you needed one. They were allowed two checked bags per person. Without a traveling case, a harp would have been too vulnerable as luggage and too big as carry-on. So he left one with his brother and gave one to the church in the refugee camp. He wasn’t sure if he would ever make a thana or play his music again.
Jubilee is located in a wooded setting in the small town of Comer, not far from Athens, Georgia. The first Karen families came to Jubilee in 2004. By 2011, some Karen and Karenni, another ethnic minority from Myanmar, started settling close to Jubilee. Now there are a few hundred people from Myanmar living in and around Comer and Athens, enough to have a large community garden, two churches, and regular cultural celebrations. One of Mya Thay’s friends, a man named Hei Nay Htoo, who had stayed at Jubilee several years earlier and lived nearby in Comer, told him it would be okay to make a thana from a Jubilee tree.
Mya Thay’s father helped him to hew a limb from a tree behind the used clothing store. After English class, Mya Thay used a machete to form the whole instrument, following the natural bend in the branch. He even whittled the seven-inch tapered tuning pegs with the same blade. He used a hand drill to bore six peg holes and drove the pegs into place. He drilled five holes on one side of the resonator and tacked a folded cookie tin on top with a handful of nails and hammered holes in the top. He threaded six steel guitar strings through the spine of the folded cookie tin, then wrapped the wire ends around each peg, twisting them tight. He says it took him about three days.
He took more time with the second thana. He carved the neck and resonator separately, and then joined them. He polished the neck and carved notches on top resembling a snake head. He left his maker’s mark, hammering his name and the date in Karen script into the golden repurposed cookie tin. Finally, in the great evolution of music, he gouged out holes big enough to glue an electric amplifier into the resonator.
After about three months at Jubilee, Mya Thay and his family moved to Athens. He gave the first thana he made in the U.S. to Jubilee Partners. It is a gift that no one there can play. I moved a mile away from Jubilee in 2017. I borrowed the thana to write this piece. It sits in my dining room office, a feast for the eyes. I pluck the strings to try and conjure words to match the feelings it conveys. Homesick, haunted, happy, home. Everything I feel about living in rural Georgia.
John Cohen, filmmaker, photographer, ethnologist, and musician of the New Lost City Ramblers, is credited with coining the term “high lonesome sound” to describe the fast fading bluegrass music of Appalachia. The thana sounds high and lonesome too.
When I was growing up in Washington, D.C., I’d roll up the car windows and shrink down small when my mom turned on the Stained Glass Bluegrass radio show on 88.5 WAMU. It was strange enough to have a white mother in our mostly Black world, but she was country, too, from the Appalachian foothills in Ohio. I worked hard to get the long A sound out of her mouth when she said words like cash and trash. The banjo picking, fiddles, and strange harmonies floating out of our blue Gremlin didn’t match our urban landscape. But at night, on long road trips, she’d sing “The Long Black Veil,” a murder ballad, as a lullaby, and I found it comforting. As a biracial Black woman living in the rural South, I have found that Mya Thay’s music, so reminiscent of those old harmonies my mom taught me to love, is one of the many things that makes me feel at home here.
Jean Kidula, a professor of music and ethnomusicology at the University of Georgia, visited Jubilee one Sunday evening after Mya Thay and his family moved to Athens. I showed her a cell phone video of Mya Thay playing his thana. Kidula said it reminded her of the adungu, a portable wooden harp played by the Alur people of Uganda.
I brought the thana to Kidula’s office and revisited that conversation this fall. I asked her if there is a universal “high lonesome” mountain sound. The Karen have a migratory origin story starting in Mongolia. The Alur are said to come from Egypt. They both have been pushed to the margins, the hill country. Kidula notes that the Alur, like the Karen, are “a people who have been displaced, splintered, and moved around.” Both the adungu and the thana are easy enough to carry, she notes, making cultural continuation possible. “The Alur sing a lot of nostalgic songs. Sometimes nostalgia is good,” Kidula said, “but sometimes it’s melancholic.” I told her I’d been reading Kristina Gaddy’s new book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History and wondered if people will write about the thana in American music two hundred years from now. She didn’t have an answer, but she liked my questions and wonderings.
I recently visited Mya Thay in his sister’s house across the street from the house he shares with his parents and two younger children. His oldest daughter is married and moved out now. He wore camo pants, and I recognized his shirt from old videos from his time at Jubilee. It’s a short-sleeved striped button-down shirt with three embroidered patches. The patches above the left pocket read “U.S. Army,” and “481 Scout Team.” The right patch has a bald eagle in front of an American flag with the words “Jesse James, The Value of the Quality” stitched above it.
Mya Thay had been up all night. He works six nights a week at the chicken plant. He didn’t have much time, but he was happy to talk about his music. He plays for Karen community celebrations, but he doesn’t play as often as he would like. We sat on the floor with his thana and another instrument, a black water-buffalo horn, between us. I set the borrowed thana down beside him. He picked it up and started tuning it, noting damage on one peg.
Some of his young nieces and nephews played while his sister-in-law, Sher Htoo, translated. His sister Tin Win was cooking and washing dishes. The recording of our conversation is backed by the percussion of running water, chopping, crying, and laughter. One of his nieces, wearing pink cat ears, walked a green-haired doll along the strings of the borrowed thana. His nephew played a few notes on the horn.
After talking for about half an hour, he picked up his thana and played a short song. He closed his eyes. His face looked tired, thinner than when he first arrived. When he finished the song, I asked for a rough translation. Sher Htoo said he played a song about farmers working long days in the fields and feeling tired. “When they get back home and hear that sound of the thana coming into their homes, it makes them feel more comfortable,” she explained.
Mya Thay just bought a little piece of land out near the Karen church in Vesta. His sister bought a mobile home, and he’s going to build a house out there. His first grandchild will be born any day now. He wants to have more time to make and share his music. Even though Mya Thay had spent the night in a factory instead of a field, the song fit the moment.