What the Nose Knows: Nose Flute Playing Is an At-Risk Pastime

Why you should care

Because this centuries-old tradition is in danger of dying out.

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In the mountains of southwestern Myanmar, 90-year-old Magaan tribe elder Daw Yaw Shaw has tried to teach her daughter and friends how to play the nose flute. With an estimated 60 different clans making up the Chin ethnic minority — it’s believed their ancestors descended from Mongolia through the hills of Mizoram state in India — Shaw says playing the instrument is a Magaan tradition that, along with the facial tattoos she sports, is at risk of disappearing.

Shaw’s stance on the tattoos, banned by the Burmese military regime in the 1960s, is definitive. Which is to say she’s OK with their passing since most women don’t know how the tradition started — women were tattooed to indicate the clan they were from — or the meaning of the lines and patterns etched into the skin. “I went with three other girls from my village when we turned 15 to the local tattoo artist,” Shaw says. “All women were given the same tattoo — it’s a Magaan special pattern.”

When Shaw is not around to play the nose flute, there will be no more nose flute players in southwestern Myanmar.

Music, however, is something she hopes future generations continue to learn, along with their native language, so that they can come together for celebrations that include the singing of local songs and the playing of the nose flute and other homemade instruments. But time may be against her: Laughing, Shaw says that her young charges “don’t have the skills.”

When Shaw played the flute on Chin National Day this past February, of this she was keenly aware: When she is not around to play the nose flute, there will be no more nose flute players in southwestern Myanmar.

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