Young Sarawakians preserve the ancestral music of sape
Rush hour in Kuala Lumpur’s busiest train station is hardly the time and place for a music performance. But on one busy evening, harried commuters stopped in their tracks to listen to the wistful tunes of the sape being performed by some of Malaysia’s top players. It provided a moment of meditative calm for those who delayed their rush to be mesmerised by the haunting melodies of the longhouses of Borneo.
The show was part of the Kuala Lumpur Arts On The Move series, which brings the arts into public spaces. Sape earned a spot as it has enjoyed a revival in popularity in recent years. Not long ago, the sape was considered unfashionable and its songs repetitive. But now, it has many new fans, in Malaysia and beyond, of all ethnicities and ages, who are rediscovering the lyrical old tunes.
Played predominantly by the ethnic groups living in the upper reaches of Borneo’s great river systems, the sape is a lute instrument made from one piece of wood. It can have anything from two to 15 strings but the traditional ones typically have four strings, and the newer ones have six.
Each instrument is different because it is carved by hand and decorated with artwork unique to its maker. In the past, a sape would be made and tuned for a specific song, with the artwork inspired by dreams. Sape music is instantly recognisable for its distinctive sound coming from the unique techniques of ornamentation of the music.
The sape has become so popular that the handful of makers in Malaysia’s Sarawak state in Borneo can’t keep up with the demand for the instrument. Surprisingly, it is particularly popular in West Malaysia, which is culturally very different from Borneo. This has kept the handful of players and teachers in Kuala Lumpur busy with performances and classes.
Happy to find such a response, sape player Anderson Kalang said the instrument is truly on its way to becoming a Malaysian instrument. A Kelabit from Miri city – Kelabit being one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak – Anderson now lives in Kuala Lumpur and is part of the Kuala Lumpur Sape Collective, which brings together performers in the city. All but one or two of the performers are from Sarawak.
There are some women players and even all-girl groups, which is remarkable since they were once not allowed to touch a sape for fear of bringing bad luck. Today, one of Malaysia’s best-known sape players is Alena Murang, a 28-year-old woman of Kelabit and European parentage.
“Many are discovering that it has a beautiful sound,” says Alena. “Perhaps on a deeper level, in both West and East Malaysia, it has also become popular as people are searching for what it means to be Malaysians. The sape tells the stories of Malaysia.”
One of Alena’s students described playing the sape as meditative. “We do feel deeply attached to our instrument, and sometimes when I play, I put my ear to the wood just to feel the sound,” she says.
Anderson credits Sarawakian sape player Jerry Kamit, who first introduced a six-string sape, for capturing the imagination of the young. With six strings, the sape can play contemporary music as well. “People saw the versatility of the sape,” he said.
As sape enjoys a revival beyond Borneo, young people like Alena and Anderson are striving to ensure that its Bornean spirit and soul are not lost. Anderson requires his students to learn the traditions, origin, culture and stories of the instrument and its old songs, before they’re allowed to play contemporary music. “They need to ground themselves in tradition before they can make the instrument their own. We want them to understand why the sape is special to Borneans,” he said.
Alena said while different teachers use different methods, she sticks to the old ways that she was taught by her elders in the longhouse. She sings the old songs to her students who memorise them and learn how to play by imitating her movements.
To Alena and Anderson, the preservation of these old songs is important to their heritage and soul of Borneo. That is why they make regular trips to the villages to learn more songs from the elders, and to fine-tune their skills.
The sape is naturally evolving. Many now come with amplifiers, and for sure, none continue to use vines for strings. But the musicians hope the sape will retain its Bornean soul, and its essence will always be Bornean.