Cover Story
Old Rhythm, New Wave
Grace Lim 
Alena Murang learnt to play the sape at 12.

For sape musician Alena Murang, early memories of music include listening to James Taylor, Leonard Cohen and Eric Clapton while riding in her uncle’s car after school.

“I started playing the guitar at nine. Whenever we had friends or family over, I would be roped in to play the guitar while my uncles sang songs by The Beatles and Abba,” she reminisces about her childhood in Kuching. “That’s how I knew these songs, some of them I’ve never heard on record. I only knew them from hearing my uncles singing them.”

She learnt to play the sape, her musical instrument of choice these days, at 12 from none other than professional sape player and Sarawak’s musical treasure Matthew Ngau Jau, who lived in the village downstream from her own village in Long Peluan.

It was fortunate that he even wanted to teach her in the first place as sape is traditionally played by Kenyah men. “The men who played them were village shamans and they usually performed during spiritual rituals.”

When the tribe converted to Christianity, such rituals became irrelevant and the gender rule became obsolete.

“The sape originated from the Orang Ulu community, which has 48 different tribes, Kenyah being one of them. The Orang Ulu mostly lived in Miri, but we were lucky to have Uncle Matthew who moved to Kuching after marrying a local here. He would visit us every Saturday, plug in his sape to a recorder, and make tapes for all of us to go home and listen to,” she elaborates.

Alena herself is from the Kelabit tribe. Exuding confidence and elegance, it is hard to imagine that she is shy by nature, and only started performing professionally three years ago.

“My cousins and I would go to an aunt’s house every Sunday to learn traditional dances and we would perform at local dinners and events. At that time there was only one CD recording of traditional music, and there were only one or two uncles who could play the sape. We wanted to switch up the tempo and be more creative, so seven of us decided to learn the instrument in order to choreograph our own shows,” she says.

Alena recalls the long and painstaking process of learning and maintaining the instrument in perfect condition. Since there wasn’t a syllabus, Alena learnt by listening and watching. Patience was indeed a virtue when it came to mastering the art.

“There were no notes, and you really had to know your teacher and he had to know you. We were his first students too so we were both learning from each other. We use guitar tuning pegs now but before this, we literally put a stick in a hole and twist it. It was challenging because the fishing lines would snap easily. The frets were carved from bamboo and stuck on with beeswax. They had to be of a certain height or the sound would be off. They also tended to fall off after a while. To replace them, we had to carve our own.”

Alena admits that she never thought her dream of performing professionally would come true. “I remember watching the performers at the Rainforest Music Festival and telling my mother that I wanted to be like them. But it felt like such a distant dream back then even though music has always been a part of my life.”

She was such an avid player that she even packed her sape when she went to study in the UK. “Three years ago, I saw a growing interest in music from Borneo. There was a lot of curiosity about the cultures here and the sape lets those stories be told.”

To perform on contemporary stage, one of the first challenges that Alena had to overcome was learning how to hook the traditional instrument to modern speakers. “Some sapes can’t sync with them while others give out a buzzing sound.”

At the moment, Alena does not write her own songs; instead, she performs old songs that have been passed down for generations. Most of the songs she performs are in Kelabit. She says that learning the words allow her to dive deeper into her heritage and culture.

“I would learn the songs and then rearrange them for the contemporary urban audience, mainly those outside Sarawak. A lot of the Kelabit songs are very poetic and are mostly about life by the river, friendships and missing home,” she explains.

Her most recent project is the music video for Re Lekuah, an old Kelabit/Kedayan song of which the title translates into Oh Dear, alluding to the act of letting out a sigh. She was approached by Ashley Duong from Canada, who was working on a documentary on urban and rural Kelabit youths experiencing cultural transition.

Since the topic of the documentary is heavy, Duong wanted to balance it out with a catchy and relatable soundtrack. “I learned the song from Tepu’ Do’o Ayu, a grandmother who happened to be in Kuala Lumpur,” says Alena. “When I asked her what it meant, she said it was the story of a young woman and the hardship she has to endure, like the heat while working in the fields and the heavy load of her bag. I reinterpreted it to mean working hard in life.”

Alena starred in the music video alongside Raziman Sarbini, a contemporary dancer from Sarawak. The video was shot in 10 days.

Alena is also part of the KL Sape Collective, established last year by a group of sape musicians from Sarawak. Members of the collective perform together occasionally. The KL Sape Collective also actively participates in Arts on the Move, an initiative by ThinkCity, to bring a slice of traditional music to people who would not have heard them otherwise. The group has performed numerous times at the Masjid Jamek LRT Station to an appreciative audience.

“Sometimes people stop to dance with us. We usually perform during peak hours when there are more people around. Although it is right in the middle of the city, I have had people telling me that it reminded them of being in the village,” she smiles.

This year is an exciting one for her as she will be touring. She heads to South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) in Texas this month, one of the biggest entertainment trade shows in the US. Alena will also tour Europe as part of the band called Small Island Big Song, an initiative by two producers who wanted to present the Austronesia culture to the rest of the world, in July. In historical terms, Austronesia refers to the homeland of peoples who speak Austronesian languages such as Malay, Filipino, Polynesian and Taiwan’s Formosan languages.

“The core band comprises a musician each from the Easter Island, the Solomon Island, Taiwan and a few others. We get a solo each. For instance, when I sing with the sape, the other musicians will back me up with their indigenous instruments.”

Performing with the KL Sape Collective at Masjid Jamek LRT Station

Alena, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, also runs an organisation called Art4 studio, which takes on integrated art and music projects that bring heritage into the contemporary realm. Started in 2015, the projects are not limited to the Kelabit heritage but open to artists from various backgrounds.

“I always stress that this is not about fame or money. I’m only one part of the culture and the effort to preserve its heritage,” she says. “One way that the public can help is to look at their own heritage and roots, and share their stories. That would help us to better connect and communicate with each other, and appreciate our differences.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 275.