Cover Story
Old Rhythm, New Wave
Grace Lim | 09 Mar 2018 00:30
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.