Get acquainted with Sarawak-born sape musician and the heritage that continues to inspire her
OPENING with a mixture of ethereal sounds and cinematic videography that resembles a fashion film – it is hard to break away from the award-winning ‘Midang Midang’ music video, performed by Borneo’s very own Alena Murang, until you snap out of your trance as soon as the replay button appears.
However, do not think that the high-end production quality takes the admiration and respect that she has towards her Dayak Kelabit heritage away so easily.
The song ‘Midang Midang‘ itself is an old Kelabit song, handed to Alena by her grand aunt, Tepu’ Ira.
“It’s about time for us to be telling the narrative in our own light, a lot of what we see out there is only a depiction through the eyes of another,” expressed the Sarawakian singer-songwriter.
“Modern and urban is also part of who we are at this age, and it does not mean we have forgotten about our culture.
“We do not necessarily have to visually show that we are primitive when we think of Sarawak – or groups indigenous to it – because the community today is very much contemporary in its own way, not entirely like the classic tourism ads we see being played often.”
Growing up in Kuching
Alena, who is born to Kelabit father Ose Murang and English-Italian mother Valerie Mashman (she came to Sarawak back in the 80s as part of her work as an anthropologist), treasures her childhood days spent in an environment filled with culture and community.
Alena started with the piano when she first became interested in music, “but it only lasted for two months.”
“Then, I moved on to play classical guitar when I was nine years old and I loved it. At the time, I also went for dance classes – learning ballet, jazz and traditional dancing,” she shared over a phone interview with The Vibes, detailing her foray into taking up heritage music, specifically Sape music.
“It was only at age 11 that I started to play Sape. How it began is also closely linked to my weekend dance practices with my cousins.
“During that time, we had known a couple of uncles that played the Sape, and half of us thought if we were to pick it up, we could be creative with our dance moves – help us work on our rhythm a little bit.”
With that in mind, eventually Alena took up lessons directly with Sape master and cultural legend Mathew Ngau Jau for over two decades, with whom she still keeps in touch with to this day. She also learned from Sape master Salomon Gau.
“Prior to this, the idea of women playing the Sape was something alien. [Women] were not allowed to even touch it since the instrument is mostly used during healing rituals, where the healers that played it were strictly men,” she noted, adding “that of course is different today where there is less concern for women to play it.”
“Uncle Mathew didn’t have any students and we were the first batch of sorts that he agreed to teach. Even before we became interested, he was already contemplating whether he should move forward and pass on the knowledge regardless of gender norm,” said Alena.
“I was only made known of this much later when he shared there were hardly anybody from the younger generation, at least those that were of my age and younger, were learning Sape. Looking back, I am glad that this rule was broken,” she added, noting just like any musician, Sape players too have “a close connection to their instruments.”
“All of us (cousins) were musically inclined in one way or another growing up but only two could play the Sape until today with only myself doing it professionally.
On whether it put more pressure on Alena to raise awareness of Sape music, she says, “I think it did in the beginning.”
“I started to play the Sape to a wider audience about six years ago when I came to Kuala Lumpur, and at that time there was a bit of weight I had to carry because people were so new to it.
“However, it’s nice to see how it [Sape] is being appreciated – how the interest for the music evolved and adapt where people are also starting to play it today – with all the years that have gone by since.”
Listening and learning
Sharing more about the passion she has for her lute instrument of choice, Alena shares “I find it [Sape] very relaxing and meditative to play.”
“As a start, I do focus on the technique since musically I don’t rely on music sheets and train by picking up melodies by watching and listening demos.
“I would practice a lot and until muscle memory kicks in, only then will I let the flow of my emotions come in and drive it further,” said the singer-songwriter.
Further sharing her experiences learning to play folk songs, “the Sape masters (depending on the teacher) will help to deconstruct the songs for me to learn (by watching and listening).”
“I remember back in the early 2000s, Uncle Mathew would help to record on cassette tapes, and I would listen and learn – now with the change in technology it’s much easier to record and share videos,” shared Alena.
According to the Sape musician, adjusting herself to play the instrument well on stage was a challenge when she first started out professionally, “because traditionally, Sape was not built for a concert scale kind of performance. It’s usually played in a more intimate community environment, where the musical flow is less rigid between the musician and audience tuning in.”
For example, Alena explains she needed to adapt the songs to the tunes of the instrument appropriately on stage, so the delivery does not diverge away from the original sound, “just the whole process of figuring it out was a challenge for me in the beginning.”
“Another hurdle was getting people to be made aware of Sape, and I can say most back then didn’t know what it was. It felt like I was trying to introduce a new product, where I had to educate the audience about the instrument and its background.”
Working towards future recognition
Recently the Sape musician launched the virtual portal for Project Ranih (www.projectranih.com), releasing four children’s songs with lyrics in English and Kelabit.
On the inspiration behind it, Alena says, “the idea came after I launched my first EP titled ‘Light’, back in 2016.”
“My cousin, Joshua Maran, who is also my producer, thought it would be great to do a children’s album, and I had the same idea in mind as well.
“We discovered that it was quite hard to find the resources for it, so we decided to scale-down our efforts for a little bit before we could proceed and started with stage one a.k.a. Project Ranih to collect traditional children’s books first as part of research,” she said.
“The word ‘Ranih’ here means harvest in Kelabit, and although Joshua and I are not literal farmers, we had a duty to collect enough materials for inspiration. We would love to do more, but we just need funds to do so,” added the Sape musician.
On recently winning the ‘Best Styling Award’ at the Bueno Aires Music Video Festival in Argentina, Alena, who is the first female of her generation to professionally perform and teach the Sape notes, “It is a big honour to have received the award because it’s not necessarily a win just for me – but for the team that helped in creating the music video as well.”
“A lot of people do not realise that the styling team is a big group of 20 people alone. We approached it in a way that was contemporary without disregarding the heritage behind the music and the art. We went ahead to also feature creations by Sarawakian designers to also boost the recognition of local fashion designers,” she added.
When asked about her plans as an independent artiste on keeping the attention and recognition alive on the international stage: “I’m producing a new album next year. On top of that, the team behind ‘Midang Midang’ is also helping to work on another upcoming music video. “
However, looking at the big picture, “having more government support to push music and arts further is key.”
“I know this have been expressed a lot of times before, but it doesn’t make it less important. I really hope that with the recent award win (at least), it can be used as a motivator to justify to the relevant officials that our heritage is highly valued, even by those across the world.”