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“In this EP I wanted to show that the Kelabits have more to offer than just adopting Kenyah music.” Alena Murang

One of the few pioneering women to play and teach sape, Alena Murang hopes to help others with her creative pursuits, writes Syahirah Mokhtazar

SHE arrived for this interview carrying a music instrument that women from past generations would not dare to touch, let alone play, for it was believed to be taboo.

The instrument, called sape (pronounced as sa-peh), is a traditional Sarawak music instrument played by the Orang Ulu community, otherwise known as “upriver people” who live in longhouses. Carved out of the bole of a tree, this instrument, shaped like a guitar, had traditionally two strings and three frets.

Alena Murang says that back in the olden days, only men were allowed to touch the sape. They used it as a tool for the healing process during shamanic rituals. Fortunately, the belief has long faded away and the sape is now used to accompany dances or musical performances.

Alena, who is a talented musician and artiste, was one of the first few women to break the taboo since she learnt to play the instrument when she was 14. Born and bred in Kuching, Sarawak, she has been exposed to a cultured environment since she was a child.

She had her first taste of Borneon culture, learning about the cultural music of the Kelabit, Kenyah and great encouragement from her mother. No doubt, the 27-year-old is a natural beauty even with minimal make-up. Towering over most people, the lanky Kuching-ite could easily pass off as a model with her exquisite looks, thanks to her mixed English-Italian and part Kelabit heritage (her mother is English-Italian, her father, Kelabit).

Also, her girl-next-door attitude and easy-going banter makes her pleasant to talk to.

FOLK SONGS SAPE STYLE

Taking the cue from her Kelabit elders, Alena is determined to make traditional music more relevant to the urban listeners.

She recently launched her EP at Timbre restaurant. Called Flight, it was produced together with her cousin Josh Maran, who is also part Kelabit.

Flight is a representation of three Kenyah folk songs and two Kelabit songs. Together, Alena and her cousin share their own renditions of the tunes, which are originally sung in a capella accompanied by the sounds of feet stomping on a wooden floor or a bamboo mat. The tracks, which can also be heard on Spotify and iTunes, are called Lilin/Ri’e Ri’e, Pemung Jae’, Midang Midang, Re Lekuah, and Lan E’ Tuyang.

The song Lilin/Ri’e Ri’e, for example, is a Kenyah folk song sung by most Orang Ulu of Borneo, usually during joyous occasions such as welcoming ceremonies. In this track, Alena included Kelabit lyrics ri’e ri’e which has never been done before.

“A lot of the Kenyah culture has been adopted by the Kelabits, so we don’t traditionally play the sape. But in this EP I wanted to show that the Kelabits have more to offer than just adopting Kenyah music,” says Alena, who started working on Flight last January.

FROM LEARNING TO TEACHING

Learning to play the sape wasn’t easy, says Alena. “But once you get the hang of a certain technique called ornamentation, it gets easier. The most challenging part was learning everything by ear,” she adds.

Alena says she is blessed to be able to learn from the best — sape master Mathew Ngau, who was honoured as a national living heritage last year.

“My cousins and I were actually his first batch of formal students. At that time we were actively learning the steps to a traditional dance, with recordings of sape tracks as the only music background. It was then when half of us decided to learn how to play the sape, while the other half stayed with dancing.”

She says that Mathew used to travel about 40 minutes from Bau, a small town in the Kuching Division of Sarawak, to teach his students every Saturday. Alena continuously took lessons with the sape master before she flew off to the UK to further a degree in management from the University of Manchester’s Business School, after graduating from high school.

She recalls her fond memories with her teacher. “One of my favourite things about Mathew were the stories that he told us during lessons. He would tell us about his own experience in learning the sape. The songs that we learnt to play were about appreciating the little things in life, like being by the river or dancing with friends.”

Alena, who is now based in Kuala Lumpur, says she would always meet up with her teacher whenever she flew back to her hometown.

With 13 years of experience playing the sape under her belt, Alena is now a teacher herself. She conducts sape lessons in the Klang Valley, called Kelas Sape KL, together with five other sape players in the area. “It’s encouraging to know that there are quite a number of people who want to learn how to play the sape. My students are not only from Malaysia but from other countries as well, like Poland and Ireland.”

OTHER CREATIVE PURSUITS

While Alena enjoys playing the sape, she says that painting is her first love. Upon graduation and return to Malaysia, she worked for the corporate world for a year before deciding to quit and pursue work in the creative industry.

“I think that if you’re an artiste, it will always be ingrained in you. Eventually you’ll want to pursue it. There was a time when I was neither painting nor creating music and I just wasn’t happy. I felt lost and empty, so I knew I needed to paint and create. I guess I’m never going to take the easy road!” she says with a laugh.

Alena’s paintings are mostly inspired from the natural environment and sceneries. “But I also paint portraits of the elders from my hometown. There’s always a story as to who they are and why I choose to paint them. Most recently, I’m into painting abstract images.”

Channelling her creativity even further, Alena started Art4 a year ago, a social enterprise that combines art, music and social impact projects.

“I started the enterprise to remind myself to use art as a medium for good things. For example, some of the revenue I receive through art and music is used to support the education of a Penan girl. I do what I can to help.”

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