Travel Features > Entertainment

Spreading the Word
Sape Music Goes Global?

Wayne Tarman reports on recent efforts to raise awareness of Sarawak's
musical traditions & his hope for a Sarawak-inspired Clubland Hit for 1998

With the growing popularity of World Music it is not difficult to find musical recordings from around the globe. African, Cuban, Latin, Tibetan chant, you name it, it's probably in your local record store. And not just in Europe or the States; record shops in Kuala Lumpur now have World Music, or Muzik Dunia, sections and even small shops in Kuching stock a range of popular World Music tapes and CDs. But what about music from Sarawak, or music form Borneo? That's not so easy to find. Chances are that if you have never visited Sarawak you won't have heard any music from Sarawak.

Sarawak Musicians at WOMEX 97

But things are changing. Recognising that the promotion of tourism in Sarawak is so linked to culture, the Sarawak Tourism Board decided to send a delegation to the Worldwide Music Expo (WOMEX 97) held from 23rd to 26th October at the Palais du Pharo in Marseilles, France. WOMEX is the largest gathering of music professionals in the World Music business. It's an annual event that attracts performing artists, record company executives, festival organisers, ethno-musicologists, instrument makers and more. It also attracts sizeable media interest.

The Sarawak delegation to Marseilles was comprised of four musicians - Mr Irang Lahang, Mr Tegit Usat, Mr Asang Lawai and Mr Uchau Bilong; one dancer - Ms Mary Dau Williams; Mr Henry Belawing - a musicologist from the Majlis Adat Istiadat (Council for Customs & Traditions); Mr Randy Raine-Reusch, producer of a forthcoming CD of the music of Borneo; and Mr Jean-Christopher Robles, marketing executive with the Sarawak Tourism Board.

The performing artists were all Orang Ulu (literally "upriver people") from the Kenyah community and performed a selection of Orang Ulu traditional music, song and dance in a 45 minute set. The musicians played the Sape, a lute-like instrument and the Jatung Lutang, a wooden xylophone. The sape has become one of the cultural symbols of the Orang Ulu. It is the only traditional instrument that remains popular with both young and old. Sapes are carved from a single tree and are about a metre in length. They are painted with traditional Orang Ulu motifs and have 3 or 4 strings which produce a haunting, and at times, trance-like melody.

Although the Sarawak performance at WOMEX did not cause the same kind of 'noise' as other acts, (for example, Asian Equation, a UK Deejay and musicians collective that went down a storm), it did have a major impact. Undoubtedly, the Sarawak performance was a special one. The audience were very much aware that they were lucky to be seeing something that was traditional. There was a suitable air of reverence in the auditorium as the trance-like melodies reached a new audience. Many expected African-style drum beats and an energetic dance performance rather than the sweet tunes of the Sape and graceful movements of Orang Ulu dance.

Sape Playing
©Sarawak Tourism Board

The Sarawakian performers also attracted keen interest from the international media with photographers crowding around to get the 'living museum' shots that go down so well with the Western media. The group was interviewed by French and German radio stations and the BBC World Service. They also appeared on French television after a crew filmed the Sarawakians at a nearby park. Whilst Tegit, Asang and Uchau played the Sape, Irang and Mary danced by the lakeside as the French TV crew filmed an impromptu performance and passers-by stared in disbelief, amazed at what was going on.


As for the Kenyah guys - they took it all in their stride. Although they found the weather a bit cold they enjoyed the whole experience. At a press conference on his return to Sarawak, Irang Lahang, 60, told the local press that he was not afraid to play on stage to a different audience as he was with his friends. He also had the press in stitches when he told them that as he didn't speak any French he just laughed all the time. On a more serious note he told the Sarawak Press newspaper that "Years of pain, dedication and love of the Orang Ulu sape finally paid off".

The Future of Traditional Music in Sarawak

So, what does the future hold for traditional music in Sarawak? It's certainly a very interesting question as young Sarawakians are currently giving Sape music a wide berth. Not many young people are keen to learn to play the sape so the talent base is getting forever smaller. There are perhaps only 20 or so good players left in Sarawak and these are generally elderly players who live in the interior of Sarawak on the Upper Rejang and Upper Baram rivers. A few young musicians perform to tourist audiences but they are not yet as skilled as the older, upriver players. In addition to a lack of interest in playing amongst the young, the young are less interested in listening to the music of Sarawak. The power of pop is as strong in Sarawak as it is elsewhere in Asia and sales of traditional music are tiny.

Nowadays, it is often commercial realities that dictate the survival of a style of music. If professional musicians are able to make a living playing local instruments and music then the music of Sarawak will survive. In that respect, opening things up globally is an excellent idea and sending a Sarawak delegation to WOMEX was a smart move. Creating opportunities for local musicians is also necessary. Thankfully this is now happening.

Randy Raine-Reusch, an internationally recognised composer and concert artist, is currently producing a number of CDs of the music of Sarawak and Borneo for a Dutch record company. Randy is a Canadian artist and keen world musician who owns a working collection of over 600 instruments, which pretty much tells you that he is into World Music in a big way. As well as working with rock giants such as Aerosmith, Randy has produced a CD ROM of the music of the Silk Road and a CD of Vietnam's premier artists, the Khac Chi Ensemble. He is therefore used to working with Asian artists and has now turned his attention to Sarawak and the rest of Borneo.

Although a few local music cassettes and the odd CD of Sarawak music are currently available, these productions are geared to the local rather than global market. Recordings are frequently not up to scratch and the packaging is often grim beyond belief. With decent sound recordings and proper marketing, Sarawak music should gain a wider audience. The forthcoming professionally recorded CD of the musical traditions of Sarawak has the potential to spread the word and hopefully encourage more Sarawakians to take up their music. If the younger generation see their elders deriving economic benefits from playing the Sape and other traditional instruments, they may feel more inclined to learn the musical traditions of Sarawak.

In addition to the traditional sape and Sarawak sounds on this forthcoming CD, I hope there is room for a couple of experimental tracks that drag the sape into the 20th Century. Traditionalists will hate me for saying it but a Clubland hit that incorporates Sarawak music may be just what is required. Traditional Sape music is a medium that has developed to accompany solo performers in the longhouse. Maybe what is also required is a variation on the Sarawak musical theme that can pack the house in a sweaty club in London, New York or even Zouk in Singapore, Southeast Asia's best known dance club.

A Clubland hit that takes Europe by storm before going global. That would be cool. If I walked into "Jupiter's", the local late night dive of a disco here in Kuching, and a Sape dance mix was pumping out of the system and the dancefloor was packed with Sarawakians dancing to their own traditional music, albeit mixed around a bit, I'd argue that Sarawak music was very much alive. So, maybe its time to record an electronic sape, or sample some sape for a drum and bass Sarawak mix, maybe add some rising vocals for the club hit of 1998.



[ Top ]