Travelling Kenyah Elder and the Origins of Sape
Amid the blazing heat, we ventured further into the festival grounds and came across a group called Warisan Sape Telang Usan where everyone was dressed in traditional ensemble. One of its members Romulus Kalan said the culture and heritage initiative started two years ago to develop young musical talents in playing sape and dance.
“Sape is used by Orang Ulu which also include the Kayan and Kelabit community. Everything about it like the shape, wood and the traditional songs came from a man’s dream while he was looking for a cure to his wife’s illness,” Romulus said.
The ‘man’ was Oyou Abing Lian, a farmer who fell asleep at his paddy field after returning from seeking a shaman in Baram, Sarawak. In the dream, Oyou was told to look for adau wood, from the trees that the Hill Myna birds used to perch. The shape of sape appeared in his dream and whenever it was played, the spirit would heal his wife.
“Since each song has a spiritual meaning, we have to seek advice from the Elders before playing it to the audience.”
Then, we were greeted by a chieftain, or pengelata’ lepuk in Kenyah dialect, Lucia Paya Langkau who leads one of the longhouses in Long San, Baram which serves as Kenyah settlement area.
The sexagenarian dressed to the nines complete with a headgear that can only be worn by nobles, as well as metal ballast earrings that gave her elongated ears, a dying tradition that started from infancy symbolising beauty, patience and social status.
“As time goes by, our old ways are slowly forgotten. Longhouses built with sturdy belian wood had been replaced with bricks and our children moved to the city. Some of the practices are still observed but only during special occasions. My village doesn’t even have a shaman anymore,” she said.
Lucia said since touring festivals and state occasions around Sarawak like Miri and Kuching from its inception, Warisan Sape Telang Usan has generated a number of followers.
“This initiative not only introduce our music and dance to foreign visitors, but also to educate our own people especially the younger generation to save what’s left of our culture from extinction.”
Sounds of the World
By nightfall, the entire village was buzzing with excitement with amazing performances literally from around the world — outstanding vocals by Dona Onete (Brazil), Grace Nono (Philippines), Slobodan Trkulja (Serbia) and Arat Kilo, Mamani Keita and Mike Ladd (France, Mali and the US); psychedelic performances by Yallah Bye (Tunisia); and an endless stream of cultural sounds by Warato’o (Solomon Islands), Oyme (Russia), SwarAsia Malaysia as well as homegrown stars At Adau. Mentioning all performers would take up an entire page so like any festivals, we had to pace ourselves.
My personal highlight was the ‘feel good’ hour slot delivered by Guinea’s Djeli Moussa Conde and his company. Conde sings about peace and his hope for mankind with a unique instrument called kora, a long-necked harp lute of the Malinke people of western Africa. Twenty-one leather or nylon strings are attached to the top of the neck, giving it the sounds you may have heard from African songs. Every instrument in the band from djembe to bass guitar was given a solo jam that sent the crowds into a dancing frenzy.
These world’s best cultural talents not only delivered great entertainment to revellers, they also gave the insight to how music unites the world. No one understood the language, but there were no walls during those nights. Our time at the rainforest was simply magical.
DID YOU KNOW?
The original sape had two strings and three frets and was only used as ritualistic music to induce trance.
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