Music educator Chong highlights well-researched Kenyah folk songs in book

Book cover of "Folk Songs of Sarawak: Songs from the Kenyah Community - 2nd edition", transcribed and arranged by Chong.

KUCHING, March 18: This is a Kenyah song that commemorates the end of World War II (WWII) while telling the tale of how a Long Nawang resident encountered a Z-Special Unit (Z-Force) operative Tom Harrison, awkwardly hanging from a tree.

Nai bilun Merika
Pet surat ka Long Tuah
Pala’ Tama’ Asong Angang

Dan masat sikam barang
Sama tunangan sayang

“Leping bila’ ” kun Talip
“Kelap kaba’
Takut tuan nyelapang”

The “belian dado” (Kenyah song) in the Lepo’ Tau dialect can also be translated into:

Here comes the plane from America
Dropping letters at Long Tuah
For Tama’ Asong Angang

Strolling and collecting parcels
With my beloved fiancé

“Pale as a ghost was I,” said Talip
“I ran into hiding because…
I was afraid you would shoot me, sir”

Kenyah Lepo’ Tau performing ‘belian dado’ songs, Marudi 1995 (photo by Paul Chin).

As described in the third verse, this Kenyah resident of Long Nawang named “Talip” got a fright of his life when he found the strange man hanging from a tree.

On one such mission by the Z-Force, due to a misjudgement by the pilot, Harrison’s parachute accidentally landed on a tree near Long Nawang, which is situated in Dutch Borneo, the central hub of Kenyah high culture during the first half of the 20th century.

From 1943-1945, joint allied special forces Z-Force had conducted secret surveillance and training of natives in resistance and sabotage activities from behind Japanese lines in Borneo.

Then, Z-Force aircraft were flown from Australia to the interior of Sarawak, parachuting operatives into selected villages. And Harrison who later became curator of the Sarawak museum (1947-1966) was one among those operatives.

Talip’s rescue attempt was later recorded in Harrison’s book “World Within” [2007(1959):429]: “I could no longer feel my body below the waist, where the harness and the pressure of suspension held me as in a vice of pure misery … the extraordinary sight of a small yellow man, wearing only a loin-cloth and a cap with a hornbill feather, perched, in my tree-top on the theory – as I subsequently learned – that if he unhooked the ‘chute it would open again before it hit the ground…

Many other writings of Harisson on Kenyah Culture also featured Long Nawang, the home of the Kenyah Lepo’ Tau, whose main settlements in Sarawak are at Long Moh and Long Mekaba.

In fact, the “Tree of Life” mural in the Sarawak museum by Tusau Padan who hails from Long Nawang, is a copy of the original artwork in Long Nawang.

These are all findings by Kenyah music and culture researcher Chong Pek Lin in a review she shared with Dayakdaily today, where she highlighted the meaning behind the “Nai Bilun Merika” lyrics.

“The lyrics of the first and third verses in a lively Kenyah dance-song entitled ‘Nai Bilun Merika’ (Here comes the American plane) commemorates the end of WWII and highlights the exploits of Z-Special Unit, part of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the cloak-and-dagger branch of the Allied armed forces.

“As allied planes also air-dropped supplies in the highlands on both sides of the present Malaysian-Indonesian border, the song also celebrates the imminent end of the war. After years of hardship under the Japanese Occupation, sheer joy and relief must have inspired the composition of this song,” she said.

This is only one of many attractive songs, she added, sung by the Kenyah while performing simple dance movements on the verandah of their longhouses, with lyrics reflecting life in the interior of Borneo that make for invaluable repertoire for local choirs.

In December last year, she pointed out, St Joseph’s Private School chamber choir’s performance of a medley of two Kenyah songs “Liling” and “Lan-e” won the gold medal at the 2nd Virtual Choir Festival.

To those who are very much fond of the Kenyah songs and culture, Chong who is also a music educator has a book titled “Folk Songs of Sarawak: Songs from the Kenyah Community – 2nd edition” which was recently published by the Dayak Cultural Foundation.

“Nai Bilun Merika” is among 35 Kenyah songs with musical transcriptions, Kenyah lyrics and translations in English and Malay included in the book which is the outcome of research spanning 20 over years.

The book transcribed and arranged by Chong is available for sale at RM50 from her directly at peklin_chong, from the Dayak Cultural Foundation, and local bookstores such as My Bookstore and Arco Strings Music in Kuching.

Audio recordings of all the songs in the book are also available from the author’s website at—DayakDaily