Sape master still going strong

Mathew is a world renowned Sape maestro and a Malaysian National Living Heritage. He is seen here with his traditional Sape.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Wilfred Pilo

Mathew Ngau Jau is a world renowned Sape maestro and Malaysian National Living Heritage.

He is widely considered to be a recognised authority on the sacred musical instrument of the Orang Ulu – the Sape.

When met recently, Mathew disclosed that there is still plenty to say about the long lute-like stringed instrument made from a single bole of wood.

“Sape is my passion and I want to uplift our culture of the Orang Ulu through sweet melodies and also to put the Dayak and Sarawak on the world map,” he told DayakDaily.

Sape in various stages of completion at Mathew’s workshop.

Mathew, 66, also known as a cultural guardian or “Keeper of the Kenyah Ngorek Songs”, said despite his busy schedule he still performs overseas.

“The only small obstacle is my age which is catching up and because of that, some overseas invitations have to be turned down,” he lamented.

He said that Sape music and performers are more widely recognised throughout the world now as compared to 20 years ago.

Culture and Origins

“With so many performing the Sape, I hope they will tell people about the culture and its origin,” he said.

Mathew said that he cannot be upset or sad as the instrument is accepted as part of world music and played on stages all over the globe.

“My message to those people out there performing and playing the instrument is not to deviate from its traditional melodies despite whatever environment they are performing in. Please perform as (close to) original as possible because the Sape and its music reflects very much the identity of the Orang Ulu, their culture and traditions. It is very important that the performers must know that the Sape belongs to whom.”

Mathew also designs Orang Uu motifs on tree bark for home decorations.

Mathew shared his concerns that those who have never heard the original Sape sounds before might be misled by contemporary performers into believing that what they hear are the original Orang Ulu melodies.

He noted that many bands include the instrument in their performances in order to make themselves popular, but don’t truly give attention to protecting the instrument and its music.

“That is where I am very skeptical in how it is being used now. They just want to be ‘glamour’ (become known) with Sape but show no respect for the instrument.”

Mathew said that the Sape is sacred to the Orang Ulu people and they treat the instrument with the utmost respect.

Recollecting his younger days playing the instrument, he said that his elders used to hang the instrument high on the wall. When people were sick or celebrating an occasion, the instrument was taken down and used to perform melodies that would sooth the ear and make people happy.

Good, strong wood is ideal for making Sape.
Sape in various stages of completion at Mathew’s workshop.

“The elders in the family and community did not allow the Sape to be simply placed and carried any how. We could not even walk over it as that would show disrespect to the instrument.

“It was also even taboo for women to play the Sape in their community but nowadays in the modern world, this taboo has been lifted,” he said, revealing that women were among his first students.

Mathew opined that even though the instrument now has been played on world stages and the taboo lifted, those who play it must still know of its origin and its roots.

“To be fair I do get carried away while performing the Sape as I get immersed in the environment I am playing in. But I come to my senses and get back on track,” he said.

Making the Sape

On creating Sape, Mathew said he keeps to tradition by making the traditional Sape with three strings, instead of the modern Sape that has six strings like a guitar.

“My focus now really is to make the Sape better in its shape, design, sound and finishing, and in giving classes.

“We make the structure so it is small and compact for convenience. I can handmake a traditional Sape from selected strong wood in two weeks.

“The motifs imprinted on the surface of the instrument are all based on the imagination of the maker with designs that depict the Orang Ulu.”

Mathew’s workshop.

He pointed out that the Sape sold in town are mostly purely for commercial purposes and they are very attractive to end users especially young people and children.

“I like the body work but it’s nothing compared to the traditional music instruments that I am presently making and selling.

He said that the original Sape made with three or four strings has a distinct sound when compared to those with six strings, but if one is not familiar with the instrument, one would not know the difference.

“This is why we must preserve the instrument to be as authentic as possible,” he said.

“Performing, making Sape, plucking the strings for its melodies and teaching (how to play) the instrument made me a complete Sape performer, said Mathew.

Threat to Sape Sound and Melodies

Mathew also said that these days, any stringed musical instrument can mimic the sound of Sape, and advised that anyone who wants to be a Sape player should use the real Sape instrument with three or four strings.

“Whoever brings the Orang Ulu heritage to the world stage has made me and my community proud.”

Mathew is a world renown Sape maestro and a Malaysian National Living Heritage. He is seen here with his traditional Sape.

To be at the forefront of this industry and safeguard its culture and traditions, Mathew is now being managed by a social enterprise called The Tuyang Initiative.

He explained that The Tuyang Initiative ensures that he, his work and performances are properly managed.

He said the focus of the social enterprise is in economic and skill uplifting of the Dayak (Bornean indigenous) communities, as well as on inclusive and innovative indigenous culture-related products and services.

This is to protect himself and other indigenous communities.

“I support this kind of social enterprise as the Sape music industry is being mixed about (adulterated) by people and this has made me uncomfortable. I am given the responsibility and I get comments from people that make me feel guilty,” he lamented.

Technology – a spoiler?

He said that technology might have played a role in diluting the impact and sounds of this instrument but recognised that technology can also bring the sacred instrument to another level, not just in world music, as well as to get recognition.

“We are not happy sometimes but we must always monitor what we do and ensure that the culture and tradition of our people are simply not taken for a free ride,” he opined.

Mathew also revealed that despite being well known as a Sape maestro, he has not recorded his own album.

“Only when I played with the late Uchau Bilong, a Kenyah from East Kalimantan, which was more than 20 years ago that I was part of his album.”

He said that Uchau was his inspirational teacher in Sape and taught him a lot.

“I was always second to him when we performed on stage.

“When I asked for sponsors, no one approached me but when they wanted me to represent world music in performing the Sape then they all looked for me. But whatever it is, I do not have any grouse on the matter,” he said

Mathew said that apart from his legacy in making the Sape known to the world, there are also many real masters and maestros of Sape in the longhouses.

“These are the real ones, the real maestros and not those who make a little bit of name for themselves and get to be called the Master of Sape. Even me, I am not a Sape Master but the title was bestowed on me by the government.”

The Future

Mathew who has been an icon for The Rainforest World Music Festival since its inception, hoped that his son Jackson Liang Ngau who is currently performing with a group called At Adau will continue to promote and bring Sape sounds and melodies to greater heights.

“I hope that there are no more so-called spoiler in Sape. I have to be a little vocal as we need to safeguard and preserve our culture. I want Sape to be played like the Kenyah saying “Lan-e-Tuyang”, which literally means ‘among true friends’,” he said. — DayakDaily