Soul-stirring melodies of ‘sebang pekit’: Kg Sapit celebrates its ancestral heritage

A Bidayuh woman breaking open bamboo culms at Kiyau Campsite in Kampung Sapit.

By Karen Bong

ROOTED in the depths of Bidayuh ancestral heritage, a potent musical composition known as “sebang pekit” represents more than just melodies and rhythm—it encapsulates the profound history, spirituality, strength, and resilience that define Kampung Sapit.

However, “sebang pekit” is far more than a whimsical melody played for entertainment during festivities like Gawai Dayak. It is a sacred artform that demands reverence and adherence to ancient rituals.

A failure to honour these traditions may unwittingly invite disruptive spirits, causing disturbances in the delicate balance between the spiritual and earthly realms.

Jessing Awos

According to Kampung Sapit Village Development and Security Committee (JKKK) secretary Jessing Awos, only a chosen “powerful” individual possessing an unwavering spirit and has connection to the ancestral energy that resides within them can lead the performance and harness the power of “sebang pekit”.

The Bidayuh firmly believe that their mountains, crowned with lush foliage and guarded by benevolent spirits, are sanctuaries of protection and wisdom.

To maintain a harmonious relationship with these ethereal guardians and spirits, the Bidayuh meticulously observe a series of rituals before engaging in the performance of “sebang pekit”. Through prayers, invocations, and offerings, they seek the blessings and guidance of their forefathers and guardian spirits.

However, in recent times, as modern influences seep into the fabric of Kampung Sapit with many villagers having converted to Christianity, Jessing said adjustments have been made to strike a balance between tradition and modern sensibilities.

While the rituals and staging of “sebang pekit” may have undergone simplification, the essence remains intact.

A Bidayuh woman searching for local produce in the forest surrounding Kampung Sapit.

“Even if we are to play the music today, we must choose the correct tempo, rhythm and simplest composition. It is a delicate performance between honouring the sacredness of the past and adapting to the realities of the present.

“Many can still play the music and we did in last year’s Gawai celebration. But of course, the significance of the rituals cannot be overstated, as they serve as safeguards against unwelcome disturbances that may befall the village and villagers,” Jessing explained.

Through soul-stirring melodies, the Bidayuh pay homage to their ancestors, expressing gratitude for their guidance and protection. It is a celebration of resilience, cultural pride, and the unbreakable bond between the Bidayuh people and their ancestral heritage.

By maintaining the sanctity of the ritual and passing down the knowledge to those who exhibit strength of spirit, the Bidayuh people ensure that this treasured musical tradition continues to be an integral part of their culture for future generations.

Village houses dotting the green landscape of Kampung Sapit.

While the residents of Kampung Sapit continues to celebrate Gawai Dayak on June 1 each year, the festivities have also been simplified by omitting certain rituals to appease the spirits or “kemang”. However, the adjustment does not diminish the significance, spirit or value of the festivities.

Some years ago, the village performed an elaborate ritual during a visit from members of the Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA). They invited the chieftain from Kampung Gun, Tembawang as their own chieftain had passed away, leaving a void that no one had the status to fill for leading the ritual.

“Not anyone can perform the Gawai ritual. It is a responsibility that requires the strength of spirit and a hereditary connection to the ancestors. The ‘ketua Gawai’ (head of Gawai) must possess these qualities, often passed down from our grandparents,” Jessing said.

This stringent criterion ensures that the ritual is conducted with the utmost respect and reverence while safeguarding its cultural significance.

The festivities now commence with a symbolic sacrifice of animals like chickens, but lead with a mass prayer and blessings by a priest, followed by other traditional performances like playing of the gong accompanied by dancers.

In the spirit of goodwill and unity, villagers, including those from neighbouring Indonesian communities, are invited to take part in the celebration, known as “nyaroh”.

Houses sit near each other in Kampung Sapit.

This evolution in the celebration of Gawai in the village reflects a broader recognition that the essence of the festival lies not solely in the performance of specific rituals, but in the unity, gratitude, and camaraderie shared between communities.

Despite the simplification of certain rituals, Gawai continues to be a time of profound significance and reverence for the villagers of Kampung Sapit. The celebration serves as an opportunity to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest, seek blessings for the year ahead, and pay homage to the wisdom passed down through generations.

It is a celebration of the unique cultural identity that binds the community together, a testament to their resilience and commitment to preserving their ancestral heritage.

Apart from being rich in history and possessing a unique culture, Kampung Sapit, located about 1,000 metres above sea level, is one of the few villages that sits above the clouds in Padawan. For that, it has become a popular destination for camping, offering stunning views of the sea of clouds, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets amidst lush forests and towering mountain peaks.

Kampung Sapit is one of the featured attractions under the Sarawak Tourism Board’s (STB) Sarawak Product Experience programme. — DayakDaily