The sape’s evolution in Sarawak’s traditional music legacy

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Dr Connie Lim Keh Nie

ESTABLISHED in 1998, the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) aims to promote and preserve the unique culture of Sarawak.

Today, with the festival, the sape has become a cultural and tourism icon in promoting Sarawak as a tourist destination.

Over the last 50 years, efforts by government agencies to promote Sarawak’s indigenous culture have helped to raise the prominence of the sape on the world stage.

The Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) began sending musicians and dancers for promotional tours abroad in the 1970s. Lepo’ Tau sape maestros Irang Lahang and Jalong Tanyit from Long Mekaba performed at the Asian Traditional Performing Arts week in Tokyo 1976, while the renowned Tusau Padan (originally from Long Nawang, Indonesia, but resettled in Sarawak) appeared with a group of dancers in a series of tours to Los Angeles and Tokyo in 1986.

Rainforest World Music Festival 2017 poster highlighting the sape, symbolizes the culture of Sarawak. Source: Sarawak Tourism Board

[Figure 1] Rainforest World Music Festival 2017 poster highlighting the sape, symbolises the culture of Sarawak. Source: Sarawak Tourism Board

Despite these efforts, by the early 1990s, the sape had declined in popularity and was rarely seen in urban Sarawak. Even in the Kenyah-Kayan heartland, skilled practitioners were confined to a few musical families in specific villages. Kenyah and Kayan youth thought it far trendier to strum the latest hit songs on a guitar rather than to pluck ancient tunes on a sape. Not many Kenyah villages has its resident sape player to play during communal gatherings, instead, the villages were relying on cassette tapes to provide dance accompaniment.

Resurgence in Popularity

At the turn of the century, the sape experienced a resurgence in popularity within Sarawak and grew substantially in international standing. This could be attributed in part to changing global trends, especially those linking world music and tourism.

Randy Raine-Reusch, a Canadian musician working as a producer in the world music field, played a pivotal role in the promotion of the instrument. Fascinated by the timbre of the sape, Raine-Reusch came to Sarawak on a project to document the state’s traditional instruments.

He made extensive recordings of performances by Tusau Padan, from which he produced (for Pan Records) a compact disc Masters of the Sarawakian Sape. In 1997, he convinced STB to sponsor four Kenyah sape players (Uchau Bilong, Irang Lahang, Tegit Usat and Asang Lawai) and a dancer (Mary Dau) to the World Music Expo (WOMEX) at Marseilles, where they captivated both the international media and hardened festival directors, some of whom were moved to tears.

The audience realized that they were fortunate to have the opportunity to watch this unique traditional performance. The melodious sape music accompanied by graceful Orang Ulu dance contrasted sharply with the energetic drum music and vigorous dance of the African team.

The Sarawak team was interviewed by radio stations from France and Germany as well as the BBC World Service. At the request of the media, they gave an impromptu performance in a nearby park. This was recorded by a French crew and later broadcast on French television. Building on the momentum of this surge of international interest, STB established the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in 1998. Raine-Reusch, aided by Society Atelier Sarawak, acted as their initial consultant for the project.

As stated by STB, the main aims of the RWMF are:

  • To promote and preserve the unique culture of Sarawak;
  • To run an international festival where local artistes could stand side-by-side with international artistes; and
  • To present a new context for the traditional music of Sarawak.

(Sarawak Tourism Board, 2007)

Ever since, RWMF has been held as a major government-supported tourist event which has proved immensely popular.

The annual three-day festival, consisting of daytime workshops and night-time concerts, has provided a platform for local traditional musicians, challenging them to play in new ways alongside international musicians.

Riding on the success of the festival, three fusion bands showcasing the sape—Tuku Kame’ (from Sarawak Cultural Village), MITRA (from the Ministry of Social Development) and Sayu Ateng (from Ibraco Housing Development)—established themselves. These fusion bands combine various types of traditional music and instruments to portray a harmonious image of Sarawak.

The festival icon always been the sape. Now it features one of Malaysia’s premier sape masters, Matthew Ngau Jau of Long Semiyang, who has appeared in numerous promotional tours and music festivals in North America and Europe.

Mathew Ngau Jau is a cultural guardian of the Kenyah, a people from north-eastern central Borneo whose musical practices are becoming increasing rare. He was worried that this tradition was in danger.

Mathew keeps sape music alive and vibrant nationally and internationally. In recognition of his work, Mathew was proclaimed by the government of Malaysia as a living “National Heritage” as under the National Heritage Act 2005 (Act 645) in August, 2015.

Sape player Mathew Ngau Jau being featured in a Rainforest World Music Festival poster.

More recently, other festivals and competitions have established themselves as major catalysts for the revival of sape skills. These include the “Baram Regatta”, an annual gathering in Marudi for the Orang Ulu of the Baram featuring boat-races and cultural performances, Borneo Youth Sape festival in Sibu and the “Baram Sape Master Kuala Lumpur” competition (originally held in the Baram, the venue subsequently shifted to the national capital of Kuala Lumpur, reflecting the instrument’s growing stature).

There is now an increasing demand for sape teachers, and the mastery of this traditional instrument, once considered old-fashioned, is now seen as a worthy pursuit leading to a respectable career.

Established professional players now include representatives from various communities. Well recognised names in the sape circuit include Jerry Kamit, the late Saufi Aiman Yahya and Alena Murang (from the Iban, Malay and Kelabit communities respectively). Alena’s success highlights the fact that many women are sape afficionados, breaking the male-only taboo long upheld within Kenyah-Kayan society.

Jerry Kamit. Photo credit: Danison Manium
Alena Murang. Photo credit: Edmund Wong

Changing Repertoire

With the transition from a quiet longhouse environment to the festival concert stage, amplification became imperative, and the sape has been modified to include guitar pickup fixtures added onto its soundboard. The instrument evolved further into what is known as the ‘contemporary sape’.

Narawi Haji Rashidi, the music director of Sarawak Cultural Village and band leader of its resident band Tuku Kame’, has developed a modern contemporary sape through the replication of the electric guitar. Additional strings and frets were added and the traditional palm fibre or rattan string was replaced with steel guitar strings.

The craftsmanship was modified to enable standardising of the tuning to 440 Hz and, in imitation of the guitar, applying equal tempered tuning to the now permanently fixed frets. With standardized tuning, the sape is able to play in ensemble with other modern musical instruments. The additional frets and strings enable a full diatonic scale, allowing music arrangers to explore new creative music compositions using materials from Sarawak musical tradition.

The new contemporary style is exemplified by Jerry Kamit, the premiere sape player of Tuku Kame’ band. Other established bands associated with the contemporary style include At Adau, Meruked and Sada Borneo.

Tuke Kame’ band. Source: Sarawak Tourism Board
At Adau group members.
Photo credit: Danison Manium

As the sape has gained an international following, and there are a sizeable number of skilled practitioners, it is likely to remain the most prominent Bornean instrument for some time to come.

The evolution of the instrument began with the original two-string sambe’ asal, leading to the ‘traditional’ four-string version, and the latest innovations with the contemporary sape. The two more recent versions of the sape now coexist with different repertoire, catering for different audiences. The contemporary sape style as exemplified by Jerry Kamit and the various fusion bands is at the forefront of newly curated music and experimentations with new media.

Sape crafted by various sape makers. Photo by Joseph Teo

Meanwhile, the ‘traditional sape’ style as exemplified by Matthew Ngau continues to celebrate the repertoire inherited from the ancient masters, with some subtle changes (e.g. although Matthew retains the original sape with movable frets, he keeps extra frets which can be added on to play diatonic melodies).

Besides continuing to teach sape in the conventional way, many sape exponents now disseminate their techniques and repertoire through educational talks, recordings and streaming through social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Spotify and iTunes. Perhaps these modern ‘hi-tech’ methods of dissemination, if applied to other traditional genres, could help to raise their profile.

Connie Lim Keh Nie is an ethnomusicologist, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. She completed her PhD in 2019 with a thesis titled ‘Alternative modernities in the history of Iban popular music from 1950s to 1970s’. In addition to popular music, her research also looks at Lun Bawang traditional music. She is the main author of Sape, a traditional musical instrument of Sarawak. In 2017 she was appointed as a panel member for the Intangible Culture Heritage (Performing Arts) committee under the Department of National Heritage, Malaysia. She is currently serving as President of Friends of Sarawak Museum.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.