Alena Murang interview

Alena Murang is one of the few sape players to sing with the sape

Alena Murang
Alena Murang

Though she tells us it’s not traditional, Alena Murang sings with the sape. Much has been made of the music medium: the sape, the stringed instrument of the Kayan and Kenyah tribes in Sarawak. Initially, the use of the sape was restricted to a form of ritualistic music – to induce trance – and later, for entertainment; despite its size, which sometimes reaches over a metre in length, its strings make soft, soothing tones to accompany dances. First and foremost, the sape is an instrumental instrument.

Alena Murang was born and bred in Kuching, Sarawak. Borneo, and being part-Kelabit, one of the smallest ethnic groups on the island, would eventually inform her work as an artist, musician and custodian of her culture; she is one of the first women to perform and play the sape, and sing with the sape at that, even though not too long ago it was considered taboo for women to touch the instrument.

'I see cultural heritage as the past made present'

The word we use, when speaking of the sape, is ‘traditional’; there’s a connotation, almost, that the current and the traditional cannot coexist to enjoy attention from the audiences, that if an art form is traditional, it cannot also be modern.

In September, she released ‘Flight’, a five-track EP of three Kenyah and two Kelabit songs, in which the sape is the focus.

‘Flight’ is a testimonial to the times, past and present. Critics might find it to be a sort of curatorial idea – it’s a collection of five old folksongs, ‘it’s like playing covers’, Alena says – with one overriding, overwhelming virtue: it calls attention to song, to dance. This passionate, smoky, supple playing and singing; the process of reasserting and recreating culture and identity through song and dance becomes an act of not mere survival, but art, and beauty, and above all, poetry.

Photo: Edmund Wong

Let’s start at the beginning. Could you shed some light on your background, and your initial involvement in learning to play and perform the sape?
I was always, for as long as I can remember, involved in cultural activities, like dancing – not of my own tribe only, but also of the Bidayuh, the Iban. It was very normal, you know, it was very natural for me. When I was about 12 maybe, seven of us girls decided to break off from dancing to start learning the sape – so we’d be able to dance to live music – from Matthew Ngau Jau.

We were the first girls from our generation to learn the sape. Upon reflection, we weren’t breaking a taboo because it wasn’t a taboo anymore; that taboo dissolved when the tribes converted to Christianity in the mid-20th century. What was kind of taboo was us learning to sing old Kelabit songs – so [on top of] Kenyah sape music, there’s Kelabit singing. It’s still a bit challenging to do, but moving forward, that’s my focus: to learn old Kelabit songs.

Why is it important to preserve and to promote traditional music?
I think of what I do as an act of making our culture more relevant, rather than as preserving tradition. The latter, to me, has the notion of maintaining things in the past, whereas I see cultural heritage as the past made present.

Photo: Awanawang

Tell us a little bit about the story of the sape.
More recently, the sape has been used in contemporary music, modern music, especially pioneered by Jerry Kamit. The sape is a very fascinating instrument in that way, because it’s an instrument that has evolved, that still evolves. The number of frets, the types of strings, even the shape of the sape – these have all changed in the past 50, maybe 60 years. People say it’s traditional, and I ask, ‘Well, how traditional is it?’ It’s changed so much; it’s a contemporary indigenous instrument, really.

… which brings us to the topic of your EP ‘Flight’.
There are certain things that I wanted to represent on the EP. While there are a lot of sape-placed riffs in contemporary recordings of sape music, with ‘Flight’ I wanted the sape to be the focus, and the other instruments to complement the sound of the sape. I want people to be reminded of the sounds of the rainforest, the plants; I want to evoke those emotions. The record is produced by Josh Maran, my cousin, of Pepper Jam Productions – he’s part-Kelabit too – and I’d say that the five tracks are our interpretations, really, of Kenyah and Kelabit songs.

Photo: Caryn Koh

Many practising artists have responded to the waning importance of their traditional art forms in the lives of modern Malaysians by fusing traditional performance practices with newer, more contemporary methods – for instance, the story of ‘Star Wars’ adapted to the wayang kulit style.
First of all, one is never free of criticism from the community these traditions originate in, from art critics, purists. On ‘Star Wars’-inspired wayang kulit: I personally think it’s brilliant. I always say we can’t and shouldn’t keep things in the past as they were; we need to allow it to evolve. I think many art forms exist as a medium in which to express something, whether it’s to share a story or myths. With the sape, I’ve shared with you that it’s an instrument that can be innovative. You can be creative with the sape.

As artists we have a role to play in challenging societal views. If someone thinks that something must be traditional, or must be kept in a certain way, then challenge it, try it.

What I do, with sharing Kelabit songs and Kenyah music, other people are doing as well in contemporary ways. Receiving a response or a reaction means it’s still relevant, whether or not the response is good or bad. If a medium is no longer relevant, and if it dies, maybe that’s okay because it’s no longer relevant. Kelabit women used to have long ears [or ‘telinga panjang’]. I don’t inherit those, and it’s okay, it’s no longer relevant. They’re beautiful on my grandmothers, but I’m okay not inheriting those things, you know?

‘Flight’ is out now. For more information, visit

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