how a Malaysian singer brings the music of her tribe to the world


The Dayaks, the indigenous people of Borneo, which is Asia’s largest island, were once known for their headhunts, animal sacrifices, ceremonial tattoos, and warrior costumes.

But there is more to the Dayaks than these old ways. With around 50 endemic ethnic groups and languages, they have a rich artistic and cultural heritage that few people know about. To rectify this, Alena Murang, 32, a singer from Kuala Lumpur, introduced the world to indigenous music from her community.

Through his many singles and albums, such as Songs from heaven and Flight, with tracks in Kelabit and Kenyah, Borneo’s endangered tribal languages, Murang continues to preserve and highlight the musical heritage of Sarawak, a Malaysian Borneo state. She is the first professional undermine player and teacher in Malaysia.

Murang’s undermining plays the central role in her music video Warrior spirit, while drums and guitar play a secondary role. Singing and uplifting, you can tune in to the music of the Sape, as she and other dancers gracefully sway to the dance steps of the Hornbill and the Warrior. The video won the award for Best Asia and Pacific Music Video and Honorable Mention for Best Costume at the International Music Awards UK this year. It has also won awards at the New York International Film Awards, the Rome International Movie Awards, and the Los Angeles Film Awards.

With the local group Estranged, Murang is currently working on a documentary series, The paths of our heritage. The project aims to introduce the world to traditional luthiers from the states of Sabah and Sarawak. And by the popularity she’s gained in such a short time, it looks like she’s on the right track.

A traditional lute, the sape is a musical instrument played by the Kenyah and Kelabit who live in the longhouses of Sarawak. Born to a Kelabit father and a half-English, half-Italian anthropologist mother, Murang remained close to her Sarawakan roots when she was a child.

“My mother pushed me to learn our traditional dance at the cultural foundation when I was 6,” says Murang. The National. “I learned the basics of different indigenous groups. When I was 9 years old, I left the cultural foundation and learned the dance from my aunts Kelabit with my cousins.

While the boys practiced the war dance, the girls learned to dance the hornbill – the bird with the curved beak is the symbol of the state of Sarawak and is considered auspicious.

These fun lessons set the tone for the Murang undermining journey. “There weren’t many live undermining players back then playing for us, and there was only one commercially available undermining album from the late master Tusau Padan for practice.” , explains Murang. “It came from a creative need – if we could play the sape on our dances, we could change the pace, make the tracks longer or shorter.”

The mothers of these children realized that there was hardly anyone from Murang’s generation playing the instrument. It was not accessible to girls. By the time Murang was 11, she had quit taking dance lessons and had focused on learning to undress.

Murang attended famous Kenyan undermining player Mathew Ngau Jau in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, until she graduated from high school. She then moved to the UK to study business management for five years. She took her saxophone, guitar and sape with her and performed at events such as the Malaysia Nights and the Malaysia Exhibition in London.

“I never thought it was possible to be a professional undermine player back then,” she says.

After finishing her studies, she moved to Kuala Lumpur and took a job in management consulting for the sustainable development sector, then a visual arts course in Singapore. Upon her return, she joined a world music group made up of her former business management colleagues to play the undermine on a six-week tour of the United States in 2014. Murang noticed that people were curious about the instrument as they had never seen one. before. The tour turned out to be overwhelming and Murang found his calling.

“I realized that people are interested in our music and that there is so much to share,” she says. “When I was in the UK I missed Malaysian culture, music, costumes and food. Being away from Sarawak in the US and UK made me realize how special we are; our stories are and how interested people are. “

In 2016, she became a full-time undermine player and also started teaching there.

Traditionally made from a single wooden barrel, elaborate Dayak patterns adorn the stringed instrument. “A decade ago, contemporary six-string sape, played like a guitar, hit the music scene,” says Murang. But she prefers to scrape the traditional four-string sap with her thumb.

“Sape is easy to learn, but to master it takes about eight years. We don’t learn with grades because it’s intuitive. Lately people have developed a grading system, but you can’t. not write it down completely. It requires a lot of improvisation that cannot be learned and requires listening. “

Instrumentalist until 2016, Murang has also taken to singing on various platforms in recent years. “At the time, it was my aunts and my mother who pushed us [to learn] traditional songs, ”she says. “I made an effort to learn different songs from different great aunts.

Like his ancestors, Murang draws inspiration from various elements of nature – the sky, the river, the rain, the wind, the stars, the moon and the rainforests told through stories. Heavily sprinkled with a sense of nostalgia and a dose of nostalgia, her songs transport you to her home and her roots. The sap transcends each of her tracks as she tells the stories of her country.

Update: October 2, 2021, 5:21 am


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