Matthew Ngau Jau – Sape artiste of the Kenyahs

DRIVING from Tabuan Jaya via the Batu Kawa-Tondong Road towards Bau in the First Division, you might suddenly chance upon a homestay with a signpost shaped like a wooden sape.

SAPE DEMO: Matthew showing how the sape is played.

It’s a unique Sarawakian signpost no doubt but a local would find this a bit of a anomaly because a sape is symbolic of the Baram in the Fourth Division – not in Bidayuh country.

Engraved on the wooden sape signpost are the words – Tuyang Longhouse Homestay.

As you drive into the kampung road, you will enjoy the simple scenery of Kampung Atas, Singai Bau, which is a short prelude to an equatorial adventure.

Five minutes later, you come face to face with a Baruk, a Bidayuh Round House and you ask yourself, where is the longhouse? That’s a unique story to be told.

The sape is a unique woodwind instrument and so far, only two Kenyah artistes have brought playing it to world class level.

The first world famous Sarawakian sape player was Tusau Padan who passed away not long ago. It is said Tusau appeared in a dream to his student, Matthew Ngau Jau, a Kenyah from Long Semiyang in the Baram, asking him to do his utmost for sape music.

Today, Matthew religiously carries out his mentor’s wishes and is now the foremost sape player of Malaysia and an icon for the World Rainforest Music Festival. His face graced WRMF banners in the past few years.

Both Matthew and his Bidayuh wife, Candy Birong, are trained teachers (English medium) who enrolled in the first teachers’ training college in Sarawak – Batu Lintang Teachers’ Training College, now called Institut Perguruan Tinggi Batu Lintang.

They taught in many rural schools and their experience, in Candy’s own words, has been “something money cannot buy.”

After their retirement, they decided to give back to the community by starting a homestay at Candy’s Bidayuh kampung. Over time, the couple have developed their small homestay into a popular eco-tourism destination.

People who love music and art appear at their doorsteps even without any prior appointment and they feel so welcomed by the couple.

Ideal longhouse stay

ONE OF A KIND: Open concept of the longhouse homestay.

This homestay gives you an ideal longhouse stay. There are several rooms to choose from and you don’t need air conditioning to enjoy the cool ambience.

A communal kitchen sink is made out of belian mortar or lesong. A cool verandah is made available for all homestayers to come together to talk in a communal ruai berandau.

That’s the objective of a homestay – you get to know the local culture and values and enjoy their food. Some even learn to cook the local vegetables and meat made available by Candy.

Adjoining the longhouse is a Baruk or a Bidayuh roundhouse. This dual cultural house concept is reflective of Matthew and Candy’s cross-culture marriage – between a Kenyah and a Bidayuh.

Sometimes artists and kindred spirits would come to stay a night and talk right into the early hours of the morning on topics Matthew and Candy are familiar with.

Overseas friends, some from Unimas, drop by for an afternoon just to mingle with Matthew and his friends. They are just as comfortable in the rattan chairs as in the open office which has only a wooden bench. A wood fire burns to chase away mosquitoes while birds sing from tree branches. Visitors are treated more like brothers and sisters by the couple.

Immortalising sape music

Closest to Matthew and Candy’s hearts are young learners from all walks of life and different racial backgrounds coming to learn how to play the sape.

Matthew gives sape lessons to these keen musicians. This is their way of keeping sape music alive and leaving a legacy to future generations.

But a great treasure created by Matthew’s handicraft talents would be a personalised sape made from different kinds of wood.

Most Kenyahs know the best sape is made from the Adau tree found in the Baram. Normally, a fairly good sape is priced at RM800. And anyone interested can place an order for a genuine sape, handcarved by Matthew.

“It’s not easy to find suitable wood nowadays,” Matthew revealed in a sad tone.

In fact, many young people these days cannot even recognise a fruit tree – certainly not an Adau tree. But when his relatives find an Adau tree, they would remember him immediately.

“It’s like a godsend when a loving relative brings me a few pieces of Adau wood all the way from the Baram,” he said.

Such a relative would express his love that the wood be turned into a Sarawakian musical legacy.

In his very open and humble workshop-cum-office, Matthew is in the process of making five sapes. And the way he holds each sape when showing the woodwind instrument to his visitors is almost spiritual.

In the workshop, Matthew also paints on tree barks, processed by another ethnic group, the Lun Bawangs of Lawas. Many of his tree bark paintings have been shown at local exhibitions. Some are adorning galleries and homes overseas.

Matthew also promotes eco-tourism to the Baram. He and Candy take tourists at least once every two months up the Baram by longboat. The journey to Long Semiyang, their Kenyah longhouse, can be considered a true rainforest adventure.

Matthew is also a very accomplished traditional feather or warrior dancer, painter of the chiefly bark vests, and blow pipe musician. He has performed in Paris, Germany, Australia and throughout the US.

Naturally musical

Another thing special about Matthew is that he is from a small sub-tribe of the Kenyahs called Ngorek, who were among the first settlers of the Upper Baram.

Perhaps this is the reason why he is naturally musical. His childhood and youth provided him with real life rhythms and sounds of the rainforest. The Kenyahs have a love for music and making their own musical instruments.

With the support of many followers and fans, Matthew’s fame has spread throughout the world via the different kinds of media, especially Youtube. As such, the centuries-old heritage of Borneon music will not be lost in the midst of burgeoning concrete jungle nor the infinite void of the rainforest.

“The traditional music of the Ngorek people embodies the universal spirit of humanity and we Sarawakians must learn to preserve the sape and its music,” Matthew said.

In his own humble way, he has done a lot to help immortalise sape music.

An American tourist and musician said: “The sape has become symbolic of rainforest music and it must be promoted by people who love the green Earth and other musicians.

“The sounds created by the sape and by Matthew and his fellow rainforest musicians are unique and should not be lost at all. The body of the sape is from a single tree trunk hollowed out religiously in a ritualistic manner by Matthew.

If all these trees are gone, we will have no more sape music for future generations.”

Matthew has certainly put Sarawak on the map of traditional music with his special talent. He has introduced the unique sounds of the rainforest to the world through mesmerising sape music that only he and other Sarawakian musical geniuses like him can produce.

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