Female sape player comes home to Rainforest World Music Festival

Sape musician and visual artiste Alena Murang.

Sape musician and visual artiste Alena Murang.

KUCHING: Alena Murang, a promising young musician and visual artiste from Kuching, will share the stage during the 19th Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) on Aug 5-7 at Sarawak Cultural Village in Damai.

“My cousins and I learnt Kelabit dancing since we were six and at some point, seven of us decided to pick up the sape so that we can have music to dance to at a rhythm, beat and length that we wanted,” she said, when asked about the beginning of her path to play the sape professionally.

She is one of the first females to openly perform and teach the sape, an ethnic instrument from Borneo that used to be taboo for women to even touch. She attributes her decision to pursue the art to the encouragement of her mother and aunts.

She went on to master the sape under the tutelage of national living legend, Mathew Ngau Jau, and has performed in over 20 cities so far, including New York and London.

She is one of a few sape players to sing while playing the instrument. Her performance includes singing traditional songs in the Kenyah and Kelabit dialects from the Orang Ulu of Ulu Baram.

Alena has previously performed on the RWMF stage, and has attended the festival since its inception in 1998.

“RWMF has played a large part in my music and art career, and I feel that coming back to perform at RWMF is almost like coming full circle for me,” she said.

Alena has followed in the footsteps of her mentor and now teaches the sape to anyone who would like to learn, be it Orang Ulu who wish to learn their own musical tradition or even foreigners who have been captivated by the instrument.

She hopes that others within the state of Sarawak will follow in her footsteps to preserve their various cultural and musical arts, because they are ‘priceless and irreplaceable’.

“Sarawakians have so much musical heritage to treasure – Bidayuh chants, old Iban tunes, Penan nose flute to name a few – and I just hope that each of us can work on learning these, and share our music on a global platform,” she added.

Alena encouraged the public to take personal initiatives to preserve their traditional music and art.

Alena will also be facilitating a daytime workshop on sape playing and she has also contributed to the Pustaka Bookaroo Children Workshops by painting the thematic mural for the event, using the concept of the ‘Tree of Life’ which holds great significance to the Orang Ulu and other natives of Borneo.

She chose the ‘Tree of Life’ because of the message it holds as inspiration, comfort, and life as a whole, as well as its significance to music and art as most traditional Borneo instruments are wrought from trees.

The ‘Tree of Life’ is an international symbol which can be understood by many cultures throughout the world, proving the importance of the co-existence of nature in human lives. Alena encouraged all festival goers and performers to add their own elements to her mural using visuals that represent nature and music.

She will be performing alongside her mentor Mathew Ngau at the RWMF, which will also feature other Sarawakian groups performing traditional cultural music such as Gendang Melayu Sri Buana and the Thunder Beats of Nanyang Wushu Drums, as well as a performance by Sarawak Cultural Village.

This year’s RWMF is on Aug 5-7 and offers a treasure trove of music, arts, crafts and food from all corners of the globe. It will feature nightly performances from 26 performers and over 30 workshops during the day as well as various day-long cultural stalls spread over the course of three days.

Festival tickets and updates are now available online or from the ticketing agents listed at www.rwmf.net, with pre-sale prices available until Aug 4.

The weekend event has been voted as one of the top 25 World Music Festivals by Songlines Magazine for six years in a row and is supported by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia, Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Sarawak (MTAC) and endorsed by Tourism Malaysia with Malaysia Airlines Berhad as the presenting sponsor.