Tuesday, May 17

Cultural treasures from the highlands


Traditions and heritage still alive and kicking in Bario and Ba Kelalan

IN TUNE: A young bas player takes the cue from group members of the Bamboo Band of Ba Kelalan.

WHEN young Jenette Ulun first saw her great-aunt expertly crafting the famous Kelabit beadwork, she knew then it would be her calling to continue the legacy.

Little did she realise, however, that her own daughter would carry on the tradition in her own right.

“I was delighted when Nicolette, my eldest daughter, showed interest in the beadwork,” the 53-year-old craftswoman told thesundaypost during a recent visit to her handicraft shop – Bario Unique Trading – in the town centre of Bario.

“I’m proud and happy to see that the tradition will be preserved, at least by another generation.”

Born and raised in the highlands, Jenette opened her shop in Bario about 10 years ago after spending most of her adult life with her husband in Miri before the couple decided to retire in their hometown.

Cosy and quaint, Bario Unique Trading showcases a kaleidoscope of intricate beadwork items – most noticeably the traditional Kelabit women headdress called ‘peta bao rawir’. A simple piece without much elaborate beadwork design would take Jenette at least two days to complete.

She cautioned with a smile: “Simple as it is, don’t make any mistake about it being cheap. The lowest it can go is about RM800 per piece. The highest offer I ever got was RM1,500. This is only for the ladies’ headdress.”

The fully-adorned traditional costume worn by Kelabit women, called ‘sapa harit’, could go for twice as high or even higher.

Apart from the meticulous details and toilsome effort needed to produce even a plain peta, Jenette said the high price would also be factored into the main raw materials – the beads, either clay or glass – which have to be imported from neighbouring Indonesia.

“While I’m happy to see that Nicolette and other young women here are keen to continue the tradition, I believe more should be done to encourage the younger generation to do the same.

“I truly believe Bario should have an industrial centre for manufacturing beads – just like what I’ve seen in Lawas. Apart from manufacture, the centre should also provide beadwork classes to those interested who now have to travel to Miri (the nearest point) to learn the craft,” she suggested.

Jenette, a member of the Sarawak Craft Council, also highlighted the government’s efforts in upgrading the basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and clean water supply in the area.

“Still, much more can be improved – perhaps 24-hour electricity supply for all of Bario soon,” she added.

Bario is home to about 1,200 people, predominantly Kelabit. While regarded as quite isolated compared to the other towns, it has, however, seen tremendous growth over the past 10 years with the latest development project being the e-Bario, an information and communication technology (ICT) community programme undertaken jointly by National ICT Malaysia Council, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and Mimos Bhd.

As much as beadwork is regarded as the trademark of the Kelabits, the traditional bamboo windpipe instrument, collectively named as ‘bas suling’, will be identifiable with the Lun Bawangs of Ba Kelalan, a sister highland town about 70km north of Bario with a population of about 1,500.

“‘Bas’ is usually the term used for the instrument, played by the men, while ‘suling’ refers to that for the women,” said Ba Kelalan native Pengiran Sakai, 59, who has been heading the Bamboo Band of Ba Kelalan for the past 20 years.

According to Pengiran, what makes the group even more interesting is that more than half of the members are below 30.

“Here, we make sure the youngsters recognise these items – hence, the formation of this bamboo band. Those who joined the band 20 years ago are now mentors of their offspring.

“I believe heritage tells us who we are, and by preserving as well as practising it, we retain our identity,” Pengiran said, adding that the group now has over 70 members.

He proudly pointed out that group members wear the traditional Lun Bawang male garb made of tree bark, comprising a vest called ‘bakad talun’ and a sort of cowboy hat with a stiff cap and wide brim called ‘topi talun’.

The women band members, on the other hand, look lovely in their black silky dress adorned with beads known as ‘banei’ – much like the Kelabits’ but slightly larger – and distinguished by their headdress known as ‘pata’.

“Every household here must have these key pieces, one each for the men and women,”  Pengiran added.

On the bamboo band, he said they had taken part in programmes nationwide under the Tourism Ministry.

With Ba Kelalan emerging as one of the state’s most promising tourism destinations with a large number of homestays in operation, Pengiran is happy the group has been quite active in performing for tourists to Ba Kelalan.

Apart from their musical repertoire, the group is also active in teaching Ba Kelalan youngsters the various traditional tribal dances, the most famous of which are the warrior dances known as ‘busak akui’ and ‘alai ngerang’.

“Yes, youths will definitely pursue opportunities outside Ba Kelalan but I believe it’s vital for them to know their Lun Bawang culture and identity by heart.”

Asked about his hopes for Ba Kelalan’s future generations, Pengiran gave a poignant response: “It’s always a proud moment for me and the group whenever we play our patriotic song – Home Sweet Home – to guests. It is living proof that we are very proud of our homeland and heritage passed down by our forefathers.

“This is what I foresee for us Lun Bawangs in Ba Kelalan. The very heritage that we have  had for a thousand years will continue for another thousand more.”