The sound of Sape


IT was a long time ago that sape music was heard only on special occasions such as weddings, cultural events and festive celebrations.

Over the years, this traditional Orang Ulu lute has evolved from a simple indigenous string instrument into one recognised both locally and internationally as an instrument synonymous with the sound of the rainforest.

Because of its unique sound, many musical groups,  especially among the younger generation, love incorporating sape accompaniment into their repertiore of modern songs they perform on stage.

Music enthusiast, Anthony Abong, said nowadays, the mellowing strains of the sape were no longer confined to the Iban warrior dance — ngajat — as they could be mixed with those of modern musical instruments to produce an “incredible sound.”

The 30-year-old could play the same song and melody with the guitar and the sape but pointed out the guitar could not produce the melodious tone of the sape and “that’s what makes the sape so unique among other musical instruments.”

He said the Orang Ulus were the ones who started playing the instrument and the Ibans picked it up a little later.

According to Anthony, no one knows the origin of the sape except from stories or legends. One version has it that the sape was made by a man found lying on the riverbank after his boat capsized.

Semi-conscious, he heard a soft and beautiful melody emanating from the jungle and the river. After recovering, he made a musical instrument shaped like a longboat, and for “acoustics,” he copied the jungle-river sound he heard while lying half awake on the beach.

“That’s why the sape is made to look like a capsized boat — long and oval with a flat front and a hole punched at the back to act as the sound box,” Anthony said.

According to another legend, the sape was made by someone who slept inside a mosquito net and heard a beautiful melody outside of it.

When he woke up, he made a musical instrument, also shaped like a longboat, and copied the sound he heard coming from outside the mosquito net.

Sape is considered a sacred instrument used to cure sick people and for peace ceremony.

Anthony said although this was only a legend, nevertheless, the status of sape, revered in native folklore, must be respected.

“That’s why we don’t simply put the sape anywhere we want. If we want to put it on the floor, there must be a carpet or mat underneath,” he explained.

Anthony only learned to play the sape about two years. He always has a love for the lute but did not know how to play it until 2015 when he decided to get one and started learning to play with two other friends.

After practising together for only a month, they formed a band (Borneo Spectrum),entered the Borneo Talent Award (BTA) and made it to the semi-finals.

Anthony said he learned to play from the brother of Malaysian singer Nai Dinamik Riffin Ijokm from whom he also learned how to make the sape.

“I did my own research as well, then made my own sape,” he added.

At first, he took more than a month to finish  making a sape but with practice, shortened the time to about 15 days.

In the old days, people used rattan strings but today, any strings can be used. Anthony uses fishing strings.

Traditionally, the sape has only four strings – three for bass and one for melody. Today, some sape can have more than six strings but the principle remains the same – only one string produces melody while the rest is for bass.

“Of course, the type of wood used, the thickness and the shape will affect the sound of the instrument. The better the wood, the better the sound and of course, it also costs more,” he pointed out.

With his new found skill, he set up sape classes last year and now has about 40 students.

His aim is not only to pass down the knowledge and the skills of making sape music and the instrument itself but also allowing the sape to develop.

“Now we are also in the process of getting our club — Kelab Sape Dayak Sibu — registered,” he said.

Once registered, the club can introduce the sape to the Iban and conduct playing lessons.

“They can also be taught to make their own their sape,” Anthony revealed.

He is all for preserving the sape for perpetuity.

“We have all our own traditional items which will be lost forever if we do not preserve them.

“I think it’s important we kindle the passion to preserve these items, especially among the young people. Their energy and creativity can take a traditional item such as the sape and its music to greater heights,” he said.