THE electric sape music filled the air, making the small Bario town vibrate in a magical way.
If echoes could be heard ringing from the mountains across the valley, the appreciative, musical and deeply religious Kelabit people and many of the visitors would stand still, lift up their faces unto the hills in more amazement.
But as it was, in the hot, breezeless morning, the sape music enthralled every one, young and old, local and foreign within the town square of Bario, 5,000 feet above sea level. A young man, suave, and very much a city guy was playing a melodious traditional tune, with a trendy touch, from a small section behind the stage at the town centre during the second day of the Bario Food Festival, 2017.
Some first timers in Bario and ‘listeners’ of the Sape were really curious about the melody and the overall pleasant music which filled the air. Unlike other places, the stage did not have a full modern band. Out on the apron of the stage, fully dressed in traditional costumes young dancers were arranging themselves to perform their item.
Usually the traditional sape is played without any electronic support in longhouses but nowadays the sape has become ‘electric’ and more and more people are playing the sape for all sorts of occasions, including opening ceremonies, weddings and political conferences.
The Sape was the only instrument accompanying the dancers at the Food Festival 2017.
When Anderson Kalang played his first few notes the music was slightly different from the normal sape music I have heard before. It was a God given coincidence that I was to hear him playing at his mother’s longhouse a few hours later. He was to tell me that he has improvised his sape music and has created his special tempo, resonance, melody and other musical features. All these make his sape music different from the traditional two string sape music.
Ulung Palang and Filming of Welcome Dance
Singaporean friends, a German couple, West Malaysian visitors and I at the Ulung Palang longhouse were part of the group welcomed by the graceful and ever patient dancers, called the Dedtur Bued Main-Ulung Palang Community Performance Group. And we enjoyed Anderson’s sape music once again.
The Sarawak Museum Filming team had come to the longhouse to make a documentary about his grand aunts and aunts’ welcome dance for visitors.
In the old longhouse,it was very obvious he was a well loved member of the new generation.
He mingled around with visitors and friends informally before and after the filming.
As he was there to accompany the dances with his special sape music he was not in any way the guy giving the instructions. True to his Kelabit upbringing, he sat calmly by the side and allowed his elders to take centre stage: these experts dancers must have performed more than 10,000 times before. He had that small amused smile on his face from time to time as his fingers touched the strings of his sape between the frets.
His soothing music floated through the longhouse living room while the dancers performed extremely well as the filming began. It must have been very tiring for them in the hot afternoon. As a matter of fact, the welcome pineapple drink which was served for the filming quickly ran out and those who wanted a second round were disappointed.
All too soon the video taping ended as the evening brought cooler breezes. And the visitors relaxed and started to disperse.
Anderson struck me as a friendly person who had both his feet firmly on the ground. His sape was encased and he had carried it on his back like a regular cased guitar. No one would know that this very ultra modern young man was actually carrying an ancient traditional Borneo sape.
The way he and his young friends walked in Bario town was like any group of happy but full of direction musicians walking along the streets of London.
His father, Kalang Matuh, is a strict father who saw to it that his daughter and son grow to be useful citizens. As a young man Kalang himself worked hard in the Civil Aviation Department in Miri . He is now a free lance consultant and trainer for fire prevention and fire fighting. Kalang is passionate about saving lives.
He spoke to the Sundaypost, “My wife and I brought our children up with our own strategies . It was a mission for us to make sure that they did their home work and specifically no TV in the evening. A strong foundation in education from primary to secondary school for our kids was a must. We trained them to like reading and interacting with adults. I am glad that they continue to love doing both today. My wife is a retired nurse and she too has played a very important role in bringing up our two kids.”
Kalang Matuh is actually from Long Lellang, where he himself went through great hardships to be able to pass Primary Six in the kampung’s small wooden school in the 60’s. As his own primary school education was ‘so challenging and so full of obstacles’ that he made sure he could provide for his children.
When he had just a bit of extra cash, he would say to himself,” This cash is enough for a movie, but it is food on the table for my family. It is more important to spend on good food.” He said that his life was often full of choices and he was very determined to make the best choices.
His wife Supang Tagong,from Kampong Ulung Palang of Bario respects her husband’s philosophy and strong Christian outlook. They maintain close ties with their relatives in Ulung Palang Ditaq and Ulung Palang Benen,going back as often as they could.
She told Sundaypost, “ As a fireman early in his life, Kalang believes strongly in doing every thing to save lives, to help people and to maintain a very high standard of discipline. We had lived in the barracks at the Miri airport at the beginning. Being frugal is a kind of discipline too. Sometimes I smile quietly when I think of all the forks and spoons he bought from his savings, in preparation for his married life. He still keeps them very well in the cupboard. From that, I knew that he would be a good provider and a very sensible one, a man who could make a wife feel very blessed.”
The Sape today
Anderson is full of hopes for the future of the sape on the world stage. He is often invited to participate in teaching sessions, workshops, exhibitions in many parts of Malaysia. On top of that, he has also made several on line tutorial videos to teach the basic playing of the sape.
He is most happy to demonstrate the versatility of the sape as a musical instrument in Kuala Lumpur and places out Bario.
The two string musical instrument from the heart of Borneo can be transformed into three, four, six stringed electric instrument, and performed in London, Hamburg, Tokyo and New York City. The traditional sape can be ordered from sape makers of one’s choice in Kuching, the Baram, Miri and other remote places of Sarawak. Some musicians even order their sape from Kalimantan.
In 1976 two Kenyah Lepo Tau sape players, Iran Lahang and Jalong Tanyit from Long Mengkaba performed and demonstrated the art of sape playing in Tokyo, Japan during the Asian Traditional Peroforming Arts (ATPA) week in 1976. Also, the late Tusau Padan performed for Queen Elizabeth during her official visit to Sarawak in 1972. He later also accompanied dancers of Datun Julud in Darwin, Australia, Los Angeles, as well as Tokyo.
The body of the sape is usually made from the best of adau tree from the Baram. Other types of wood like jelutong, coconut and cempedak are also used. A fine sape maker will carve from a single bole of wood which is usually more than a metre long. Today many sapes can be two metres long.
Sape music was originally used for healing. Furthermore according to folklore a few generations ago a good player could play the sape until dancers got into a trance. But today most people play the sape for entertainment. And best of all, because the instrument can now be owned by so many young people, bands have been created to keep sape music and its tradition going.
Anderson Kalang as a Photographer
Besides being a great sape player Anderson is an upbeat wedding photographer based in Kuala Lumpur. He told thesundaypost that he started as a photographer only in 2004 with a simple camera. After he discovered his great passion for “capturing meaningful moments in pictures, he has never looked back.”
Over the years he has also developed a portfolio of memorable photos of beautiful Sarawakian countryside scenes. His photos of Bario can be viewed from his blog. His photos have also been shared by AirAsia Magazine (May 2008) and Anderson’s Picturific.
Anderson Kalang in Kuala Lumpur and Sibu
While spreading the popularity of the Sape from Sarawak across the South China Sea to West Malaysia, Anderson and his good friends have been successful. A public workshop in January 2017 saw more than 50 attendees, helped by their Whatsapp Group which promotes Sape and its music.
Anderson Kalang was in Sibu at the ‘Sape Show and Exhibition 2017’ at Sibu Heritage Centre , themed ‘With Sape, We Unite’. The event was organised by Sibu Dayak Sape Club (SDSC) with support from Sibu Municipal Council (SMC), Sarawak Tourism Board (STB), Sibu Heritage Centre and Borneo Events Entertainment. Besides Anderson, Jerry Kamit and his contemporaries Saufi, Eugene, Jimbau came together with “international instrumentalists such as Uyau Morris and Tabunesia, both from Indonesia; Arai from Japan; Abisheg from India; and Julian Cottet from Spain.”
The exhibition was part of the programme line-up under the Visit Sibu Year 2017 campaign and it also coincided with this year’s Sibu International BASE Jump event.
The Future of the Sape
A lecturer from Kuala Lumpur told the Sundaypost, “Special festivals in Malaysia can help promote traditional instruments like the sape. As a Sarawakian, I find the sape a very suitable instrument for every occasion and it needs not be restricted to the Highlanders or Sarawakians. I know of a lady Iban lawyer who can play the electric sape beautifully in Kuching. If the Sitar can be made popular at world stage, I am sure, the sape will be used globally more often. We are looking forward to seeing Anderson make a Malaysian movie sound track!!”
Sape music will continue to fill the air of the land of the Hornbills, because of the passion of players like Anderson Kalang. May the healing sounds of the sape be heard in many different parts of the world.