Tuesday, May 17

Drumming up old Iban traditions and rituals


Samuel with his special drum (gendang).

KeMADA — Kelab Main Asal Dayak — started as “The Collaboration Team” with 10 members passionate about performing the gendang pampat, the art of beating the traditional drums of the Ibans.

Moreover, they were keen to showcase their traditional performances like the ngajat, taboh, pantun, and bebiau as well as their skills in playing the belikan.

Today, a much bigger KeMADA is trying to recruit people knowledgeable about other traditional Iban cultures which are slowly being forgotten, especially those related to age-old rituals or pastimes.

The group have been making much progress since 2016.

Their debut appearance was at the JCI Ten Outstanding Young Malaysian Awards in 2016.

After that, they performed in Sibu for the following events — Sibu Street Art Festival 2017, Borneo Cultural Festival 2017, Borneo Youth Sape Festival 2017, Majlis Pemimpin bersama Rakyat, Rumah Grace, Sungai Salim, Sibu (2018), Borneo Harvest and Folklore Festival 2018, Sibujaya Gawai Bazaar 2018, Borneo Cultural Festival 2018, Kutien Association 50 years celebration (2018), Sambutan Hari Belia peringkat kebangsaan (2018) and Street Music Festival 2018.

gagong-clad Iban warriors at RWMF Kuching 2019.

In January this year, KeMADA was invited by the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) to hand out ‘Visit Sarawak’ pamphlets to passengers at Sibu Airport. The members also helped Air Asia welcome passengers for the budget airline’s inaugural Sabah-Sibu flight.

In May, the group participated in the Ngerandang Jalai, one of the main events for the National Gawai Celebrations in Bintulu, and later played the gendang pampat at the Mantar Gawai dinner.

In July, by invitation, they performed the gendang pampat on the main stage of the Rainforest World Music Festival 2019 as the opening act.


Iban ngepan and culture

The original members got together and formed KeMADA out of passion for performing the gendang pampat but as they became better known, people with knowledge and cognizance of Iban customs, traditions and cultures were recruited while the other members upgraded themselves by learning new skills from other sources.

Samuel (centre) and his friends at the Sibu Borneo Cultural Festival 2019.

For retired Miri teacher Samuel Tagap, he embarked on what he called a“rejuvenating” cultural and traditional journey to relive his past experiences of wearing the Iban warrior costume and participating in some of the Gawai rituals.

His late wife came from a family that practised most of the old rituals, customs and cultures.

“I had worn the gagong back in 1993 when we were holding the Gawai Sandau Hari. There were many rituals we had to perform during this event, including performing the gendang pampat.

“In those days, only old men played the traditional drums probably because the younger men did not know how. I myself was a mere bystander without any inkling of how the drums were played,” he recalled.

Samuel (left) with a friend at a Sarawak Tourism Board promotion event.

Samuel’s paternal grandfather was a well-known lemambang, a person who is engaged if someone requires a special Gawai such as Gawai Nimang Tuah.

“I had followed him and my late father to their nimang rituals. Coming from such a background, I had always wanted to learn the old rituals, customs and cultures but decided to do so only when I retired as a teacher at 55.

“But the sudden demise of my wife in 2013 changed my mind. I decided to proceed with my plans very much earlier. I had traditional Iban tattoos drawn on my body and I also learned to make the gagong and other Iban ceremonial paraphernalia, perform the gendang pampat and observe other old rituals, customs and cultures. In doing so, I was hoping to make a small contribution to revive some of the old rituals, customs and cultures for the younger generation,” he explained.

Samuel with his friends.

His cousin, Jackery Hillary Chukan, comes from a family that observes the old rituals, customs and cultures. Most of the family members are musically inclined and can either sing or play a musical instrument.

Jackery himself is a keen musician and plays the electric guitar and the sape.

“We team up due to our passion for playing the traditional Iban drums. Jackery has a keen interest as well in things pertaining to old Iban rituals, customs and cultures,” Samuel revealed.

Iban KeMada team members at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

Making traditional regalias

The gagong is a vest made of wild animal skin or tree bark. In the old days, these vests were worn only by Iban men who had taken a head during the Mengayau. They were also given the right to hang the kabo duku on their waist when they visited other longhouses during Gawai.

“These days, I would use Jamunapari goatskin from Indonesia as the hairs on the skin are longer, hence creating a hairy appearance on the arm and chest area of my gagong designs,” Samuel said.

For his personal collection and use, he chooses sheepskin from Australia because of its thickness and long strands.

Ibang Gagong Warriors.

“Of course, there are some luckier ones who inherited their gagong from their grandparents. These vests are usually made of the skins of fierce wild animals,” he noted.

According to Samuel, when wearing the gagong, a mother of pearl shell is normally hung below the chest area.

Legends have it that a great warrior was given a dragon scale as big as the mother of pearl. This dragon scale was hung in front of the warrior’s gagong as a protection against his enemies so that he would not be harmed by any sharp objects.

This idea was later adopted for other gagong before the dragon scale was substituted with the mother of pearl almost similar to the dragon scale.

“These days, one can get the mother of pearl fairly easily from the Philippine market in Sabah,” he said.



Samuel explained the kabo duku is actually a counter-weight for the pedang (sword) worn on the waist opposite each other.

“In the old warring days, the kabo duku also signified bravery on the battle field. Today, it’s worn for authenticity purposes — to teach the younger generation the names of the forgotten paraphernalia. The kabo duku used to be made of the crowns of birds and adorned with expensive beads from Japan. Nowadays, these crowns are replaced with items fashioned from either wood or fiberglass.”

For the headgear, he said the ketapu silong was preferred since it was worn by prominent Iban chieftains from the Rejang River Basin.

“In fact, we have designed our costumes based on old photographs found in the Internet but closely following those worn by these Iban chieftains.”

According to Samuel, during performances, male KeMADA members usually wear red loin cloths or sirat kesumba, fashioned from red cotton cloths, decorated with one and half feet of black cotton cloths on front and back ends, bedecked with beads.

Those having traditional Iban tattoos on their bodies normally go without shirts while those without body tattoos wear the kelambi tekalong, a vest made of enteli plant bark.

The female members normally wear the ngepan indu, the traditional Iban women costume.

The members all walk barefoot.

Other paraphernalia like the simpai rangki, engkerimuk, tumpa pirak, tenga, marik ujan, ringgit tungkat, lampit and lucing/gerunong, worn by male members, are inherited family heirlooms or bought from relatives or antique shops.


Age-old art

The gendang pampat is the age-old art of beating the ketebong or Iban traditional drum, which is fast becoming a forgotten Iban art.

The uniqueness of performing the gendang pampat lies in it being an integral part of a ritual to summon the ancient gods of the Dayaks, particularly among the Ibans, during an offering ceremony or miring.

It’s a common practice in this part of the world where animism used to be the main form of religion, thus, playing the ketebong without proper justification is strictly tabooed.

So before each drumming session, a miring ceremony will be held. If not, it will be replaced with a symbolic gesture of offering an egg, some rice popcorns and a pinch of rice wine.

The gendang pampat involves creating harmonic sounds with the traditional drums. There are roughly four different sounds — ngindu or lead drum; ngelaki or rhythmic drum; nyerara and malut which are both the supporting sounds.

By beating the drums simultaneously into a rhythm, a harmonious tune is produced. Some of the common tunes are Betan, Pampat, Kantu, Binsai, Engkerasak Nucung, Enjun-enjun Batang, Pelanduk Tingang Batang and  Bertungang.

In addition to their role in the old rituals, the sounds of the drums were also used to raise the spirits of Iban warriors during the bygone warring days.