ICH Story

ICH Story

The Healing Sound of Sarawak: A Review of Sape

The Healing Sound of Sarawak: A Review of Sape

Southeast Asia has musical traditions for which the region can be described to have a massive cultural wealth of sounds. From the gongs of Vietnam to the woodwind Khaen of Laos to stringed pear- or boat-shaped instruments of Thailand and Indonesia, communities in Southeast Asia have all that. Historically, bamboo-made instruments were essentially the most widespread largely because the use of bamboo in human life was abound since the Neolithic times. Till the present time, musical instruments made from bamboo such as Angklung, Kolintang, Ra Nat, and Palwei are popular, holding cultural importance in the region. Within this context, it is quite insightful how a musical instrument known as Sape came into life through another type of wood. The short documentary film Sape by Abdul R. Dim introduces us to the making of Sape and how it is safeguarded as a cultural symbol in Malaysia.
Found in Sarawak, the largest of the 13 states in Malaysia, Sape is made up of Geronggang (Cratoxylum arborescens) wood. Other types of wood namely Ekor Belangkas, Assam, Murus, and Rengas can also be used to make the instrument. If the wood is considered heavy such as Merdang sasi, then is suitable for making a traditional Sape. On the other hand, light woods such as Meranti Kuning can be used in making Sape for children. The standard size of Sape is usually 8 inches in width, 43 inches in length, with thickness ranging from 4 to 8.5 inches. The short film features established Sape makers and players namely Tommy Bulen, Korintus Leban, Francis Kojeng, and renowned three-fret Sape maker Mathew Ngau Jau. In the beginning, Sape was a two-stringed instrument with only three frets. As it evolves, Sape can now come with two, three, four, and five strings, and up to a range of more than three octaves.
With many possible designs generally inspired by plant and human figures, Mathew Ngau Jau says that a Sape maker’s creative imagination plays a crucial role in designing the musical instrument. For as long as it can be identified to its root, Sape can be carved artistically. Common types of carving include designs from Orang Ulu, Iban, Penan, and Bidayuh. In the old days, low class people were not allowed to touch any carving or paintings let alone own any kind of drawing. Sape reflects this class-based history in Malaysia that is why the prototype of Sape bears no carving or motif, just a plain wooden instrument.
From Traditional to Modern
The music produced by Sape was first used in a traditional dance of the Iban people called Ngajat. And since the advent of globalization in Malaysia, Sape can now be used to play modern songs. As aforementioned, the traditional type of Sape is heavy and plain. A modern type of Sape was introduced to the public in 1994 when renowned Sape player Jerry Kamit and Sape maker Francis Kojeng changed the original structure of the instrument for it to be more dynamic and easier to use. In his musical practice, Jerry Kamit had a difficulty in using the traditional type of Sape as its fret would always go off during concerts. Hence, Jerry Kamit suggested to Francis Kojeng to make the fret (or edet in local language) permanently in place and use strings for a typical guitar. Thus, the modern type of Sape has six strings in total and comes with tuners in its head just like a guitar. It has 17 frets and can be used to play modern songs.
The arrival of the modern type of Sape opened opportunities for a wider appreciation of the musical instrument not only as a form of folk entertainment, but also as a field of study. The documentary presents this through testimonials from the mothers of Gianna Agin and Benz Vincent Angat Ak Dunging, who are both learning to master the art of playing Sape at a very young age. From seeing Sape being played on the television, Mejjorie Blantau Ak Majang recalls that her son’s interest in Sape allowed their family to also appreciate the cultural richness of Malaysia and the particular beauty of the ethnic group where Sape came from since they are from another group. Gianna and Benz are students of Elizabeth Bungan Peter.
At start, Elizabeth learned to play Sape in its traditional structure, i.e. with 13 movable frets and 4 strings. And due to the demand in using the modern type of Sape, she now uses the one with 17 frets and 6 strings. Most of the songs she teaches are folk songs or traditional songs derived from vocal tunes, which are now played in the tune of Sape. Her students are of the age range from 7 to 13 years old. Motivated by the presence of young Sape players, she tells that she only had 3 to 5 students when she began. And with a stronger intent to promote Sape to a larger audience, she now has more than 10 students in one class. Among the songs that students learn is known as Leleng, meaning dancing in circle. It is a traditional song frequently played and danced in a long house.

At the height of the use of the traditional type of Sape, most of Malaysia’s players were men from the older generation. The film mentions that rarely did people see women Sape players in the past. In fact, women were once prohibited to play Sape, so their options in the field of musical performance were limited to dancing and singing. So, the fact that there are now children playing Sape and women like Elizabeth transmitting their knowledge of Sape to other people is an evidence that Sape is a dynamic musical instrument that welcomes social changes. Elizabeth maintains that her passion for Sape was founded in its very calming music of peace. In the old days, Sape’s main function was to heal.
    
Embracing Our Origins

    
Through the local knowledge of Mathew Ngau Jau, the film presents the root of Sape: a wife’s dream. Looking back to its history of more than 200 years, Sape is believed to be from a folk story of a newly married couple. One day, the beautiful wife falls sick. While there was no Dukun (or doctor in local language) with the right hands to heal her, she dreamed of hearing a beautiful sound. In her dream, the sound was from Sape made from a wood called Adau. With this in mind, her husband hurriedly went to the forest to find the wood and make a Sape out of it. This source story was the reason why the primary understanding of Sape was associated to healing. In the old days, as people had a deeper regard for the power of nature, a Dayong (or shaman in local language) would recite magic spells while someone is playing a two-stringed Sape. This ceremony was performed to determine the illness of the sick and find the cure.

  •             

  •             

  •             

  •         
Interestingly, Indian tribes in the Americas and traditional African societies in the past also viewed musical instruments to have the power to heal the sick with their Maraca and Djembe, respectively. Among the Muslim communities in Maguindanao in the Philippines, in spite of Islamic tenets, ancient beliefs in healing rituals include playing of musical instruments such as kulintang and debakan.
It is seriously important to embrace the origins of Sape because it is entangled with cultivation of trees and, generally, respect for our nature Without trees, there would be no Sape, so it is crucial that as we regard the cultural significance of musical instruments in Southeast Asia we are at the same time protecting the environment where we get raw materials to make the instruments that bring us our music. Korintus Leban hopes for a global recognition of Sape. As Mathew Ngau and Solomon Gau are now globally known for their traditional Sape performances, Sape can indeed be celebrated even beyond Malaysia. True enough, modern Sape players like Saufe Aiman and Jerry Kamit have at one point emerged victorious in international competitions by playing Sape. More importantly, Korintus Leban longs for people, Malaysian and foreigners, to remember where Sape came from: the Orang Ulu culture.

 Contributor: Mr. Bernidick Bryan Punzalan Hosmillo, Consultant, ICHCAP