Finding Magic in Sarawak with the Sapeh

Sapeh Instrument

The Melody of Borneo

Although many countries in the world are slowly letting go of cultural traditions, this is not the case with music in Central Borneo. A love for the melody of the time-honoured sapeh is being developed and shared by people like Alena Murang and Sii Tai Hing.

What is a sapeh?

Also known as a sampet, sape or sampeh, the sapeh is a traditional musical instrument used by the Orang Ulu people of Central Borneo. Sapeh music is multifaceted and varies in theme and depth. The lutes are carved from a single large piece of wood and can be more than a meter long. Some of the older sapehs were limited instruments with only two strings and three frets. One string carries the melody and the other string the rhythm. The resulting sounds are soulful and an ideal accompaniment for the traditional longhouse dancing routines. Over the years the sapeh evolved into being more sophisticated. Instruments today have between three and five strings and a range of three octaves or more. Even electric sapehs have started becoming common.

Alena Murang is passionate about sapeh

A strategy manager at Teach for Malaysia, Alena Murang devotes her free time to teaching sapeh in Kuala Lumpur, where she resides. She is proud that 12 of her students took part in a performance at Putrajaya during the National Youth Week. Murang believes that it is important to integrate emotional intelligence into every class. Her innovative teaching methods include doing some lessons in the dark with the aim of encouraging students to listen to the sapeh and ‘feel’ the music instead of looking at where their fingers are on the instrument. Murang’s passion and innovation is helping to keep the deep-rooted art of playing the sapeh alive.

Ex-army man Sii Tai Hing fell in love with sapeh music

Father of three and former soldier Sii Tai Hing became infatuated with the natural sound of the sapeh. The 56-year old man was first introduced to sapeh in 1975 while working in Miri. Some of his Indonesian friends would play sapeh every night, to the delight of the then 17-year old Hing. His enthusiasm was eventually awarded when his friends started teaching him to play. He joined the band until he stopped working there and moved away. Despite not playing for some time, Hing’s love for sapeh did not fade. In 1981 he made his first sapeh because he could not afford to buy one. In 1993, he made another sapeh and started performing at functions. His live performances made an impression on attendees since most traditional functions started relying on pre-recorded music. Hing started getting many invitations to play at functions and also began offering sapeh classes, and making and selling instruments.

Promoting and spreading awareness of sapeh

Alena Murang commented on how she was receiving several enquiries about lessons and is working towards setting up a facility that will allow everybody interested in sapeh to learn it. Sii Tai Hing’s passion was instrumental in awakening an age-old tradition of live sapeh performances during celebrations in his area. With people like Murang and Hing the haunting and magical melodies of the sapeh will not become extinct.

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