The sensational sape player talks about her love for music and why she takes pride in being a part of the revival generation.

“It all started with a very naïve thought,” says Alena Murang as her fingers fiddle with the strings of her sape.

Born into Sarawak’s Kelabit tribe, Alena today spends as much time as possible connecting with the elders living in Sarawak’s longhouses and creating new music with her sape; a traditional lute instrument belonging to the indigenous Kenyah tribe of central Borneo.

The music patron started to play the sape when she was twelve, more out of the necessity to create new music for her weekend dance classes than out of interest. 

“Until that point, the sape was considered to be a taboo for girls. Nevertheless, I approached the legendary sape player Mathew Ngau who was willing to teach despite the preconceived notions related to the sape,” says Alena. 

As her journey with the sape progressed, Alena’s curiosity and attachment to the instrument only grew leading her to make the decision of leaving behind her corporate life to pursue music as a choice of career.

From learning a taboo instrument to giving international performances, Alena has come a long way in her journey of sharing her love for indigenous tribal music with the modern society. 

Blessed with an altruistic persona and melodious voice, the result of an excellent gene pool from her Kelabit father and Anglo-Italian mother, the young diva has performed at international music events, like the Rainforest World Music Festival, The Georgetown Festival, Seoul Music Week and Paris Fashion Week. At the same time, she can also be seen conducting sape workshops, participating in festivals that perpetuate Malaysian arts and culture and creating platforms for other artists who are willing to bring forth their music, dance, and arts to a global stage.

We sit down with the charming Alena Murang to further understand her passion for the sape and discover what else lies in store for the young advocate of music. 

What draws you to the sape?

If you speak to any professional sape player, they will all tell you that sape music is very calming. It’s the kind of music that takes you back to the forest and causes you to lose yourself.

Personally, for me, the sape is a tool for giving a sense of identity to young Malaysians and connecting people through music and art.

How do international audiences react to the music of the sape?

Most people after a concert would tell me, that they feel serene and connected to nature after listening to the sape.

Foreign audiences are also curious to know more about the sape – the origins, the tatler_tatler_stories attached to it and the life of the people in Borneo. So far it has been quite a humbling experience.

Out of the many performances that you have given, which are the ones that you hold close?

Every performance I give is a new learning curve for me. But a recent performance for World Stage Design, Taipei is one that I will cherish for a long time.

At this event, musicians from across the Indian and Pacific Islands, including Borneo, Fiji Islands, Tahiti, Solomon Islands, Papa New Guinea and Easter Islands came together to share their indigenous music and after a round of interaction we found stark similarities in our dialects, food, clothing, and crafts possibly hinting common ancestors.

To be honest, that’s what art does. It enables you to bond and converse despite your differences.

 Besides music, what other projects are you currently working on?

Right now, I am hoping to spend a lot of time with the elders of my tribe. I hope to document their lives and tatler_tatler_stories, to learn other folk songs and traditional instruments such as the pagang and lutong and encourage them to continue making more. If we fail to preserve those, an entire generation of heritage and culture will be lost with a swipe of the hand.

Am also trying to generate more interest in the sape and to keep it alive with the KL Sape Collective. 

Not many people would want to forgo their cushy 9-5 jobs for a career in indigenous music. What made you do so?

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but one that was important.

A couple of years ago, the norm of the society was to work toward a degree, get a job, buy a property and so on. They had to do all they could to survive.

But our generation is the revival generation. We need to bring back the legacy of our ancestors and give tribute to the work they did in the fields of music, arts, and crafts. Pay respect to their lives, beliefs, and traditions.

Someone needs to step in with a vision of creating the appreciation for their work, and if that person must be me, so be it. 

 How do you perceive the future of Malaysian arts and culture?

Culture is a such a difficult term to define.

In Kuala Lumpur, for example, we are so globalised. Everyone wears the same style of clothes, eats the same food and listens to the same music. Although it is good to have this homogenization of society, we need to learn to respect and appreciate the differences we have.

A lot of the youth today are beginning to question their identities. They are starting to realise that heritage is not necessarily outdated and not meant to be stacked in a museum.

I believe we need to encourage that curiosity and provide means for people to discover more about our culture and traditions. 

Video: Shaffiq Farhan / Malaysia Tatler
Location:  Earth Heir Studio   

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