Sarawakian sape legend Mathew Ngau Jau joins Italian online concert series tonight

Kuching-based sape player Mathew Ngau Jau is part of tonight's online line-up for Piccoli Grandi Concerti (Little Great Concerts), presented by Associazione Culture del Mondo of Italy. Photo: Handout

Legendary Sarawakian sape musician Mathew Ngau Jau has had no problems standing out while touring the world stages with his traditional instrument (a lute with Orang Ulu origins). He has thrilled thousands at European world music festivals and beyond.

Tonight (May 2), Mathew, 67, is taking on a whole new experience as he participates in the global online series Piccoli Grandi Concerti (Little Great Concerts), presented by Associazione Culture del Mondo of Italy.

Mathew's "quarantine edition" slot starts at 11pm, local time, and he will present a pre-recorded 30-minute set, featuring the favourite Lan E Tuyang and other Dayak Kenyah folk songs. The concert will be streamed on Associazione Culture del Mondo's Facebook channel here.

“I miss playing the sape and singing at shows, small or large, locally or internationally, for new or old audiences. I miss teaching students who are keen to learn about sape origins, and its beautiful melodies, ” says Mathew, who has been coping during this Covid-19 stay home period by making custom kalong art pieces.

"I miss meeting and interacting with people at my homestay or showing people how I make sape in my humble workshop," adds the retired school teacher-turned-sape master, who is a Kenyah Ngorek originally from Long Semiyang in Ulu Baram.

But like any other restless musician in these pandemic times, Mathew is raring to be "rubbing shoulders" online tonight with Japanese jazz musicians Sumire Kuribayashi and Yudo Matsuo and Span-born US-based folk storyteller Lau Noah.

For the Piccoli Grandi Concerti recording, he had to overcome a few tech problems, especially the slow Internet connection at his homestay and studio in Bau, a town on the outskirts of Kuching, where he has been holding up since the movement control order (MCO) came into force on March 18.

Earlier this week, Mathew received tech and moral support from The Tuyang Initiative community members, who pieced his home recording together for the Piccoli Grandi Concerti show.

He is also managed by The Tuyang Initiative, a social enterprise whose focus is in economic and skill uplifting of Dayak (Bornean indigenous) communities.

"I do miss being able to venture out into the land, to find and harvest raw materials. Be it to get tree bark (of breadfruit trees) to make the canvas for my paintings, or in search of wood to make sape. But I understand that this (MCO) is necessary.

"The team at Tuyang are working hard to try and ensure that you won’t forget about the likes of me, and the cultural practitioners who are affected by this (pandemic), both emotionally and financially. We will continue to find special ways to share about my culture, as well as the many other beautiful Dayak cultures and people with you," he says.

Apart from this online concert career first, Mathew is planning an extended downtime - practising on the sape and making art - as he waits out the MCO.

"Being based in (Bau) Kuching now, which is seeing some of the highest numbers of infections in Sarawak can be quite scary. All the more reason for me to stay vigilant for my sake, and the sake of my family," he notes.

Sarawak reported nine new Covid-19 cases on May 2, bringing the state's tally of confirmed cases to 518. Three of the new cases were from Bau district and two each from Kuching, Samarahan and Serian.

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