Preserving the legacy of the Sarawakian sape


'The important thing when you make a sape, is that you make it from the heart, you choose the right wood and you have good intentions,' says Mathew. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

In the heart of Borneo’s lush rainforests, where the whispers of nature intertwine with the melodies of tradition, lives a man whose life has become a symphony dedicated to preserving the soulful sounds of the sape.

Mathew Ngau Jau, 72, a revered figure among the Orang Ulu community, has recently been honoured with a BOH Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Arts award for his loyalty and commitment to the music that courses through his veins.

With a career spanning decades, Mathew has not only preserved but elevated the traditional art forms of his community, earning accolades and recognition both nationally and internationally.

For his passion in preserving cultural heritage and tradition, Mathew has received titles including Malaysia National Heritage (2015) and Sarawak State Art and Culture Figure (2016) as well as picked up numerous awards including the Star Golden Hearts Award (2019), Hai-O Arts & Culture Grants Award for Lifetime Achievement (2022) and Anugerah Adiguru Aswara (2022).

Mathew flew in from Kuching to accept his award in person at the 19th BOH Cameronian Arts Awards which took place in early May at PJPAC, 1 Utama in Petaling Jaya, receiving rousing applause from the audience that night.

Proudly clad in bark cloth jacket and tapong da’a headgear, Mathew was a sight to behold, beaming with gratitude for the recognition he received from the arts community.

Having worked a myriad of jobs in the past including brick-maker, rubber tapper and teacher, Mathew is content in his current role as that of Keeper of the Kenyah Ngorek Songs and he truly embodies the spirit of his ancestors, who passed down the legacy of the sape through many generations.

‘As an Orang Ulu, it has always been and continues to be my responsibility to see that the sape lives on because it is the legacy of my people,’ says Mathew. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli ‘As an Orang Ulu, it has always been and continues to be my responsibility to see that the sape lives on because it is the legacy of my people,’ says Mathew. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

“For us, playing the sape is more than just music; it’s a culture that heals and unites,” he had earlier shared in an interview at The Tuyang Initiative headquarters in Miri, Sarawak.

Mathew is managed by The Tuyang Initiative, a social enterprise whose focus is in economic and skill uplifting of Dayak (Bornean indigenous) communities. They work on inclusive and innovative indigenous cultural-related products and services. Their mission is in creating sustainable economic opportunities, as well as meaningful preservation and development of the communities’ tradition, arts and culture.

Origin story

Born and raised in Long Semiyang, a peaceful village along the Baram River, Mathew’s journey with the sape began in the verandas of his village longhouse, where the elders would gather and play enchanting melodies under a canopy of stars. The young boy was fascinated by the music, but the sape was a treasure guarded closely by the elders, and seemingly out of his reach at the time.

In a charming laid-back manner, he reminisces about life back then: “You could not even touch their instrument in those days! It was not easy to get a hold of a sape because it was so very precious to them. During the day when older people went out to the field for work, they would hang up their sape very high so others would not be able to touch it. I myself was a bit naughty,” he admitted, grinning mischievously.

In the early 2000s, Mathew (left) kept the sape in the spotlight with regular appearances and workshop sessions at the Rainforest Music Festival at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong. Photo: The Star/FilepicIn the early 2000s, Mathew (left) kept the sape in the spotlight with regular appearances and workshop sessions at the Rainforest Music Festival at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong. Photo: The Star/Filepic

“So one day I climbed up and just took one. And that’s how I started to play sape!”

Mathew’s courage and curiosity led to a lifelong love affair with the traditional lute which has, over the years, evolved from being a simple indigenous string instrument into one recognised both locally and internationally as an instrument synonymous with the sound of the rainforest.

“When did I get my own sape? I don’t remember exactly but I think because I kept stealing other people’s sape, they finally told me to make my own. Nobody really told me how. I just followed what the other sape looked like. I guess Orang Ulu are just naturals when it comes to woodwork. After all, I knew how to use a parang and all the other tools. It was simple enough to make one of my own.”

Traditionally crafted with only four strings – three for bass and one for melody – the sape (pronounced sah-pay for those who are unfamiliar with the term) resembles the graceful silhouette of a longboat.

“Although you find sape made from different kinds of wood, the best wood to use is actually Adau, but it is hard to find these days.”

The sape has most certainly gone through many changes, he said.

BOH Plantations executive chairman Caroline Russell (right) presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award to Mathew at the Cameronian Awards at PJPAC in Petaling Maya on May 5. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli BOH Plantations executive chairman Caroline Russell (right) presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award to Mathew at the Cameronian Awards at PJPAC in Petaling Maya on May 5. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

“Personally, I still use an old style sape because I play those old, traditional tunes. But you see the young ones now making sape for modern people, and they have incorporated many changes. Some of them have so many frets, modern-day tuners and even pick-ups so the sape sounds louder. Even I use a pick-up! The important thing when you make a sape, is that you make it from the heart, you choose the right wood and you have good intentions.”

Mathew said that while at school, he was always encouraged to sing, play and dance the traditional way by the administrators and missionaries.

“Even in primary school, they would encourage us to play our music and sing our traditional songs. So when I came home, I was very eager to learn from my elders. I think that is one of the reasons I was brave enough to climb up and get the sape!”

He shared that back in the day, there was no formal instruction for playing the sape.

“It was more a journey of self-discovery, guided by the echoes of our ancestors,” he said, his voice tinged with nostalgia.

“Even though I have relatives and friends who were very good at playing sape, they would not have known how to tell you how to play like them. There was no such thing back then. But these days I actually ‘teach’ students. And they are able to record the sessions on their phones and go home and practise,” he says, adding that he has students of all ages and all walks of life, including a nun once.

Mathew chats with Alena Murang, a new-generation sape musician bringing Dayak music to the global stage. Photo: HandoutMathew chats with Alena Murang, a new-generation sape musician bringing Dayak music to the global stage. Photo: Handout

Many have come from overseas to stay at Mathew’s Lan E Tuyang homestay just outside of Kuching while they attend his classes.

Mathew sees this progression of learning and teaching as a good thing.

“When I started playing sape, you could literally count how many people were playing at the time; there were very, very few of them even in the villages. But now, I see it has a growing appeal. More and more young people – not just from our tribes but other races and nationalities too – want to learn the sape. It is blooming!”

The road ahead

Mathew said he enjoys spreading the culture and never shirks his duty when Sarawak Tourism calls on him to play overseas. His global performances, in places such as Hawaii, Italy, the United States and Taiwan, have showcased the beauty of Kenyah culture.

“The sape is not just a musical instrument,” he said.

“It’s a bridge that connects hearts and cultures. Sarawak Tourism has been promoting it a lot and that is how I have become involved. Whenever there is a promotion overseas, they always think of me, so I will go. It’s not that I am so good, there are other people who are even better. But I am easily found in Kuching so I am always being asked by the tourism board to go!”

Beyond his role as a musician, Mathew’s artistic pursuits have further enriched the cultural landscape of Sarawak. Inspired by his late friend Tusau Padan, Mathew decided to venture into the realm of painting, weaving intricate tapestries of imagery that mirror the beauty of his music and environment.

“Tusau Padan, was the first one who made the sape known to the world. After he passed away I took over. That guy was not only good at playing sape, he used to paint too, and did a lot of carving. I decided that playing the sape was not enough and I would also have to branch out like him. Some people say that maybe he has passed down his talents to me. I feel satisfied doing both art and music. People like it and I also feel happy and proud.”

Amidst the accolades and acclaim, Mathew remains grounded in his roots, mindful of the challenges that lie ahead.

“Our greatest challenge is not just preserving the sape but fostering unity amidst diversity,” he observed, acknowledging the complexities of cultural ownership in an ever-changing world. Not everyone initially sees the need to share the culture. However, through outreach and education, Mathew hopes to sow the seeds of understanding, bridging divides and nurturing a shared appreciation for heritage.

“Five years ago, even my own people made noise when I started teaching others. But now they are more open minded. Slowly it has become accepted. Now the whole world recognises the sape. The important thing to remember is when you play the sape, you must know its roots and its history. You must be thankful to our ancestors who gave us the tunes of the sape. Only then can you go and venture into your own styles.”

As Mathew, now a grandfather of 10, looks towards the future, his vision remains clear – to ensure that the echoes of tradition continue to reverberate for generations to come. The journey of the sape, he says, is far from over; it is a melody that resonates across time.

“As an Orang Ulu, it has always been and continues to be my responsibility to see that the sape lives on because it is the legacy of my people,” he concluded.

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Culture

Have you spotted these 'matchboxes' while driving around Kuala Lumpur?
A broken and beautiful world of shards, symbols and memories
Almodovar’s love affair with Spain’s capital city explored in new exhibition
Hermes v Hermes: Turkey bookshop marks win in copyright fight
Weekend for the arts: 'Twisted' fairy tales at KLPac, poetics of translation
'We are crying,': 8yo 'Goldsmith' mural in KL erased, street artist asks, 'Why?'
Strasbourg, with its literary history, shines as Unesco's World Book Capital 2024
Art is cool, museum tells sweltering Muscovites
Tracing Chinese memory and identity in Indonesia's history
French author Leila Slimani drafted for Paris Olympics role

Others Also Read