Alena Murang: 'Indigenous music not just for Hari Gawai, it is music itself'


'Instead of being sought after only on Gawai and Kaamatan, Malaysia Day and tourism ads, we need to be defined as music itself, as art itself, relevant at all times of the year,' says Alena. Photo: Handout

The odds have always been stacked against anyone wanting to make it in the unpredictable music industry.

For indigenous music artiste and sape player Alena Murang, those odds are even higher.

“Indigenous music, or world music, definitely isn't the mainstream here in Malaysia, ” the 32-year-old tells StarLifestyle exclusively.

“It's tough because it's been hard to see where I can fit in the Malaysian music industry. I don't sing in mainstream languages. Rather, I sing in endangered languages (Kelabit and Kenyah) and I don't sing love songs at all.”

As such, Alena, who made her debut in the 2016 EP, Flight, has had to create her own opportunities.

“It hasn't been a straightforward road, and in the past years, I've found a group of people – my band, my team, the media, festival directors, funders, fans – who have carved this niche road with me. At times it’s frustrating, most times it’s exciting.”

Alena also focuses on the global world music scene, attending international conferences and showcases like Worldwide Music Expo (Womex) and South by Southwest (SXSW) to build my network.

“World music is different from the mainstream genres. It involves telling narratives about history, social issues, cultural stories and a lot of research, ” she talks about the world music scene.

“It has its own charts, its own festivals, specialist distributors, specialist journalists and even agents and managers.”

Next, Alena shares she will be signing with a Taiwanese-based label for the digital distribution of her upcoming releases.

Her latest album is Sky Songs, made with the support of the communications and multimedia ministry and the Dayak Cultural Foundation.

Alena, who is of Dayak Kelabit and European ancestry, says the album is steeped in stories about her ancestors. Four of the songs are in the endangered language of Kelabit, one in Kenyah and one in English.

“This album is my way of preserving our beautiful heritage in the hope that it is still there for our children and the future generations to accept and appreciate.”

Asked what Malaysians can do to support and help preserve indigenous music and art forms, she says:

“There are two parts. One is preservation. It’s important to archive a piece of history in time. The other part is to keep the artforms alive, and that is best done by adapting to contemporary times, which is what my music does. You'll also see it in my outfits and music videos. I want to show the world that we are not primitive, but very much modern people like everyone else.”

Alena also believes that indigenous music and artforms shouldn’t only be celebrated at certain times of the year.

“Indigenous music and art forms need to be reframed. Instead of being sought after only on Gawai and Kaamatan, Malaysia Day and tourism ads, we need to be defined as music itself, as art itself, relevant at all times of the year, in all forms of media like any other music. Not overly romanticised, not presented as primitive.

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