Celebrating Kaamatan without the pageantry, the crowd or Unduk Ngadau


  • Malaysia
  • Thursday, 28 May 2020

A group of Bobohizan performing the magavau at Tambunan, Sabah in 2017. — Filepic

Every year, towards the end of May, I would update my YouTube playlist of Kadazandusun songs and listen to them in the office. Kaamatan, or Harvest Festival, falls on May 30 and 31 in Sabah, and while I rarely go back to my hometown in Kota Kinabalu for the celebration, I try my best to recreate the lively atmosphere here in Selangor.

Last year, I got my colleagues to watch the Unduk Ngadau (beauty pageant, one of the main fixtures of Kaamatan that celebrates Huminodun, a woman who was sacrificed by her father in order to save the people from starvation) finals with me. It was shown live on Facebook, and we watched intermittently while doing our work. It was fun to be able to share that part of my culture with them. To top it off, one of our choices – Francisca Ester Nain of Karambunai – won the crown.

This year, we had planned to do the same thing. I even promised to make some Sabahan dishes to snack on while taking bets (no money or prizes involved!) on which contestant will wear the crown and sash this year.

And then the pandemic – and thereafter the movement control order and conditional movement order – happened.

Interstate travel is not allowed and large gatherings are banned. For many, Hari Raya Aidilfitri last weekend was a lonely affair as they remained separated from families, unable to physically meet. Of course, the ban and strict regulations are necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

Large-scale, public Kaamatan celebrations in Sabah are also banned, though we can still enjoy the festival virtually. Earlier this week, it was announced that the state-level Unduk Ngadau and Sugandoi (a singing competition held during the festival) events would be held online via Facebook.

However, the finals for Unduk Ngadau were said to take place on site on May 31 at the Hongkod Koisaan, the main hall of the Kadazandusun Cultural Association Sabah, or KDCA Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu. There would not be an audience present for that.

In a press conference in KK on Sunday (May 24), State Kaamatan Festival organising chairman Datuk Peter Anthony (who is also the state's Infrastructure Development Minister) said that the finals at Hongkod Koisaan will be held according to the regulated standard operating procedure. A maximum of 50 people, which includes contestants, judges and essential crew, will be allowed in the venue at any one time.

An online petition urging the state government to cancel the Unduk Ngadau was launched shortly after the announcement was made, while numerous complaints and comments from concerned citizens regarding the decision were found on social media.

Yesterday, a report in the Daily Express stated that the KDCA has decided it will not allow the hall to be used as a venue for the Unduk Ngadau finals on May 31. Tourism, Arts and Culture deputy minister Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, who is also the deputy president of KDCA, said that holding the finals at Hongkod Koisaan would go against the government's conditional movement control order (CMCO). At a press conference at the ministry's office in Kota Kinabalu, Kitingan was reported to have said, “We have discussed this in KDCA. ... when you have the Unduk Ngadau contest, the participants will have their make-up and hair done, which is a risky process in terms of social distancing. Therefore, it is inappropriate to hold the beauty pageant. We have decided not to have the Pesta Kaamatan (Harvest Festival) annual celebration, in particular, holding any contest at the centre.”

Meanwhile, on Facebook, Anthony posted on his official page on Wednesday that both the Sugandoi and Unduk Ngadau have been postponed. In his post, Anthony mentioned that many contestants had requested for more time to join the competitions. He added that public views as well as the sensitivity of the Kadazan Dusun Murut community were taken into careful consideration before making the decision to postpone the events. The new dates would be announced later.

A cultural experience

Well, we can still celebrate Kaamatan no matter where we are, and in whatever way we can. For example, you can listen to – or sing, if you have forgiving neighbours – Kadazandusun songs. You can find many on YouTube but one of my favourites is Kasakazan Do Bambaazon, probably the most popular song associated with Kaamatan.

In an interview last year with a local radio station in Sabah, Datuk Claudius Sundang Alex, often credited as the lyricist for Kasakazan Do Bambaazon alongside Rita Mojilis, explained that the song is meant to evoke the “spirit of the padi”, also known as the Bambaazon. The Bambaazon is the reason why we celebrate Harvest Festival; we give thanks to the spirit for a bountiful and safe year.

Alex, who used to work in Radio Sabah, also talked about how the song came about. Some time in the mid-1960s, the folks at Radio Sabah wanted to write a new song that can get even more people to feel excited about Kaamatan. Alex noted that the station’s head of Kadazan services at the time, the late Datuk Fred Sinidol, came up with the idea and rallied other staff to contribute.

In about a week, the group had written the song and recorded it, with Alex as the lead singer and a handful of colleagues providing backing vocals.

Now, more than 50 years later, the song is considered an essential Kaamatan track and has been performed countless times. Recently, six choir groups from all over Sabah – plus one from Johor – came together virtually to perform a Zoom version of the track. You can check out the video on “Sukod Wagu Official” YouTube channel.

Each year, the KDCA Cultural Village is bustling with visitors, vendors and performers during Kaamatan. It is a fun tourist hotspot on normal days, but on Kaamatan, you get to see and experience so much more.

What I’ve always enjoyed since childhood, apart from the Unduk Ngadau, are the traditional games like tug-of-war, arm wrestling, momolistik (slingshot) and monugkava karabau or lassoing a buffalo. This last one used to be played with real buffalo in my village back in the day (and in the mud, too!) but at KDCA, a fake buffalo takes its place.

Of course, it isn’t Kaamatan if there is no rice wine and you can find it abundantly there, together with a large selection of delicious pusas, or snacks.

The festivities at KDCA usually starts just before noon and continues all through the night, so there’s always something for visitors to do and see. Cultural dances from the many different ethnic groups of Sabah will be performed throughout the day too. This would be quite a treat for tourists as the performers will be dressed in their full traditional costumes, which you don’t often see any more these days.

Another not-to-be-missed session is the magavau ritual, which is conducted by the Bobohizan/Bobolian or appointed high priestesses. The ritual actually takes place before the festival begins as it is meant to “invite” the Bambaazon to join the gathering. If this doesn’t happen, then the festival cannot continue.

It’s been years since I last experienced Kaamatan at the KDCA; I do miss it. Perhaps I could convince my colleagues to join me next year, when hopefully, it is safe to travel again. Until then, Kotobian Tadau Tagazo Do Kaamatan to all Sabahans, and Gayu Guru Gerai Nyamai to all Sarawakians.

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