Because she broke tradition by learning a ‘male’ instrument, Kelabit music has been exported to the world.
KUALA LUMPUR: When Alena Murang first wanted to play the sape, her teacher, famed Kenyah sape player Mathew Ngau Jau, was hesitant.
In the olden days, the sape, a traditional two-stringed lute, was considered taboo for women to even touch, let alone play. It was played by male shamans and men from the Orang Ulu community only.
“My seven cousins and I wanted to learn the sape and we were all girls,” said Alena, adding that Mathew struggled with his decision whether or not to take them on as students.
But when he started to teach them, teacher and students received nothing but support and encouragement from their community.
“As women, we should always question why we face restrictions,” said the soulful Kelabit-Italian lass.
Now, some 15 years later, the 28-year-old is an accomplished musician, dancer, choreographer, visual artist, social entrepreneur and music teacher.
In fact, she had rushed over from home for the interview, where she holds private sape lessons.
“My student was late, so I’m a little late,” laughed the lanky Kuching lass, who stuns in minimal make-up and native jewellery.
Impassioned and articulate, Alena – who has performed traditional Kenyah and Kelabit songs on her traditional four-stringed pentatonic sape globally – has a mission to preserve, promote and most importantly, celebrate her Borneo heritage.
“Everybody inherits a culture. So open yourself up as a vessel to accept it,” she said.
Although she was born to a Kelabit father, it was her mother, an Italian anthropologist, who fostered Alena’s interests in Kelabit culture.
She took up ngarang (long dance with the women holding hornbill feathers and the men in warrior attire) when she was six and learnt the sape when she was 13.
“Recently, a Chinese friend told me he wished he was Iban just so that he could have a culture.
“I told him that he already has one, that he should learn the lion dance or Chinese drums,” she said.
Besides folk songs, Alena also performs old Kelabit chants, love songs and dances.
Her performances are a way of sharing these dying art forms.
Last year, Alena performed at the Paris Fashion Week in France, at the Matrade Centre in Netherlands and at the Sawahlunto International Music Festival in Indonesia.
Alena has also held workshops in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and across the United States.
“I’m now looking for different avenues to showcase my music.
“For example, my track was used as a jingle on Channel News Asia and it’s a way for me to put Borneo music out there,” said Alena, who has a degree in management from The University of Manchester.
Alena also currently runs ART4, a social enterprise she started in 2015 after graduating from the LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore.
“It combines art, music and social impact projects,” she explained.
From repairing bridges to sponsoring the education of a Penan girl, the revenue from ART4 goes back into helping the Borneo community.
Now, Alena is looking for ways to revive Kelabit lyrics and songs.
Her EP Flight, which was released in September last year, has a five-track album with two songs in Kelabit and three in Kenyah.
“There’s been a great loss of Kelabit culture from my father’s time as emphasis shifted to learning Malay and English,” Alena said, adding that she is learning old songs and interpreting them so that she could pass them down to the next generation.
“Never let being a woman stop you from doing what you want to do.
“We should lean into our strength of being women because there are things men cannot do – that only we can,” she said.