IN FEBRUARY this year, 257 sape musicians gathered at the Kuching Waterfront to play a concert for the Citrawarna Keluarga Malaysia finale, a four-day programme that showcased cultural performances and traditional activities.
The show made it into the Malaysia Book of Records for having the most number of sape players in a single performance.
What made the concert even more special was the presence of not only Sarawakian musicians but also other Malaysians and a few international performers, said Persatuan Anak Seni Sape Kuching (Pusak) chairman Danison Manium.
For Danison, whose association was involved in the concert, this illustrates the sape’s growing popularity and its ability to bring Malaysians together in appreciation of its distinctive lilting tones.
“The sape is a traditional lute instrument of Sarawak’s Orang Ulu communities.
“It was originally used for healing and in rituals, to treat the sick and call upon the spirits,” he explained.
“When Christianity came to the Baram area (where the Orang Ulu lived), the sape evolved into an instrument to accompany dance.”
The 1980s saw another step in the sape’s evolution with the advancement of electronic technology and devices such as pickups and amplifiers were introduced.
“Previously, the sape was played as an acoustic instrument but now, it can be plugged into an amplifier,” said Danison, 34.
He said the sape entered a new era from 2000 onwards as musicians like Jerry Kamit introduced the modern sape, which had up to six strings.
The traditional sape has two or three strings for playing traditional tunes, but modern instruments with four, five or six strings can be used to play contemporary music.
“The sape has become more popular because artistes like Jerry Kamit and Alena Murang play it in a new way.
“They do not just play traditional tunes or use it to accompany traditional dance, but incorporate it in current music trends, bringing the sape closer to the hearts of the current generation,” he said.
Danison, who teaches sape classes, has seen a growing interest in the instrument among people from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and other countries.
He said Pusak had received calls from customers in Terengganu, Johor and Pahang who wanted to buy the sape.
“This shows there is growing interest in the instrument,” he added.
Alena, 33, said it was “incredible” to see sape’s revival.
“When I started learning in 2000, there was hardly anyone from my generation or even my father’s generation playing the sape,” she recalled.
Alena observed that sape makers had been adapting the shape, size and sound of the instrument to make it easier to transport and use with modern equipment.
For her, the sape’s appeal lies mainly in its unique sound.
“I hope people will learn our heritage stories and culture through sape music,” she added.
Sape maker Tomi Bulen, 57, agreed that the musical instrument was now popular because of its contemporary vibe.
“You can play the sape in a band now, as it has become more well-known.
“In the past, it was played in longhouses, not in urban areas.
“But this has changed; anyone can learn to play the sape if they are interested,” he said.
Tomi, who works at the Sarawak Cultural Village, said he had friends in Kuala Lumpur and Negri Sembilan who play the sape.
“An Indian friend who plays the sitar now plays the sape too.
“Another guitarist friend has also picked it up.
“If you can play the guitar, it’s easier to learn as it is also a stringed instrument,” he added.
Tomi said he received orders from customers in Sabah, Peninsular Malaysia and overseas.
It takes him at least a week to complete one sape, from preparing and carving the wood to decorating it with traditional motifs.
“The wood has to be dried first and traditionally, it is smoked.
“This will protect it from pests and improve the sound of the instrument,” he said.
Tomi uses different types of wood to make the sape, from softer varieties such as nyatoh and adau to hardwood like meranti.
“The sound will be different depending on the wood,” he said.
“Softer wood will produce a more acoustic sound, while sape made from harder wood will have a sharper sound,” he explained.
For Danison, the sape has the potential to promote unity among Malaysians.
“You cannot really play this musical instrument alone, it is more fun to ask someone to play it with you.
“We now have sape players everywhere in Malaysia and that is a good thing,” Danison added.