In Sarawak, the sape is a traditional instrument of the Kenyah, Kayan, Kelabit, Penan and other ethnic tribes of the Orang Ulu community.
According to legend, the sape came about through a dream of a Kenyah man, who went into the forest to look for medicinal herbs for his sick wife after several shamans failed to heal her.
While resting underneath a tree, he dozed off into a deep slumber and dreamt of his ancestors telling him his wife was in the spirit world and he needed to ferry her back to the world of the living.
He carved a wooden block into the shape of a boat and after stringing the boat-shaped contraption with roots and leaves, he played a tune accompanied by a chant to pave the way for his wife’s return. The man later became a shaman.
The sape is also considered a sacred instrument used to cure the sick and for ceremonies, which is why it should not be placed indiscriminately. If one has to put the sape on the floor, there must be a carpet or mat underneath it.
Since the 1970s, this traditional musical instrument has been played in tourism promotional tours and videos, as well as during official state functions.
Two Kenyah sape players, Irang Lahang and Jalong Tanyit, performed and demonstrated the art of sape in Tokyo, Japan during the Asian Traditional Performing Arts (ATPA) Week in 1976.
In 1986, the sape was showcased in Darwin, Australia during a cultural exchange programme between Malaysia and Australia.
The sape was played by the late Tusau Padan, which was accompanied by the traditional Datun Julud dance (hornbill dance).
In the same year, Tusau and a group of Orang Ulu traditional dancers accompanied Malaysia Airlines on its promotional tour to Los Angeles, California and Tokyo, Japan.
However, the most significant event took place during Queen Elizabeth’s official visit to Sarawak where the late Tusau Padan played the sape for the queen.
Today, Mathew Ngau Jau is known as ‘Sape Master’ among Sarawakians; he is also the face of the renowned Rainforest World Music Festival as he keeps sape music alive and has played it on an international stage.
In recognition of his work, Mathew is the only person from East Malaysia to be given the title ‘Tokoh Orang Hidup’ (Malaysia’s Living Tradition) by the Department of National Heritage.
Last year, Sarawak’s very own Alena Murang won the ‘Best Styling Award’ at the Bueno Aires Music Video Festival in Argentina for her music video, ‘Midang Midang’.
The music video, which was shot in the Bario Highlands and Tusan Beach in Miri, showcased the traditional Kelabit song in a contemporary concept that’s fused with Kelabit elements and Sarawak fashion.
In the old days, the sape only had four strings — three for bass and one for melody. Today, some can have more than six strings but the principle remains the same.
A traditional sape is usually constructed in a pair which means two instruments are made from one tree log. A pair from one log is considered to be ‘brothers’ and both are in the same tuning. The body of the instrument is hollow, and the back is left open.
Originally, the sape is made from the adau wood. However, today, different types of woods such as jelutong and coconut are used to make sape. Can these changes be accepted as an innovative process in sape making?
Apart from that, a new hybrid instrument called ‘sapelele’ (combination of ‘sape’ and ‘ukulele’) was produced by a Malaysian luthier Yong Chin Hoe, known for the brand Jeffrey Yong Guitar.
Can this hybrid instrument be accepted into the market? If the sape is commercialised, will Sarawak take into account these efforts to promote the making of this traditional musical instrument to the world?