My sape journey and its lessons

MY journey of learning how to play the sape, the ubiquitous traditional stringed lute of Borneo, is a metaphor in the search for one’s roots.  

Like the leaves of the trees, which will never go far but will eventually fall to the ground at the base of the tree where the roots are, you cannot ignore where you come from.  Like the leaves, we, too, tend to trace our steps back to our roots. 

Growing up in the invigorating montane climes of the Kelabit Highlands, which forms the source of the mighty Baram River, and which the small tribe from which I come from, calls home, the sweet melody of the sape was one of the earliest musical sounds that I recall. It was always heard not only over the radio but also during parties and community gatherings.

Later, after we started schooling, we were introduced to the sounds of the Bamboo Band and were inducted into the school’s Bamboo Band. Other than the hymns and songs which were sang in the village chapel, or the songs we were taught in the school, the singing of traditional and old songs was not particularly encouraged — ostensibly because they were said to harken back to the olden times when the Kelabits were mainly animists and nature worshippers. I heard stories from my dad that life in those times was guided by omens and daily readings of nature’s signs and signals.  

Such a way of life was really tough, he said. For example, one could not move, say, to get to the farm, if somehow the humming bird were to fly across one’s path from the ‘wrong direction’ indicating that it was not momentous to proceed any further.

The omen was read as “you’d better not proceed, or else!”  I wonder to myself now how difficult it would be to live life in such a manner.

If I were all dressed up to go for a golf round and then just before a tee off, the hummingbird was to fly from my left to the right, it would mean I had to stop right there and then and either wait for the bird fly back the other way! If it ever did.  

Strangely, and I’d say fortunately, the sape music did not suffer the fate of the traditional songs, ballads and incantations but managed to survive the ‘cleaning up’ following the wave of evangelism that swept like a wild fire throughout the inland areas of Sarawak and freeing the people from the shackles of superstition and spirit of divination. 

Dora Lee, my cousin performing a lady’s solo dance.

Ironically, and little known, the sape was invented as an instrument of healing in the olden days, accompanied by chanting and invocations to induce healings. The story is narrated of a loving young couple who suffered a stroke of misfortune one day when the wife fell sick and, despite all attempts to heal her, her condition became more desperate and did not seem to improve.

Everyone, especially the doting husband, was at a loss as to what to do. One night, he had a dream where he was told to go to the forest the next day to look for a specific kind of tree, the Adau tree, and to fashion its trunk into a sape and then to play it to his ailing wife. The man did exactly as instructed, and his wife recovered from her illness.  

So that was the romantic story of how the sapè was first invented. This story explains why traditionally only men were allowed to play the instrument while it was taboo for the women to play it.  

Today, the sape is played to accompany different forms of traditional dances, divided broadly into solo dances and group or synchronised dances.  The younger ones of both genders have taken the instrument further with their own compositions which blend traditional and contemporary sounds.  

Even more encouraging is the fact that everyone seems to enjoy the sape music and many from all races have even picked it up as an instrument to play. The sape will be around for a while.

My first sape, the yellow lute from the Kayans.

My initiation into playing the sape was something of a coincidence. It happened at a farewell reception in 2010 after my stint as the first Sarawakian and the seventh managing director/CEO for the Malaysia LNG Group of Companies in Bintulu.

I was given a sape as a farewell token by some Kayan tribesmen who hailed from the Belaga district in the interior of Bintulu. They had been engaged by the event organising committee to perform some traditional dances and songs as part of the programme for that night.

At the end of the programme, I was asked by the emcee to go on stage for a ‘last item’ for the night, which came as a surprise since it was not listed in the official programme. So, I thought they wanted me to perform the ‘ngajat’ (the man’s traditional dance) which I could do since I had taken some lessons as a boy when studying in Bario. 

When I got to the stage, the emcee announced that the Kayan performers would like to give me a parting gift since I would soon be leaving for Kuala Lumpur to take up a new assignment.  The leader of the cultural troupe approached me and handed me a sapè, a beautifully decorated yellow lute which they had been playing that night.

I was taken aback at the gesture as I did not expect it, and said, “Sorry, please don’t give me that. I cannot play the sape and it would be a pity if you were to give it to me. You know, musical instruments are made to be played. It’s their rationale for existence!”  

However, the man insisted that I should take it, saying, “We really want you to have it.  It’s a gift from our hearts!”  And that was how I came to have my first sapè.  Now, I have several, all being acquired over the years, thanks to that induction to the yellow sape’ on that night in Bintulu years ago. In hindsight, it was an event where the tribesmen were telling me never to forget my roots.  

I brought the yellow lute to Kuala Lumpur with me, set it up in my living room as an art piece or traditional artefact for display because I did not know how to play it.  It stood there for many weeks, untouched, before I finally picked it up one fine day.  

I plucked at the strings and fingered the different frets, trying to recall how the sape player expertly played it.  It was a struggle at first by through trial and error and ‘playing it by the ears’ I began to produce some form of melodies on it.

After more practice, I got the hang of it and began to play some tunes which I composed on my own. I didn’t have any lessons on how to play the sape.

As my cousin Datuk Sri Idris Jala often said, if you are really passionate at what you are doing you will eventually be able to master it. But you must make time. He mentioned something like having to invest at least 10,000 hours in order to master anything. 

One morning during a weekend, as I was practising on the sape, Diyana, my daughter, came running into the living room with a camera in her hand.

“Pa, I want to record you playing. The melody that you are playing sounds real good!” she said.  

I said, “Oh no, don’t do it! I am not good at this.”  

My daughter insisted, and started recording. Since I was rather reluctant to be recorded, I kept my head down and refused to look into the camera while it was still recording the session. After she recorded it, my daughter uploaded the clip on to the YouTube channel. 

Within a short span of time after being uploaded, the video clip got some 9K hits, something totally unexpected.  Later, I used the music that I had composed that day as the sound track for a video clip about the rainforests.

This second video, entitled ‘Ode to the Rainforest’ by Maya Green had some 69K views. I panicked and disabled the ‘like’ feature. The first video recording by my daughter was somehow viewed by Datuk Rashid Khan, who was then the CEO of the Sarawak Tourism Board.

Performing at the Rainforest World Music Festival, 2013.

Somehow, he liked it and made enquires as to who was the sape player in the video clip.

His daughter, who coincidentally was one of the many in the department I was heading in Petronas, told him, “Actually, he is our current boss and was the MD/CEO of MLNG Group before he was appointed to head the Petronas Group Corporate Affairs Division.” 

And that was how I ended up being invited to perform the sape at the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) 2013. Apparently, it was reasoned that if someone at my age and in my position, could learn to play the traditional instrument, there would be no excuse for the young ones not to pick it up the sape.

The sape is now well entrenched in the traditional music scene of Sarawak and the nation — thanks to the passionate and tireless efforts of many young and talented people like Alena Murang, who has won international recognition for her efforts, and many others.

With Mathew Ngau and his handcrafted sape in July 2013.

But the strongest advocate of sape is my good friend, Mathew Ngau, one of the awardees of the Ministry of Tourism’s ‘Living Legends’ accolade. In fact, the actual sape that I used to perform at the RWMF 2013 was one of Mathew’s own handcrafted instruments.

Yes, the retired teacher not only plays the instrument very well but makes it himself.  How’s that for passion and dedication?

After the RWMF 2013, I was invited to perform at the Melaka Arts and Performance Festival (Mapfest) the same year. The plan was to follow up with Bali the following year and then Perth thereafter.

Who knows where it would have taken me. But work and national service were calling and the performance plans took a back seat and have yet to materialise. But when I was working in Singapore a few years ago, I was asked to perform at an official dinner function in a premier hotel, where I had to dress up in a Red Indian chief outfit while playing the sape, all because I could not get hold an Orang Ulu traditional dress in time for the event!  

Nowadays, I only perform on social occasions such as staff retirement events, fund raising for charities, media events and so on to entertain clients, customers and stakeholders.  But I was the first sapè player to perform in the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, home of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. That’s another story though.

Performing at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.

The sape has taken me places and on its own road, one of the many that I have taken so far. In life, one’s roots do call back and all our experiences are an integral part of the milieu of influences and experiences that make up our foundation, shaping us into who we are. I hope that this sape story is one with some learning points and of enrichment to the reader. Encouraging us to go the limit of what is achievable in the things we want to do.

  • RWMF 2013 story;

  • Ode to the Rainforest;

The writer is the chief executive officer of Bintulu Port Holdings Berhad (Bintulu Port).