I had come to Sarawak primarily for a quick, albeit on-the-surface, immersion of its traditional music as practiced by its people in the longhouses. I had spent the previous day at the longhouses at Benuk and Annah Rais and had experienced nothing. More of a sight-seeing trip really.
Of course, a day’s excursion to a village to visit a musician, see him make an instruments, and have him play it isn’t much but it was all I could manage given the very limited time and even more limited funds.
I had previously made arrangements with David Lim, a guide referred to by Danney Tan whom I found in a website that engages independent guides. Though it was something quite new to David who was more of a nature guide, he nevertheless rose-up to the challenge and found me a musician in a seldom-visited village in the Borneo Highlands and a visit to world-famous sape player, Matthew Ngau Jau, whose profile is used in the Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival marketing materials. The day trip cost me RM 250 for the car hire and RM 100 for David’s services. It was quite steep since I was alone but it was well worth it.
We made an early start for the Borneo Highlands at 8am from the Berambih Lodge where I was staying; going through the same piece of highway I had taken earlier towards Annah Rais. During the long ride, I had gotten to know more of David. He was part-Thai and part Bidayuh who quite his job as a disciplinary officer at Malaysian Airlines to work as a free-lance guide while helping his friend run Beds Lodge in Kuching. It was a dream job for me. I told him how much I wanted to set-up my own adventure company that will bring people to seldom-visited places in the Philippines and to experience real local culture. Anyway, back to my story.
At Annah Rais, we stopped at a small shack and had some local coffee while we stretched our legs. I was lucky having gone the previous day with hardly a crowd as the place was teeming with people that day. A few minutes later, we were off up an unsealed road that climbed higher and higher and left the crowds of tourists behind. Phew!
It was green green everywhere. Gorgeous landscape of rolling hills and mountains with nary another vehicle in sight. We finally pulled to a small clearing beside a curving road and David pointed to a small house up a small hill accessible by a short flight of steps carved out from the soil.
Meeting Kirat was my first introduction to village politics. Acting like a coordinator for the village and the local government, it was his responsibility to see to it that the needs of the community as far as government services such as road repair, hygiene, infrastructure etc are provided for, which is not an easy task given typical government bureaucracy. He doesn’t decided on matters pertaining to the social and cultural life which is the duty of the village headman. He was very nice and even accompanied us to the house of the musician. Learning that I was Filipino, he exclaimed that there was a Filipina there who was in one of her regular visits teaching them organic farming. What a surprise!
Rosie had been visiting the village for the past three years as a volunteer from her church. She had grown fond of the village and visits from time-to-time. She had just made a brief visit and was on her way back to the lowlands bringing with her some edible plants. She was apparently well-accepted and appreciated by the community as people were quite excited when they learned that I, too was a Filipino. That was one Pinay making a difference in the world through her own personal efforts.
The village is set in a small plateau surrounded by hills and the mountain ranges of Kalimantan. In fact, the border was just less than a hundred kilometers away as the crow flies. It was all very pretty especially at the top of the hill where some of the houses were.
David was right about the village not being in the tourist trail as there was no other visitor there except me and Rosie. The villagers were very friendly and I even took the time to chat with a few of them who were gathered in a circle at some sort of verandah just before the longhouse.
I had come at an opportune time as it was Easter Sunday and the community was making pugang, rice cooked in bamboo tubes. I was invited to go see them make it. Men and women were unloading baskets of freshly-cut bamboo which was bring cleaned and filled with rice and water. These were then steamed over fire. The juice from the bamboo seeps into the rice adding more flavor and aroma to it.
We followed a dirt path to the longhouse and into a concrete house where Rison, the musician lived. Still attached to the longhouse, Rison’s house had been modernized with concrete but unpainted walls. However, the interiors remained essentially traditional— no walls and no furniture. Some kids were having a mid-morning meal with their plates of rice and viands on the floor as they ate with their fingers.
Using a type of bamboo called patung, it took Rison about half an hour to make the 3-stringed bamboo zither. The tube measured just over an arm’s length and was newly-cut. Strips of the skin were raised and frets were placed at both ends to provide tension to the string. These were placed in specific positions so as to create a specific tone for each string. Small flat boards were clipped on the two strings on first and third strings. These were suspended over small holes bored on the bamboo. The strings were struck by a thin stick to produce a lovely vibrating sound. The boards were never struck, though.
Scrounging at his backyard, Rison returned with two small and thin bamboo tubes with one end scraped away. This was a pair of bamboo stamping tubes with the longer and lower one dubbed as the “male” one and the other “female.” This accompanied the playing of the zither. Rison was a masterful musician. Though the music was repetitive, it was not boring to listen to as he made music out of the bamboo strings. Another guy, Hosen would sometimes tap on one end of the bamboo tube or play the stamping tubes with Kirat who also displayed his musicianship with a few numbers.
There was so much to learn about the instruments from Rison such as that it could be played as an ensemble with two to four players playing together. It could also be played as a solo instrument. I offered to buy the instrument from him. David later confided to me that Rison having no concept of the monetary value of his instruments and his efforts on making it, offered it at RM 10 to which David told him it was too late and suggested RM 50 for it. Not a bad deal considering that it also included his playing of it. I also took the two stamping tubes with me which amused them, including David, as they were just scraps and I could easily make one at home. I tried in vain to explain to them, that it what was junk to them was valuable specimen to me.
It was past noon when we made our way out of the village. We drove back towards the direction of Kuching for lunch at a simple eatery in Satok.
Sounds of the Sape
Storm clouds had been gathering as we made our way to the house of Matthew Ngau Jau. We made it time to his place just as the rain poured. He was out cutting some bamboo for the Bidayuh head house he was building adjacent to the longhouse where we sought shelter. The family compound was set prettily on a green patch away from the main road in the district of Bau.
The family lived in simple modern concrete houses but Matthew had built a longhouse for a simple homestay and a place to teach sape.
Matthew arrived a few minutes later. The simplicity of the man and his warm and endearing ways does not belie his stature as one of the superstars of the sape, the Orang Ulu lute that has become the icon of Sarawak’s musical heritage. Over glasses of sweetish tuak, which his two workers on the his head house passed around, he talked about his home stay program. Only able to accommodate five guests at a time, it was unlike that of the more commercial ones. He would bring them to see the caves upriver in Bau and in the evenings, his wife would demonstrate Bidayuh cooking while he would play the sape as his son performed the warrior dance.
The rains finally ceased and he played the sape. I’ve always liked the sound of traditional lutes such as our own Maguindanaon kutyapi and T’boli hegalong. The melodies are haunting and the drone lends an hypnotic aural feel to the music. Matthew reminisced about the old days of the sape which then had just two strings but later on became 3 then eventually 4 which is the more common one found today. He says that the younger generation uses as much as six strings but he doesn’t like it as it sounds like a guitar already. Whereas before, only men were allowed to play the instrument, now he has more women than men students.
Underneath the longhouse was his workshop where unfinished sape mutely stood in rows waiting to be fashioned into musical instruments under the deft craftsmanship of Matthew. I would have bought one if not for the prohibitive cost.
We bade goodbye to Matthew and thanked him for is time. I would have bought the box zither for RM 200 which was an instruments I had not seen being sold anywhere but I was running low on my budget. I promised to get one when I returned in July for the Rainforest Music Festival. He was very kind and said he’d keep one for me.
I really enjoyed myself today and every moment was a well worth it.