Lamentations of Kelabit women told in song

By Patricia Hului


TAYLOR SWIFT IS MANY THINGS. She is a songwriter, an actress and of course, a singer.

Most of all, however, she is storyteller. She tells stories through her songs, mostly on her relationships with men.

‘Teardrops on My Guitar’ was based on a boy named Drew, many suspected ‘Back to December’ was about Taylor Lautner, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ was rumoured to be about John Mayer and the list goes on and on.

In the northernmost parts of Sarawak live the Kelabit people on a mountain range called the Kelabit Highlands.

The women there have been lamenting about the men in their lives through songs way before Swift was born.

Their laments fit under a genre of Kelabit traditional songs called ‘lakuh’, composed and sung by women.

The Kelabits make up one of the many minor ethnicities in Sarawak, and while it is estimated that there are about 6,000 of them, no one knows how many Kelabit women there are left who can sing the ‘lakuh’.

So I considered myself lucky to be able to meet with Sinah Radu Ulun, one of the few known Kelabit women who know how to sing ‘lakuh’.


Sinah Radun Ulun

Sinah Radu Ulun hails from Long Lellang Bario.


The meeting would not be possible without Datin Valerie Mashman, who is currently conducting research in the oral history in the Kelabit Highlands for her PhD thesis, inviting her to sing during a public talk about the singing tradition which was organized by Friends of Sarawak Museum (FOSM) on Oct 25.

Sinah is in her 70s and hails from Long Lellang Bario.

She has lived her life in different villages accompanying her late husband, Kebing Balan on his postings as a village paramedical officer, otherwise widely known in the rural areas as a ‘dresser’.

With Mashman helping me with details on her background and translation, Sinah told me she first learnt to sing ‘lakuh’ when she was in her 20s from her mother.

The singing tradition is learnt and passed on from one singer to another. Mashman explained how a lakuh came as a means for a women to put their point of views across and express their feelings, pointing out an example of one lakuh which was composed and sung by a woman named Dayang Ibuh around the 1930s.

‘Lakuh’, Mashman explained is usually about love triangles, misunderstandings, and challenges to gossip.


Datin Valerie Mashman explaining what the 'lakuh' is and the elements of traditional Kelabit daily life.

Datin Valerie Mashman explaining what the ‘lakuh’ is and the elements of traditional Kelabit daily life.


For Dayang, her ‘lakuh’ was about her experience hosting the death feast or ‘irau’ of her own mother together with her husband, Anye’ Loong.

Sinah who knew Anye’ before he passed away in Long Peluan in the 1970s said she heard Dayang’s ‘lakuh’ from her mother Mada Ulun and Sina Do’ Pu’un.

Mashman enlightened me that in accordance to traditional Kelabit funeral customs the deceased would be placed in a wooden coffin on the outside wall of the family section of the longhouse and remain there until the family had accumulated enough food for a feast.

During this feast, Anye’ had overextended his hospitality until there was not enough food for the guests to eat.

Dayang’s story told through her ‘lakuh’ was that she was forced to give up her turquoise glass beads in exchange for rice to feed the visitors as barter trade was common in the olden days before proper currency.

What is the big deal trading off your beads anyway?

“A woman wears her bead necklaces, cap and belt on occasion when she needs to indicate her standing that she is really a woman of quality or ‘lun doo’,” Mashman clarified.

“To take this away you lose everything. Many women will weep when she has to part with her beads”.

But, it would also be disgraceful if the guests were not properly fed.

Dayang’s ‘lakuh’ ends with her departure from Anye’. She sings how she is moving away from the scene of the ‘irau’ on a journey, accompanied by a man named Balang Lipang.

Before I fell for Dayang’s story and felt pity for her, Mashman pointed out that according to a relative, Anye’ was a man of resources and Dayang did not sell her beads at all.

She allegedly left Anye’ for Balang whom she had known for some time and Balang left his wife for Dayang.

Did she really sell her beads? Did she leave her husband for another man? If not, why did she come up with the ‘lakuh’?

Mashman interpreted that Dayang composed this ‘lakuh’ to present a distorted perspective of Anye’ to slur his reputation and undermine his standing.

“’Lakuh’ is a powerful subjective tool which has the power to give a personal perspective, to change meaning of events, to change reputations,” she stated.

What had Anye’ thought about his wife singing about his household expenditure – or lack of – to the public?

According to Sinah, he was glad to be Dayang’s muse because then he could tell his side of the story.

No one seemed to be able to clarify how Anye’ told his version of the story though. Was it through song as well?

That is how important it is to collect and record more ‘lakuh’ and other Kelabit traditional songs before they are lost with the passing of the older generation.


Louise Macul from Friends of Sarawak Museum giving Sinah a momento.

Louise Macul from Friends of Sarawak Museum giving Sinah a momento.


Mashman is working on collecting and recording these oral traditions, “I want to record more songs that Sinah has and with the help of my husband to translate them. They will be part of a website that will be created in the process of my PhD.”

Besides Sinah, Mashman is also working with another woman and a man who for her recordings on Kelabit oral traditions.

On the survival of these oral traditions, Mashman said that: “The survival of oral tradition is very much depending on the motivation of the community. If the community feels motivated and they feel the songs are relevant, they’ll continue to ask them to be sung”.

Perhaps from now on Kelabit’s younger generation should start making ‘lakuh’ requests.

Watch Sinah perform the lakuh here:


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