A life built on music and art – Alena Murang

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit


CARVED OUT OF THE BOLE of a tree, the traditional sape typically has two strings and three frets. In the olden days, it was considered taboo for women to even touch, let alone play as the lute instrument could only be played exclusively by men within the Orang Ulu community.

In the present day however, it is no longer taboo and so it is more common to see girls beginning to play the sape.

With her family’s support and encouragement from her mother, Alena Murang finds it quite natural to play the sape as she is part Kelabit herself.


DSR 1 20150613 Alena Murang

Alena Murang


“For me, it was very natural. No one told us we could not play it. I think the taboos were from the pre-Christian times and the Kelabit and Kenyah have left behind all those beliefs,” said Alena.

Alena recalls a discussion she had with Gini Gorlinski, an American researcher specialising in ethnomusicology she met during the Chicago World Music Festival in 2014.

“She told me that she was sitting with some sape players in Kalimantan and suddenly they were saying ‘the spirit is here, the spirit is here’. So, they took another sape, a specific one for that spirit, then a man would play with that sape to talk to that spirit,” she said.

“In the old days, priests were men and that is why women could not play the sape, but now there are no issues on women touching or playing the sape. It is actually very encouraged.”

At 14, Alena first learned to play the sape with her cousins from a well-known Kenyah sape player Matthew Ngau Jau, who is based in Bau.

According to Alena, Mathew travelled up from Bau to Kuching every Saturday for a two-hour sape lesson.

“He is such a lovely person and a good teacher. He is great because he teaches traditional songs and he would make sure that we know the traditional songs. He teaches by ear, no notes. He would make us sing either the lyrics or just the tunes,” said Alena.

“But then again, he would never restrict us, he would encourage us to find our own style. He would bring us along to his performances and have us play with him. He is a very encouraging person,” said Alena of her fond memories of her mentor.

Having played the sape since she was 14, Alena said that her style is not complicated and echoes a lot of Matthew’s style.

“But what makes me different is that I sing a lot with my sape. And sape with vocals is not traditional at all. So, I think that is what unique about me, because there are a lot of sape players now but not a lot of sape players that sing with their sape,” said Alena, noting another similarity in term of style with Matthew, who she believes is one of the first few to combine sape and vocals together.

Despite her variation on sape playing, she still prefers traditional tunes. “I don’t know whether it’s me being a romantic at heart. I like the tradition, the culture and the heritage.”

Alena’s favorite song to sing to with the sape is Pemung Ja’e. “I just love the tune, it makes me really calm.”

Matthew would teach her and her cousins traditional songs such as Datun Julud, and Liling, which are songs for dance.

Aside from that, Alena also remembered how Matthew’s wife, who she referred to as Aunty Candy also used to be present during their lessons.

“His wife Aunty Candy used to come sometimes to lessons, with cakes of course. She had such a beautiful smile and so much love for the music. Often she would begin dancing or singing along with the sape, and she used to tell me how she did beadwork,” said Alena.

“Both of them were school teachers too. Uncle Mathew and Aunty Candy are two people who radiate love, inclusiveness and humility; and practice and share their heritage whenever they can,” said Alena referring to both of them as her role models in playing sape.

“When I teach my students, I always think that it is important to learn all the traditional songs, but I encourage them to make it contemporary, so whatever appeals to them would also appeal to the younger generation, the wider audience,” she said.

Alena started giving private sape lessons two months ago to five students from Akademi Seni Budaya Dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara) in Kuala Lumpur.

“It was funded by Rakan Muda from April to May, but funding stopped last month and now I’m running these classes for free just for those five students and will be looking for more funding,” said Alena.

In addition to playing sape, Alena is also a visual artist and is now focusing on painting.

Citing Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork as her favourite when she was a child, she also admires Pete Mondrian’s artwork and Eliot Weinberger’s five-page long essay called ‘Stars’.

“My friend gave it to me to read on a Saturday and I only finished it on a Thursday. Every sentence is dripping in breath, in beauty, in magic and in power, I had to pause every few sentences, put down the book, and breathe. I think that’s the power of artwork, to evoke feelings or questions in the viewer,” she said.

While she may admire Van Gogh’s artwork for the texture and colour and Weinberger’s for his thought provoking pieces, Alena does not want to be compared to other artists but herself.

“In art I’d want to be compared with myself; with who I am in that moment and who I was and wasn’t in the second that just passed, or in the years before; compared to who I might or could become,” she said.

Growing up in Sarawak, most of her artwork are inspired by the people and the natural environment of Borneo.

“Recently I’ve been exploring the stories of the older generation of Kelabits and Penan, specifically from Long Peluan and Long Beruang. They have seen and experienced so much change in their lifetime, in so many aspects of life. They are such hard workers, and some of the kindest people I know,” said Alena.

While most of her artwork is generally inspired by the people and scenery of Sarawak, Alena also has real life situations that inspire her artwork.

“For many years I experienced a pain that was so intense I carried painkillers in every pocket until they didn’t work anymore. The symptoms were undiagnosed and the neurological pain manifested daily, and it affected me in many ways. The pain has left now. A while ago I read my journals and brought myself back to those years to deconstruct and reconcile. That experience led me to paint an abstract piece,” she recalled.

“It doesn’t seem like I’ve had just one experience that immediately inspires one piece. For me it’s been making sense of a few things over a period of time. In it’s ups and downs, life is so fascinating and I wish everyone could see that,” she said.

Having graduated from La Salle College of the Arts, Singapore last year, Alena remembered one of the most memorable response of her artwork was from her lecturers over a year ago.

“The one I think about often came from my art lecturers over a year ago  was ‘Alena, we can tell from your drawings that you are lost; but the marks that you make show that your intentions are clear,’” she recollected.

“I still don’t know what they were reading in my lines. They wouldn’t tell me what they meant, so that I’d explore and discover my own intentions and stimuli. I’m still exploring and learning and I always will,” she said.


DSR 2 20150613 Alena Murang


On June 13th , Alena was one of the panellists during a discussion on ‘Exposing Kuching-based art through entrepreneurship’ for Borak Arts Youth Series (BAYS), created by My performing Arts Agency (MyPAA). Held at the State Library, BAYS’ aim is to spark entrepreneurism among the Malaysian youth segment whose interests are in the arts and creative fields.

To know more about Alena’s music and artwork, check out her website at http://www.alenamurang.com/

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