From dreams into the mainstream
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
WHILE THE HISTORY OF how the sape came to be may be lost in the mists of time, old folktales tell of ‘Bali Dayung’, the witch doctor in ritual healing, whose wife fell ill due to a mysterious illness.
He tried various healing methods to cure her, meeting with other witch doctors and trying all kinds of available traditional remedies, but none proved successful.
One night, he dreamt of meeting an old man who asked him to cut a piece of ‘adau’ wood (Cephalomappa spp.) to craft a sape, which he had to play to heal his wife.
Upon waking, the man shaped the sape and played it in hopes his wife would recover, and she was miraculously cured. After her recovery, the man continued his interest in developing the sape based on his creativity.
“In most of the legends, the actual origin of the instrument is not clarified, but the importance of dreams and spirits in the establishment of tradition can be seen,” pointed out music programme lecturer from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) Connie Lim Keh Nie during a talk organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum (FoSM).
“Today, the musical instrument is often used as a symbol in promoting Malaysia in the areas of arts, culture and tourism,” said Connie during the talk on the evolution of the instrument in how it is played and its repertoire.
What sape is used as today
As a traditional musical instrument among the Orang Ulu community in Sarawak, the sape was solely used to provide music as a source of entertainment at festivals and also as an instrument to heal the sick, but since the 1970s, it is often played for tourism promotional tours and state official functions.
Perhaps the first time the sape took the world stage was when two Kenyah Lepo Tau sape players – Iran Lahang and Jalong Tanyit from Long Mengkaba – performed and demonstrated the art of sape-playing in Tokyo, Japan during Asian Traditional Performing Arts (ATPA) week in 1976.
Aside from that, the late Tusau Padan performed for Queen Elizabeth during her official visit to Sarawak in 1972, and later showcased the sape music for a Datun Julud dance in Darwin, Australia, Los Angeles, California, as well as Tokyo.
The evolution of sape-making
The sape is traditionally described as a two-stringed lute instrument. When it comes to the traditional instrument, furthermore, there is no standardised measurement or tuning as it is based on the size of the log it was cut from.
Traditionally made from the ‘adau’ tree, today different types of wood are used such as jelutong, coconut trees and the cempedak tree.
According to Connie, the evolution of sape-making started in the early 21st century where it had developed from a traditional sape to a contemporary one with modern electrical modifications like the volume knob, mono jack socket, and tuning peg.
Since the sape was initially a two-stringed instrument with three adjustable frets, the note range of a traditional sape was limited.
“Now, sape comes in four-stringed, five-stringed and six-stringed versions and is able to produce a three-octave note range,” Connie said.
“According to Jerry Kamit, a contemporary sape player, a six-stringed sape has opened the opportunity for a sape player to play melody with chordal accompaniment simultaneously. The tuning of a sape could also be altered based on the scale of the piece.”
As of now, there are even more initiatives underway to develop contemporary sapes, with one of them being Head of Music Department of Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV), Narawi Rashidi who created a contemporary acoustic sape by joining pieces of hardwood together to produce the boat-shaped lute sape.
Unlike the traditional sape which is hollow in the back, the ones built by Narawi is enclosed like a Western acoustic guitar, prompting Narawi to construct a small round opening at the upper sound board to project sound more efficiently and allow the sounding board to vibrate more freely.
“Other prominent contemporary sape craftsmen are Dines Ngau Wan, a Kayan from Uma Bawang, Baram, who produces sape in different sizes and Francis Kujen, a Bidayuh from Kuching whose sape is more rounded in shape and thus more comfortable for players to hold, “said Connie.
Contemporary sape craftsmen
Since the innovation of traditional sape to more modern, electric versions, younger generations have become more interested in playing it.
“With the instrument undergoing rapid innovation, many people became attracted to the timbre of the instrument and some taking the initiative to learn more about Sarawak traditional music,” said Connie.
Among the notable contemporary sape musical groups who incorporated this instrument in their repertoire are Tuku’ Kame’, a Sarawak contemporary music band founded in 1998 at SCV, Nading Rhapsody, an ethnic music band comprising of young local musicians, Sada Borneo and Didit Dinai.
“It is proven that this musical instrument is now hitting the global market as it’s simple and easy way of playing has enabled those wishing to learn the art of sape playing regardless of race and nationality, to master it in no time,’ she added.
While it was either played as a solo instrument or as part of a traditional repertoire, the sape has been incorporated as part of the Malaysian Traditional Orchestra either played as a solo instrument or as the accompaniment playing the harmony, counter melody and melody filler during a performance.
Where before, the tuning of the sape affected the possibility of it being played with other instruments, the addition of an amplifier to the sape enables it to produce a loud and dynamic sound, perfect for use as stage performance and professional sape recordings.
“This innovation has opened an opportunity for a solo player to have solo performances on stage for a bigger audience,” said Connie.
Over the decades, sape craftsmen have tried to improve the craftsmanship in sape making and the changes has been welcoming and especially appealing to the younger generation as the impact of the instrument can be seen in the lifestyle of many people as well as in the art, and culture of the people around us.
But can these changes be truly accepted without undermining the traditional value of the instrument?
Watch this sape performance by Saufi Ahman Yahya: