Making Melodies: Alena Murang Discusses Musical Heritage And Embracing Our Culture


November 21, 2018 | BY Rachel Ng

Alena Murang has come very far from her childhood days in Sarawak but her message remains intact. The artist, musician, cultural activist and Generation T honouree shares a deep appreciation for Malaysia’s musical heritage, having elevated the soothing tones of the sape into the spotlight and along with it, a genre music that is often overlooked. She took some time off during her recent tour to talk to us about her journey as well as her thoughts on the future of indigenous music in Malaysia.

What made you choose the sape?

My cousins and I learnt to ngarang (dance) since the age of six. We picked up sape at age twelve because we wanted to be able to play sape whilst some other cousins danced. Though mainly a Kenyah instrument, Kelabits adopted sape' music and it is part of our heritage. 

Read also: Alena Murang: Musical Escapades From Kuching to Kuala Lumpur

You overcame a taboo to play the sape and sing old Kelabit songs, what are your thoughts on taboos and glass ceilings that are in the way of our younger generation nowadays? What tips would you give them on forging ahead with their path when faced with adversity?

It was a taboo for girls to play sape because it was used in old healing rituals and the healers were men. When the community embraced Christianity in 1930s - 1970s, the taboos were no longer relevant, as were some of the healing songs. 

I would say that when confronted with a taboo, understand why it is/ was a taboo and what it might mean for you to break that. Have conversations about it with the community and your peers. Young generations are cultural vessels so we also should play an active role in making such decisions. Of course, I was very young when I started to learn these songs and play sape, at the time I was guided by my parents, aunties and Mathew Ngau, my sape' master.

Instead of trying to follow modern trends, I think we should let our differences shine, learn of other people's differences ... that will truly help us understand and love each other better.

As a custodian of culture, what are your thoughts about the disappearance of many traditional cultures in our modern society? 

Culture is static and present. Culture is who and what we are now. Our contemporary culture especially in urban environments tend to steer towards homogeneity - following global fashion trends, listening to the same Billboard music. Holding on to our unique heritage and making them present I think will do us so much good. Knowing our roots and feeling connected to our past is important to make sense of who we are today. Also, instead of trying to follow modern trends, I think we should let our differences shine, learn of other people's differences ... that will truly help us understand and love each other better. The values in cultural heritage, delivered through customs and art forms, are also greatly needed in our world today -- values of community, being together, sharing, living with the natural environment.

How can we incorporate more of our culture into society?

We can incorporate more of our heritage into society by first knowing and being proud of our heritage, only then can we truly live it. 

What were the challenges you faced in the past two years  with regards to your career and how did you overcome them?

Lifting the value of our ethnic music in the mainstream realm. I truly believe and know that our music and art should be at a higher market value than it is, not just performing for the Cuti-Cuti Malaysia type of shows, but to enter mainstream contexts. In this day and age, it is especially hard to learn heritage song and music - from finding and connecting with a master and building that trust, to purchasing a traditional instrument and customising it to be suitable to travel with and perform with. It really isn't as simple as mastering the guitar or piano. We invest a lot of time, money and relationship into mastering ethnic song and dance, and there aren't many of us who do this professionally. Through ART4 Studio and through the KL Sape' Collective (which we founded in 2016), we make sure that the musicians we work with are fairly paid and fairly treated, whilst maintaining the context of our culture.  

Finding an arts ecosystem to support my development as an artist is also one of the challenges. In the USA for example, there are music managers focused on different genres of music, acting in service of the artists in areas such as artist development, branding, wellness, thought partnership, bookings and strategy for the artists. In Malaysia I haven't seen this network in the world music arena, which is different because our music is different from the mainstream. In World Music, our purpose is wider than the music or the musician, usually linked to messages of the Earth, nature, being together, intangible knowledge (cultural values). Musicians also work closely with their communities and often seen as cultural ambassadors representing their people. Without getting into too much detail for you, these two differences mean that in some ways we don't fit in perfectly to the mainstream models of the music industry. I'm still working through this challenge by connecting with indigenous music networks outside of Malaysia. Currently I manage myself and have the KL Sape Collective and some industry friends to talk through things. 

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What changes would you like to see or help drive in our country?

I'd like to see a vibrant arts scene in Malaysia where people can participate in the arts no matter geography, economic background, gender or political stance. I'd like to see us comfortably hold on to our cultural heritage. 

Read also: 7 Malaysian Artists To Watch In 2018

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