Sape' Artiste Alena Murang's New Album Showcases Her Bornean Heritage
It was back in 2019 that Alena Murang and her cousin-cum-producer Joshua Maran first worked on a demo for her single Gitu'an, a dreamy, ethereal track with lyrics in Kelabit, one of many endangered languages in Malaysia. Another song of hers, Meno', was written in Kenyah, another endangered language native to Sarawak. Though not fluent in either Kelabit or Kenyah, Murang threw her heart and soul into the project, working with aunts and other family members to master the nuances of the languages and their pronunciation.
Breaking barriers and overturning taboos as the first female professional sape' player and teacher in Malaysia, Murang has gone on to perform in music festivals around the world, earning an award in March 2021 from the Sarawak government in recognition of her contributions to this indigenous musical art form. Currently, Murang is part of the Roads To Our Heritage project which aims to promote the stories of native music craftsman in Sabah and Sarawak.
Unsurprisingly, Murang's masterful sape' skills feature strongly in both singles Gitu'an and Meno' as well as in other tracks in her new album Sky Songs, which officially launched in March 2021.
The follow-up to her EP Flight released in 2016, Sky Songs features four songs in the Kelabit language, one song in Kenyah, two instrumental tracks and an English song. Come May 2021, the album will be released digitally, just in time for the Hari Gawai celebration in Sarawak.
Three years in the making, this album is close to Murang's heart for several reasons. Though a pandemic got in the way of its initial 2020 release, Murang and her bandmates Jonathan Wong, Herman Ramanado, Jimmy Chong, Derrick Siow and Niko Coyez persevered, despite being unable to be together in the same recording studio due to travel restrictions.
Now enjoying some much-needed breathing space after its launch, Murang reflects on her desire to preserve the beauty and authenticity of her Dayak-Kelabit heritage in contemporary ways. The album, while inspired by the ancient stories of Bornean ancestors, is a musical love letter to future generations.
What's the story behind the album's name, Sky Songs?
The album is called Sky Songs because it is a representation of our ancestors and how sacred our lives on Earth are. Our ancestors had a special relationship with the universe. They said that the sky was like a "big sunhat dome". I chose to sing in Kenyah and Kelabit languages because I want to keep them alive, and this is my way of preserving our beautiful heritage in hope that it is still there for future generations to accept and appreciate.
How do you think that songs in Kenyah and Kelabit will impact modern listeners?
There is so much beauty and importance in learning the languages because language shapes how a community sees the world. I learned them through songs when I was just a young kid. And when I started performing them when I was older, like at university in England where I also brought my sape' along with me, I would see audiences react in a beautiful way even though they didn't even understand a word. It taught me that music is the language.
With the album out, what are you most excited for in the coming months?
I’m currently in talks with a Taiwanese world music distribution label—I've been focusing on the Taiwanese Chinese market and have been quite active in Taiwan in recent years, so I'm excited for that. We’re also going to release our music video for the song Warrior Spirit, from the album. It’s from the same team that did the Midang Midang music video in 2019, which won several awards.
How did the pandemic keep you busy in 2020?
A week before the MCO happened in March 2020, we did the photoshoot for the Sky Songs album cover. We were set to release the album in July 2020. When the pandemic hit, we had to temporarily halt recording. That's when I started doing these sape' sound baths on IG live and FB live. I had never done online live shows before, and I found that with that medium, you’re stripped down to just you and your music— it's only your voice and your instrument.
I wasn’t dressed glamorously, I wasn’t even wearing makeup, and I didn’t bother about lighting during these livestream sessions. It was really about the music, and I felt that people really took to that. There were those who said that it moved them to tears. And there were those going through a hard time and said the music calmed them down. I think that kept me going with my music.
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What are the common misconceptions about indigenous music?
Currently, words like 'indigenous' and 'native' are very sexy and hyped-up. Sometimes, there are expectations that you’re meant to look a certain way, or live a certain way. A lot of people I work with are Sabahans and Sarawakians. If anything, we want to show people that we’re the same as everyone else. We grew up as urban kids, we have roots in the kampung, but this is our identity. We’re not primitive, and we don’t always show up in full traditional costumes.
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What have you learnt about the nature of this music throughout your journey?
People sometimes ask me what is the importance of preserving the music of this culture. Over the years, I've begun to realise that I’m not preserving it. I’m not playing it like my uncle did or like my grandfather did. It just keeps evolving and I think that’s how cultures can stay alive—by adapting and evolving.
How do you think your Dayak-Kelabit heritage resonates with your fans?
For me, it has always been about telling our stories through songs and keeping the culture alive. And I’m really happy that people see the project for that, and not for just Alena Murang. So for everyone who worked on this project with me, the album tells their stories as well.
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