There are many ways to describe Alena Murang. An artist, dancer, musician, teacher, activist, social entrepreneur. But perhaps ‘cultural ambassador’ to her home state Sarawak would encapsulate Murang the most.
I believe we, especially the younger generation, are very curious of what it means to be a Malaysian. Embracing and restoring our cultural heritage is the way to do it.
Her sheer talent on the Sarawak lute instrument sape, accompanied by the songstress’ ethereal singing in the Kenyah and Kelabit languages has renewed, if not ignited, curiosity and appreciation towards the Bornean traditional musical instrument and to a certain extent, Sarawak’s 40-odd sub-ethnic groups and their culture.
“I’m able to have a career as a sape player, based in Kuala Lumpur because people are still curious about the Sarawakian stories we tell through my music,” says Murang.
“I believe we, especially the younger generation, are very curious of what it means to be a Malaysian. Embracing and restoring our cultural heritage is the way to do it.”
She says musical instruments should find more mainstream avenues for showcasing and not merely as props in tourism promotions snippets.
Raised in Kuching, the Kelabit-Eurasian immersed in the arts at a young age. She learnt saxophone and guitar, and at age six, took up traditional dancing lessons with her cousins.
While dancing to the same CDs over and over, Murang thought that by learning sape, she and her cousins could dance to different tunes.
But taking up the traditional instrument did come with challenges; the sape was only played during healing ceremonies, an instrument shamans used in the rumah panjangs (longhouses) use to call on spirits. In fact, the guitar-like instrument was considered taboo for women to touch, let alone play.
Despite hesitations, Murang managed to convince legendary Kenyah Ngorek sape maker and player Mathew Ngau Jau to teach her.
“I didn’t realise, until a few years ago when I did an interview with him (Matthew), to find out why he taught us the sape. He said because there was hardly anyone left in his generation who played the sape - which was my father’s generation.”
“He needed to teach someone. So, he taught me and my cousins.”
Despite being a classically trained guitarist, Murang says she did find the sape difficult to master. “It is similar to the guitar because it’s a stringed instrument but in many ways, it is also very different.”
“What makes the sape unique is the playing technique. There’s a technique called flicking.” Flicking, as well tapping and muting techniques, are what gives the sape a unique sound.
Growing up, music became a refuge of sorts for Murang, as she is often regarded as a bit different among her peers.
“I looked very European.” Murang’s mother is Italian. “I would get called all kinds of horrible names. I realised that kids can be really mean if you don’t look like them.”
“A big portion of my art addresses racism and bullying. My whole artistic journey has been about discovering who I am and finding my voice as an artist.”
The Manchester Business School graduate also struggled to decide if leaving a stable, corporate job in an auditing firm for an uncertain music career was the right choice.
“My parents ask what my plan was - and I had no idea,” she says chuckling.
“I didn’t know how I was going to make it but it felt right and I needed to just trust my decision.”
“Even today, I’m still scared, not knowing what next year is going to look like for me.”
Murang is self-effacing, though. Her talent has brought her to the world stages, from Spain’s Etnosur multicultural festival to Norway’s Førde Festival, Scandinavia’s largest traditional music and dance event. Her work has been featured on documentaries, and the Paris Fashion Week, even.
She is, of course, a familiar fixture at Sarawak’s Rainforest World Music Festival; Murang and her cousins had performed at the event as a band when they were still teenagers.
Apart from her solo career, Murang regularly performs with five other Borneo artists in an all-female sape band Ilu Leto (We The Ladies), which she founded.
And if she’s not on stage, you can likely find her at the Zhongshan building in Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur that houses Art4 Studio, a social enterprise Murang founded to foster a positive social and environmental impact through the arts.
“When I first started playing the sape 18 years ago, I would say it was probably a dying instrument. But now, the instrument that is very much alive,” says Murang as she strums her way to make cultural traditions relevant to today’s world.