How to make a living playing one of the world’s most unusual instruments

Musician and artist Alena Murang grew up immersed in the traditional music of Borneo’s Kelabit, Kenyah and Penan people. One of the first women to openly perform with and teach the sape, the 27-year-old has taken her people’s unique sounds around the world and last month released her debut EP, Flight.

Holly Robertson
September 16, 2016
How to make a living playing one of the world’s most unusual instruments
Malaysian musician and artist Alena Murang. Photo: Edmund Wong

Do you remember the first time you picked up an instrument?

I actually don’t. I started playing classical guitar when I was nine; I remember first picking up the saxophone when I was ten and falling in love with it completely. I begged and begged and begged for one, and finally got one when I was 15. For me, playing a musical instrument is kind of an extension of me. It’s just a way of expressing myself. I’m not great at theory, I’m not great at rhythm either, but I just love it.

How did you come to play the sape, when it is traditionally only played by men?

Me and my girl cousins were learning traditional dance, but we were dancing to a CD track or had to look for one of the live sape players around town. One day, we decided if some of us learnt the sape, we could start making our own rhythms and our own dance steps. We approached a sape master, Matthew Ngau, and he taught us. Only last year, he said that 12 years ago when we approached him to learn he was questioning whether he should teach us because we were girls, but at the same time, no one from our generation was learning and hardly anyone in his generation played, so he taught us and, since then, there has been a big uptake in the sape.

You’ve recently released your first EP of traditional songs. Tell us a bit about it…

Last year, I never thought I would have had an EP by this time this year, and it’s been quite an organic process. I was nervous at first, but I’m glad that it’s out there and it’s accessible to my community and to others also.

How important is it to you to preserve traditional music and reach a new generation of listeners?

It’s important for me to know where we come from and know our traditional music. I acknowledge that traditions and cultures change and they have to be relevant – they’re not in the past but they’re in the present. I just see that the music is dying, and way too fast, and it’s dying because my community became Christian, and they put aside a lot of those things. But, actually, those songs can go alongside Christianity today and, therefore, I don’t think there’s a good reason for us to lose it. It’s important because we are losing our language, and songs are one way to keep it alive.

In 2014, you embarked on an eight-week tour of the US. What was it like taking your music to a country that was unfamiliar with such sounds?

It was an eye-opener for me, and that trip really gave me the push to push sape music, because I saw there was a demand for it overseas and there’s a curiosity for it. People outside of Malaysia, and in the West as well, they’ve seen photos of indigenous instruments from around the world but not a lot of people at all – even in Malaysia – have seen the sape or heard of it at all. So it’s an old instrument, but it’s new to many people, and to many listeners. So it was great to be able to share it because people wanted to listen.

Is it possible to make a living as a musician and artist in Malaysia?

I was just talking to some government officials about this. They said: ‘What do artists need in Malaysia?’ And we all said: ‘Funds.’ It’s very hard to make a living here, as it is in many countries, but here there’s quite a lot of stigma – your parents are very worried if you become an artist, because it’s quite hard to earn money. But in the past four to five years you see a lot more corporate funding for the arts, and you see a lot more demand for the arts. It’s very tough, but it is possible.

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