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The all-female band breaking taboos in Malaysian music

Ahead of Ilu Leto’s appearance at this month’s Rainforest World Music Festival, Southeast Asia Globe grabbed a quick word with co-founder Alena Murang

Will Feuer
July 13, 2017

Ahead of Ilu Leto’s appearance at this month’s Rainforest World Music Festival, Southeast Asia Globe grabbed a quick word with co-founder Alena Murang

Tell us a little about your band…
We formed in 2017, so we’re quite new. There are only a few professional female sape players around – three of us are based in Kuala Lumpur and three of us live in Borneo, and sometimes we play together, [so] we decided to put together a band of six. We’re called Ilu Leto, which means “Us ladies” or “We, the ladies” in Kenyah, an Austronesian language and [the name of] one of the tribes in Sarawak.
What role does heritage play in your performances?
A very large role. Between us band members we come from different tribes – in Sarawak there exists over 50 different tribes. Within the band we have Iban, we have Kelabit, we have Malay and we have Kenyah. We have different upbringings, but we also have common things. Although we mostly sing Kenyah songs, we’re also integrating songs from the other tribes, from our own individual heritage and sharing them with each other.
What message does Ilu Leto seek to convey through music and dance?
We aim to share our cultural heritage with a wider group of people, and I think it also is a bit of a symbol of how our tribal communities have gone through a lot of change… in the past 10, 20, 50 years. The sape used to not even be touched by women, and it’s no longer a taboo because we just don’t live in that context any more… We’re all contemporary girls. We also listen to mainstream music, we watch mainstream TV, we dress like people in magazines do… But this is our heritage and this is how we choose to experience, learn and share it.
Any special plans for your performance at the Rainforest World Music Festival?
Yes, of course. It’s going to be a presentation of young female voices, a little bit of dance, there will be a little bit of nostalgia. It’s going to be graceful, but powerful – let’s just leave it at that.
Where and when: Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Malaysia, 14 July – 16 July.



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