Sape master


As published in the Star Weekender and Star Online Travel & Adventure, 31 March 2007. copy of article also found online at, 2 April 2007.


It’s Visit Malaysia Year, so why not experience an Orang Ulu longhouse stay in Sarawak and learn to play their lute.

I wake up, and think I have died and gone to heaven. Long rays of light shine above me, breaking into a woven, starry pattern. The bamboo walls of my room glow a soft amber. A choir of frogs punctuate the otherwise silent morning.

A few moments later, a rhythmic chipping sound breaks my trance. The sape man has gone to work.

I am in Singai, in a longhouse built by Sape Master Mathew Ngau Jau, 54, and his wife, Candy Ak Biron, 56. The longhouse is 45 minutes from Kuching – if you know the way.

Otherwise, follow all roads leading to Bau town and be on the lookout for a Orang Ulu longboat on the right side of the road, which indicates the junction to the longhouse.

I arrived the previous afternoon and was put right to work learning how to play the sape. The sape is an Orang Ulu instrument originally attributed to the Kenyah and Kayan tribes. Spanning over four feet, the sape is about the same length as a guitar but weighs twice as much. The instrument is classified as a lute and has three or four strings. Just about every advertisement you hear on Sarawak carries the haunting sound of the sape.

Mathew tells me that you can’t simply make up a tune for the sape. The songs played on the sape today are all passed down the generations. Some are for ceremonial dances. Some have lyrics that tell stories.

To learn these songs is to learn the Orang Ulu culture and to get glimpse into their ancient traditions. The song Leiling, for example, tells the story of a traveller who is welcomed warmly to a longhouse. After a day of celebration, the traveller leaves his newfound friends, and the longhouse folk wish him safety on his journey across the rivers. There is a hint of sadness, as the traveller and the Orang Ulu may never meet each other again.

The best sape is made of Adau wood, and there is a romantic Orang Ulu story associated with this.

It is said that a long time ago there was a pair of passionate lovers. One day, the girl became ill, and her condition worsened despite treatment. Her lover was distraught. One night, the girl had a dream in which she heard beautiful Sape music coming from Adau trees. When she woke up, she told her lover, and he immediately set out to the forest and carved a sape from Adau wood. The girl recovered.

Since then the sape has been considered a magical instrument and used by Orang Ulu shamans in healing rituals.

The earliest sape used a creeper called Iman for strings.The strong and fibrous veins emitted a range of low tones. It was only with the coming of the British that the Orang Ulu got ideas for metal strings.

British bicycle brake cables, and later telephone cables started to go missing. The Orang Ulu discovered that the metal “strings” were durable and emitted higher tones. The sape strings today are made from metal fishing lines, bought from local grocery stores.

Unlike the guitar strings, which go progressively from the low keys to the high keys, the sape strings alternate between high and low. The frets also differ from string to string. I learnt that playing the sape boils down to understanding the basic tune. Beyond that, each individual player lends his own flavour on the song.

While learning the basic tune is easy enough with a good ear and little practice, tapping and sliding are a little more experimental. My attempt at a tune sounded nothing like Mathew’s rendition.

The designs found on the sape are from a variety of Orang Ulu motives. Unlike the tribal ceremonial shield, which essentially portrays angry motifs, a sape’s motif is determined solely by the sape maker himself. Orang Ulu design is largely drawn from its portrayal of the “tree of life”, with nature-inspired creepers reflected in overlapping curves in different directions.

You need about two days to get the hang of playing each sape tune. Mastering the taps and slides would take another few days – and trust me, you’d want to. Mathew tells me that it’s up to the student. Some people are able to pick up the instrument in just a matter of hours. Mathew says some Orang Ulu send their children to him for lessons so they can play the sape in their longhouses. He also accepts students from other tribes, Peninsular Malaysia and even foreigners.

I found sape playing to be immensely addictive. The music emitted from the instrument has a deep echo to it. The player enters a semi-trance with the sounds vibrating from one’s fingertips. The listener, on the other hand, breaks into a dance.

Perhaps it is befitting that the first song I learnt was Datun Julut, about the flight of the hornbill, soaring high into the sky, beautiful, majestic and endangered.


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