A ‘ngerang’ to share Sarawak’s heritage

Alena sketching intricate designs, inspired by Borneo’s indigeneous tribes.

SARAWAK-born international artiste Alena Murang has had an eventful 2018, touring the world to perform her repertoire of indigeneous songs to the accompaniment of traditional Borneo music — plus a complement of music videos, cultural workshops, an acting stint and an international music recognition to cap an impressive resume.

She mesmerised sold-out crowds in countries as far as Iceland, the UK and the US, singing in Kelabit and Kenyah while playing the sape.

Alena and her sape. — Photos by Kenny Loh

Alena has performed in front of over 100,000-strong audiences in 13 countries, spanning four continents. And among the events were Førde Traditional and World Music Festival in Norway, Peace Boat & UN Forum Reykjavik (Iceland), South by Southwest (US), Isola Tiberina (Italy), Etnosur Festival (Spain) and a show for the Sarawak Association London (UK).

Others included Wonderfruit Festival in Thailand, Indigenous Gathering Festival (Indonesia), three festivals in Taiwan — World Music Festival, Taoyuan International Indigenous Festival and Pintung Music Festival — as well as the Rainforest Fringe Festival and Rhythms of Rimba Festival at home.

She likened her travels to the ‘ngerang’ (journeys) taken by her ‘tetepu’ (ancestors) across mountains, rivers and cities in different lands to trade with goods like beads, gongs, jars and clothes.

“Cultural journeys. Journeys to make a living. And journeys of exchange,” said the 29-year-old of Kelabit and English-Italian parentage.

In 2018, Alena released the first-ever Kelabit-language music video, featuring her song ‘Re Lekuah’.

Funded by the High Commission of Canada to Malaysia and through crowd-funding, the video made the CBC Arts channel of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Alena learns to play a traditional music instrument during one of her trips to the interior.

Apart from performing on the world stage, she has also conducted over 20 workshops in West Malaysia, Europe and Taiwan on Sarawak dancing and chanting and sape music.

In 2018, her music was accorded international recognition.

“Small Island Big Song,” an album to which she contributed Kelabit and Kenyah songs, was named Best Album 2018 by the Songlines Magazine.

Her music is available online through iTunes, Deezer, Spotify, and Amazon platforms.

“My music was licensed to a National Geographic documentary, and aired on NPR Radio, a globally renowned music station based in the US, BBC Radio and RPM.fm (Canada),” she said.

Alena has also ventured into acting which saw her and her sape teacher Mathew Ngau play leading roles in ‘Iman Untuk Bulan’, a telemovie directed by award-winning Dain Said.

Kenyah singing, Bahasa Sarawak (Sarawak language), and sape music were the key elements in the movie which will be aired this year.

She is looking forward to the release of the eight-episode documentary of their five-week European tour and Taiwanese cultural exchange, filmed by Taiwanese Indigenous TV Station (TITV).

Alena is estatic that a video she shot at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), has debuted at the General Conference of the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2018, and is now available online.

In the video, she shared her personal story on preserving culture in line with Unesco’s aim to highlight the important role of youth in safeguarding and transmitting their vibrant living heritage.

For 2019, she said she was excited about her new musical journey.

Mathew Ngau (left) and Alena play leading roles in a telemovie scheduled to be aired this year.

She has also put together a band rather than continuing to perform solo.

She played in her first music festival at City Roars Festival in Kuala Lumpur yesterday (Jan 12), alongside bands from Malaysia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

“Playing in a band means our sound is bigger and I can play longer sets. Our band made its debut at Wonderfruit Festival (Thailand) in December 2018,” she said.

Her main focus now is to record and release new music and music videos based on Kelabit and Kenyah history, the language of the two ethnic groups and contemporary Sarawak life.

It was her mother, an anthropologist, who nurtured her interests and identity in Kelabit culture, traditions and way of life.

A screenshot of Alena in ‘Re Lekuah’, the first-ever Kelabit music video.

Growing up in Kuching, Alena took up ‘ngarang’ (dance in indigenous lingo) classes, learned to play the sape, wove and made costumes and even studied songs of the Kenyah and the language of the Penan.

She can be best described as an artiste, musician, dancer, strategist and social entrepreneur all rolled into one with a mission to bring about positive changes to society and the environment, and preserve her Borneon heritage.

She has not stopped learning about her cultural heritage and identity, and has been constantly upgrading her musical genre since releasing her debut EP — Flight — in 2016.

“I will continue to share Sarawak’s old and modern stories, perform at music festivals around the world, teach the sape, conduct workshops and working on films and documentaries.

She said as an independent musician, she was always looking for partnerships in funding, creating and innovating.