Kenyah dancer and musician Salomon Gau will perform to the hypnotic sounds of the sapeh during the concert. – Picture courtesy of Malaysia Philharmonic Chinese Orchestra
PETALING JAYA, August 7 — Some call it the mandolin of the forest while others describe it as the most amazing sound from the rainforest.
The sapeh, also known as the sape, sampek or sampe — a traditional Sarawakian music instrument widely used by the Kenyah and Kayan tribes of East Malaysia, has been given prominence in Sounds of Nature, by composer Yii Kah Hoe.
After a successful premiere in Hong Kong last December, the piece which was commissioned by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO) as part of its Sounds of Nature series will make its Malaysian debut this weekend at Chinese classical music concert The Journey.
Apart from the Sounds of Nature, the concert will feature The Terra Cotta Warriors by Peng Xiuwen (China), The Red Plum Capriccio by Wu Houyuan (China) and Tang Resonating by Ng Cheuk-yin (Hong Kong).
Presented by the Malaysia Philharmonic Chinese Orchestra (MPCO), the ensemble is made up of amateur musicians from all over the country.
Capturing the tropical rhythms of the Bornean rainforest, the composition took its composer and HKCO resident conductor Chew Hee Chiat — both Malaysians — deep into the jungles of Baram to transport audiences into a pristine, untainted environment.
It took both men a four-hour car ride and hours on the mighty Baram River — Sarawak’s second-longest river — to reach a secluded longhouse community where they spent 10 days collecting sounds from the rainforest.
“We wanted to study the culture of the Kenyah Kayan tribe since the sapeh music is from them,” Yii told Malay Mail.
“The soundscape we collected is an element in the piece where we transformed sapeh techniques into classical music.”
Composer Yii Kah Hoe (pic) journeyed into the Sarawakian rainforest to collect the sounds of nature for this piece of music. – Picture by Choo Choy May
Yii said the classical piece’s international appeal was an important moment for his home state’s Orang Ulu or upriver people, as platforms for indigenous people to showcase their talent can be rare.
“The younger generation who live in longhouses are no longer interested in their own culture.
“They rather listen to pop or rock music but if we bring their culture to the international stage and people abroad appreciate it, perhaps they will see the value of their culture,” Yii said.
The repertoire of classical Chinese orchestras mainly focus on composers from China but this piece is a rare instance that showcases a slice of Malaysian culture and heritage, brought together by three Malaysians.
Salomon Gau, a celebrated Kenyah dancer and musician will be performing the sapeh and singing in his native language, in full traditional garb no less, offering audiences a visual treat.
The ensemble comprises of amateur classical Chinese musicians from all over the country. – Picture courtesy of Malaysia Philharmonic Chinese Orchestra
He said the sound of traditional sapeh tunes is one that makes people want to dance.
Gau described his performance with the HKCO last year as a golden opportunity.
“This will inspire our younger generations to explore their talents and touch other people’s lives for the better along the way,” he said.
Gau began as a traditional dancer when he was five and decided to play the sapeh after winning a sapeh competition in Miri back in 2000.
“I learned through studying and training from old audio tapes and CDs of our well-known elders from Baram,” he said.
“I also trained under two senior players from our village and learned how to make the sapeh from chopping down the tree to playing it on the stage.”
The process took him around one year as the wood must dry naturally before sapeh artists can carve on it.
Gau added that it can take three months to up to a year to master Kenyah dancing where dancers and musicians have to be in sync.
The 20-minute piece will also be accompanied by images of the rainforests to show audiences the beauty of nature and pass on an environmental message.
“Deforestation in Sarawak is very bad, we want people to know we have a beautiful rainforest in Sarawak and hope people will have a stronger relationship with nature,” added Yii.
Catch The Journey on August 10 and August 11 at Pentas 1, klpac. Tickets are priced at RM58, RM88 and RM118. For more details click here.