Mathew’s melodic sape tribute to the rainforest

“But if all these trees are gone, we will have no more sape music.” — Mathew Ngau Jau

BENEATH his bowl-cut hair is a pair of smiley eyes that sparkle when Mathew Ngau Jau talks about the sape.

The 66-year-old Kenyah from Ulu Baram in Sarawak makes the musical instrument, plays it and teaches it. He is one of the few community-recognised authorities on the instrument, and was named a national living heritage of Malaysia in 2015.

Due to perform and hold workshops at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in August, Mathew says he learnt to play the sape when young at a time when there was no radio or television in his longhouse. “So what else can I do,” he says wryly, when met just before his film shoot for a Malaysia Day movie.

“My first movie! I play the main character in this story of a father and daughter, reconciliations, and the sape. It’s a chance to showcase the sape and its history,” says the urbane former teacher from the first teachers’ training college in Sarawak – Batu Lintang Teachers’ Training College, now called Institut Perguruan Tinggi Batu Lintang.

The Dain Said-directed movie, “Iman Untuk Bulan” is scheduled for a Malaysia Day (Sept 16) debut on Astro First.

The leader of a 20-year-old musical collective called Lan E Tuyang (meaning “friends”), Mathew says: “I am a cultural guardian, the keeper of the Kenyah Ngorek Songs. I was taught by my uncles.”

In fact, Lan E Tuyang was first a duo with Matthew and his late uncle Uchau Bilung. They were invited to perform around the world, starting with the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching. In 2009, when his uncle passed on, the band reformed, and again received several invitations to perform here and there.

He recalls his performance at the 2015 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market,  where he played his tune, Raindrops (Titik Hujan). “The people were so happy because they had no rain. One hour after I played that melody, there was a thunderstorm. All my CDs were gone!”

He says the sape used to be part of the healing rituals of his tribe. “That was back in the 1950s. Now, no more for rituals… sometimes got la, but mostly just music.”

Just like its use, the sape has also changed with the times. “It used to be bigger, maybe with just 2 strings. Now, the ones I make have 3, 4 strings, and three frets.”

Mathew Ngau Jau

Mathew Ngau Jau

Mathew feels many musicians look at the sape like a guitar. “To them, it’s an exotic instrument. It’s more than that. One must understand the history, and the stories behind the melodies. The older or more serious students care to learn all this. It’s important to me. It’s about respecting one’s culture and history.”

He willingly recounts a tale about the wood for the sape, saying that in the old days, only the Adau tree was used to make the sape. The story is that a couple was getting married and the shaman’s wife heard the sape from the Adau tree. “Once you make it from the tree, the wife will get up to dance. But the wood is also good to make longboats.”

The sape is made from a single bole of wood. “The first time I took a few months to make the sape, using traditional tools. You also have to dry the wood. This all takes time.

“But if all these trees are gone, we will have no more sape music.”

Mathew has one album of original music, including Raindrops which he learnt from an old friend, to his credit. The melodies, he says, are inspired by his longhouse community and the rainforest.

“As you get older, you long to go home. For the jungle, relatives, and that sense of community,” says Mathew who is managed by The Tuyang Initiative, a social enterprise that focuses on preservation of indigenous culture.

You can catch Mathew at his workshops for the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival, themed “You, Me + The Arts”, on Aug 18-19.

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