A Conversation with Alena Murang

Hannah Teoh Outreach Manager

Alena Murang is a musician that plays the sape‘— a traditional musical instrument belonging to the Kenyah and Kelabit community of East and North Kalimantan and Sarawak. Alena shares about heritage and culture, and how she brings her music alive by telling stories from her heritage using traditional instruments with a contemporary twist. 

Introduce Yourself!

My name is Alena Murang and I was born and raised in Kuching, Malaysia. I love cats and I play the sape’!

What was growing up like? How did you start playing the sape’? 

I started playing sape’ when I was 11 years old. I used to learn traditional dance when I was 6 and sape’ was usually the musical accompaniment for the dance. After a few years, we learned the songs from the grand-aunties. Many of these songs actually skipped my mother’s generation, so us learning these songs was actually unusual in this community. Eventually a few of us approached Uncle Matthew (a village elder) to learn how to play the sape’. So the sape’ is traditionally an instrument reserved for boys; girls weren’t allowed to touch the sape’. He decided that he would teach us how to play the sape’, and that’s how I came to learn the art.

I understand that you were actually a corporate worker before working in the music industry, what made you decide to pursue music as a career?

I’ve always loved the arts. We grew up with the Rainforest Music Festival and I would see all these performers traveling around the world, playing music, and I dreamed about being a professional performer. I never thought I was good enough because I never had any formal musical training. 

When it came to choosing what to study in university, and obviously, my parents worked hard to save up to send me abroad to study in the UK, I opted for a “safer” subject and settled on Business Management. When it came to the end of my second year, everyone around me was applying for jobs at these big corporations and I thought that that was my route, and so that’s what I did.

I then had an unexpected foot surgery that left me confined to my house. I would buy canvases and paint during that time and this continued when I had my corporate job. I would go to work, come back, and paint until the early hours of the morning, and do it all again. I felt so full and satisfied just painting. Eventually, I resigned from my job and told my boss that I wanted to go to art school. 

Why do you choose to sing in Kelabit and Kenyah, specifically?

Growing up the songs I learned were in these languages. I actually learned these languages through song. When I perform the sape’ on stage, it’s only natural for me to sing in Kenyah.

When it came to the decision of pursuing this full-time, I saw and realized how important it is to share in our language.

I don’t think that it’s a barrier to accessing music. I feel so incredibly proud when I see people who are not Sarawakian sing our songs. To me, that just keeps the language more and more alive. 

A lot of your music is a blend of traditional sape’ and contemporary elements; what do you wish to share with your music by combining these two?

There’s a lot of things we want to share! The development of a song always starts with a story that we want to share. We, in this case, is me and my cousin Josh, who is my producer and guitarist. By blending contemporary and traditional, you realized that it’s nothing new. Throughout every point of time, our people has always been adapting to current times. 

When we do it now, we do it carefully and intentionally. We want to do it in a way that honors who we are. We are first-generation Kelabit that grew up outside the rainforests, in the city, but still very much rooted to our Kelabit heritage. We’re very intentional when we merge the two worlds in our music, because that’s who we are; we’re mergers. 

You released the EP Sky Songs, what was the creative process like with this album?

Sky Songs was a process of 2-3 years and it started with the song Gitu’an, which means ‘stars’ in our language. At the time, I came across this folklore of our great ancestors who lived among the stars and on earth. Stumbling across such a beautiful story like that inspired the song Gitu’an. I remember writing our the track list and realizing that all the songs on the album were elements of the sky. We have the song We Watched the Clouds, which is a story on migration. Maya’, an original song about the familiarity of a breeze. And several other songs. Quite literally, it was inspired by the sky. 

How does art, music, and activism intersect for you?

Cultural activism is definitely a part of what I do. I want to encourage people, especially the younger generation, to look into their own heritage and to tell stories of their own and listen to the stories of others. I genuinely think that could bring some understanding. Sometimes there’s so much that we don’t understand about each other and I think stories help us to connect. 

Music is very powerful.

Music is a way to access stories, cultures, languages, and so much more. It brings people together. I don’t know if other people will be listening to Kelabit or Kenyah language, otherwise. Almost every show I’ve done, people have come up to me saying they were in tears, and they don’t know why because they don’t understand the language but they were moved by the music. I just see music as a powerful tool for whatever message you want to send.

What is Kanid Studio? Why did you begin this project and what do you aim to do?

Kanid Studio was started in 2015 and it was initially started to use art and music to help the community. We mostly did disaster relief projects and support for local schools. We started getting more projects in the production field such as supporting musicians that live in rural areas and connecting them with production houses and organizing tours for them. It has since expanded into the realm of production. Now, Kanid Studio works on production projects that help make heritage contemporary. 

How are some ways we can support indigenous cultures locally? 

At the very basic level, it’s to support indigenous creators. Follow them on social media, share it, like it, those little things are simple to do and are very helpful. A direct way to support is to purchase the products or services they’re offering. 

As for younger Malaysians, I think it’s important to look into your own heritage. We have such a rich heritage—from Peranakan culture to indigenous culture—and it’s such a beautiful thing to share. Just to learn about culture and have that cultural exchange— I think it’s a wonderful way to support all cultures. 

Any upcoming projects or anything exciting for the future?

I am working on a song for Global Cancer Day, it’s in collaboration with SCAN (Society for Cancer Advocacy and Awareness) which will be released on the 3rd of February. I’m also collaborating with a weaving collective who’s reviving a songket weaving technique called songket sarawak. They are turning their weavers into percussionists using their looms and sticks. I’m working with another musician to compose a song for them. 

Rapid-fire questions!

Favorite Asian food

Laksa Sarawak!

What is your favorite place to visit

The sea

Best way to unwind and relax

Just watching Netflix, honestly

Alena Murang draws inspirations from the past and present, from her Dayak Kelabit heritage, growing up in nature’s playground on the island of Borneo, living in the metropolitan Manchester and now Kuala Lumpur, her name has become synonymous with the sape’, a lute instrument of the highland tribes of the island, created for the purpose of healing physical, spiritual and emotional ailments. In 2021, Alena released Sky Songs, an album inspired by elements of the cosmos. She started Kanid Studio (previously known as ART4 Studio), an organization that aims to use art and music as a medium for positive impact, grounded in indigenous community values that are strong in the longhouse villages.

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