Global hit Borneo

The World
The World

we end our program with music from Borneo.That’s the huge island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Traditional music on the island is in danger of disappearing. But, one group is trying to keep that from happening. Michael Switow sent us this report from the Malaysian province of Sarawak.

Anak Adi Rurum is made up of group of teenage girls from one of Borneo’s smallest ethnic groups. Their break came at a festival in Malaysia that high-lights music from South East Asia’s myriad cultures. They sing and play the sape, a stringed lute with a long wooden body that some say resembles a cricket bat.

Traditional music in Borneo has been in danger of disappearing. Western tunes – from Christian hymnals to MTV – have displaced the local songs. But the girls’ band is part of a growing movement of Sarawakians acting to hold on to their musical heritage.

LUGUN: “This group actually started by a set of concerned parents and what we wanted to do was for the children to learn a little bit of their own culture.”

Nikki Lugun is the band’s manager and the mother of two of its members.

LUGUN: “It started with very basic dance steps and singing. The problem was every time they wanted to dance we had to hunt for a CD and the right song.”

So these young performers did something that’s taboo. They learned to play the sape, an instrument that until now had been exclusively for men. The Sape Revival is striking a chord with the region’s youth. Noriyani Iman is a 25 year old writer. Stanley Clement a 30 year old art director. Both are from Kuala Lumpur.

IMAN: “Oh it’s really emotional. It evokes emotions in a person that you wouldn’t expect from an instrument or a group, a musical group.

CLEMENT: “The pop music of course it constantly will evolve and the world will follow pop, but this is what the world should be following because this is the roots of where we come from.”

The girls of Anak Adi� Rurum trace their heritage to the Kelabit highlands of eastern Sarawak. Away from the coast where most of the girls now live, there are no roads. The only way in out out are small planes, or a week long hike through the jungle. The area is so remote that the Kelabit didn’t meet a white man until just before World War II.

The Kelabit were reputed to have been the fiercest headhunters on all of Borneo. Today they are fiercely Christian. In one area alone, there are some 15 churches to serve a population of just one thousand. Inside one of the churches, a group of elderly women with elongated earlobes that extend to their shoulders sing a song composed by their mothers.

Jaman Riboh, the owner of a local guesthouse, explains that the women are singing the praises of something most of us take for granted — clothing made from cloth.

RIBOH: “The first cloth came in the mid of the second world war, the first time they wear cloth, instead of the tree bark, so this is the song”

Like tree bark clothing, the Kelabit abandoned many of their other traditions as well — including the old songs. Nikki Lugun says now it’s not easy to recapture the traditional culture.

LUGUN: “A lot of the songs were forgotten through time. And a lot of the songs were also banned because of connotations of adultery and animal sacrifice which were against Christian beliefs. So a lot of songs were not sung again and people just stopped singing.”

While many of the elders were against passing down the songs, Nikki tells them that today’s youth hear worse things on TV and radio.

Like teenagers the world over, the Anak Adi Rurum girls are big fans of pop and hip hop. While they enjoy learning and playing the songs of their ancestors, they’re also keen to mix it up a little.

At this concert – after several traditional melodies – the band pulls out guitars to accompany the sapes and close their set with a hip-hop remix of an ancient melody.

Many of the traditional arts have already been lost in Borneo. But thanks to the enthusiasm of young performers like these, some of the tradition is being successfully reclaimed.

For The World, I’m Michael Switow in Sarawak, Malaysia.

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