By Mohani Niza

Alena Murang knows more than a thing or two about how nature and tradition cannot be separated from art. She is part Kelabit, after all – one of the smallest ethnic groups in Borneo.

Alena recently unveiled her music video ‘Midang Midang’. The song is from her debut EP “Flight” which was released in 2016 and produced by Pepper Jam Productions (the song has been played on various music stations across the world including in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, USA and Switzerland, to name a few).

The music video was mostly shot in Bario, a community of less than 20 villages in the Kelabit Highlands in Miri Division, Sarawak, which sits at an altitude of 1000 metres above sea level.

Alena’s cousin Sarah Lois Dorai directed the music video in the course of one week.

“Sarah first heard us playing that song live in 2016 and she fell in love with it,” Alena told The Culture Review Mag. “We always said to each other we need to work together. So, in 2018, we started talking more seriously about making a music video together.”

‘Midang Midang’ is a traditional Kelabit song passed down to Alena by her Kelabit grand-aunt Tepu’ Ira. It tells of the story of courtship and match-making and is sung from the point of view of a young girl: As she watches the leaves of the buah kiran tree and the leaves of bamboo dry in the sun, she calls out the name of the man whom she would like to get to know better.

“It was very special because the song is centered around women and in both our industries the music industry and the film industry, it’s heavily dominated by men,” Alena said on collaborating with Sarah. “And just as the song had been passed to me, I passed it to Sarah and I told her what my story is.”

The video is a feast for the eyes: We see Alena set against the breathtaking nature of Borneo, chanting “midang midang” and accompanied by the soft moves of local dancers. The wardrobe is gorgeous too.

“Sarah’s thing is very much film, fashion and dance and I think you can see that come across in the video,” Alena said.

Alena spoke about how important it was to shoot the video in Bario: “It’s the land where the song comes from, that’s where I went to learn the song and receive the song. Our stories, our songs, our oral traditions, our art, they all have elements of nature, because back then, our ancestors, the people that wrote the songs, all they knew was the natural environment.”

The video combines both modern and traditional aesthetics, as well as cosmopolitan and rural sensibilities.

“It was important for me that the heads of all these departments were Orang Ulu youths because I wanted everybody to bring to the table our experience of growing up as youths,” Alena said, referring to the group of indigenous tribes of central and northern Sarawak who make up about five per cent of the state’s population. “Our upbringing is quite unique but similar to each other in the sense that we grew up with parents who lived in the depths of the rainforest, basically, but we grew up in the cities. Our upbringing is from their values and their experiences.”

Alena said those values include working hard, having humility and putting community first. “Those are values that we share across the board, right? But we grew up in this modern setting, we grew up with MTV, we grew up loving fashion. We grow up like urban kids grow up. We are urban kids. So I think we just wanted to express that in this music video that we have a heritage that’s so rich, and we’re so grounded in it.”

“A lot of us have gone through maybe a confusing time in our lives, when we didn’t know what it meant to be who we are,” Alena said. “And maybe we would think we need to be one or the other but actually we are what we are. And we are like the past and the present. We are the rural and the urban. We are the traditional and the modern and we don’t have to separate what it is and I think a lot of youths in Borneo feel this way.”

Growing up wasn’t so easy for Alena. Her father is Kelabit, while her mother is Italian. She was singled out for being of mixed race. “It was very confusing because I looked different. When I was in Malaysia, even now, people don’t think I’m Malaysian. At school, kids would tell me to go back to my own country. And when I went to study in England, people said I was Asian. So that time was a very confusing time and I did just want to be accepted fully into one or the other or both. But I think I’m very comfortable with who I am right now. It doesn’t matter what the labels are. I think this mixture of cultures has really given me a richness of life and experiences and outlooks and being able to really appreciate cultures and heritage and trying to understand who people are when I interact with them.”

Alena’s mother is an anthropologist. “As a child, I have these vague memories of going to all these different places with her while she was doing her research,” Alena said. “She was also involved in the National Park. We would go to a lot of the national parks through our work. Every week, every weekend or every other weekend we would be in the rural areas or we would be at the beach or hiking.”

After high school, Alena studied management in England and was offered a job in Kuala Lumpur upon graduation. It was the first time she moved to KL, working in management, consulting and focusing on the environment and environmental sustainability. She then left for Singapore to learn how to paint. After that wrapped up in 2014, she was invited by her friends to do a five-week tour with them in the South Bay, US. She then worked for Teach for Malaysia. It was during this time that she would often get called to play at small events and gatherings and so in 2016, she became a full-time musician.

On being one of the few female sape players in the world

Alena is one of the few female sape players in the world. It started when she first began learning how to dance at the age of six. “I learned from the aunties, my cousins, and that evolved into playing the sape, learning how to sing and just bringing all of that together because none of it really is separate.”

The sape (pronounced “sa-peh”) is a traditional lute-like musical instrument which is mostly played by the Kayan and Kenyah communities who live in the longhouses dotting Central Borneo. The instrument is usually played by male shamans during healing ceremonies and other rituals but that tradition started to dwindle in the 1930s when the communities were subjected to Christianisation by British colonialists.

“A lot of us have gone through maybe a confusing time in our lives when we didn’t know what it meant to be who we are. And we are like the past and the present. We are the rural and the urban. We are the traditional and the modern and we don’t have to separate what it is and I think a lot of youths in Borneo feel this way.”

“I first picked up the sape when I was 11 years old. In 2001, I learned with six other female cousins. Back then, we did know that we were the first females playing this up in some of the first generation but it didn’t feel like a big thing,” Alena said, adding that they mostly received support rather than opposition from the community.

“It was as if we were learning any other instrument together for the first time. “It was like whoa, we’re playing and we’re happy” Alena said. She also said that they were able to give new meanings to playing the sape. “We were able to create our new ritual, rules around it and new ceremonies which are relevant to today’s times.” She said the challenge therefore is to pick up the sape and make it “alive and present but still honouring the past.”

Alena admits she feels the weight of being a cultural custodian. “As I grow older, I start to feel the weight of being responsible for our heritage and for this music. My cousins and I we put a lot of effort into thinking like, what is the right messaging that we want to give? What is the right way to present symbolisms and videos? How do we really, really honour our ancestors? How do we honour our parents? How do we honour ourselves and our own generation? And what is it that we want to leave for future generations? And yeah, it is a weight and it is a burden.”

On how Malaysia can focus on its traditional art and culture

“I think Malaysia really tries to focus on traditional music resource, but I think there needs to be a reframing of what traditional music is and what people want it to be. Because it shouldn’t sit in a tourism bucket where we see you know, like the fanfares of colourful dances and satin costumes put on during extravaganza gala shows,” Alena said. “We really need to look at the essence of what the music is because it’s not just the music, it’s the people and the ceremonies and how they are sacred.”

“You could be using the music totally out of context, you could be using the beat for a ritual death ceremony and you don’t know that. And sometimes what you find on the web is not true. There’s so much misrepresentation honestly on the world wide web because it’s been put up by people who do not fully understand,” Alena said.

“If Malaysia wants to focus on upholding our cultural music, it’s to empower the people who the music belongs to,” Alena said. “And in that process of empowerment it’s the communities themselves that need to make the decision and the steps to uphold it. We need to go into that community with the utmost humility and respect. And spend time, and what I mean is years learning these people, because music at the end of the day is integrated with who we are as people and that includes our worldviews.”

Watch the music video ‘Midang Midang’ below.

For more information on Alena Murang, including performance dates, visit her website.