Alena Murang is part Kelabit, one of the smallest ethnic groups on the island of Borneo, and she strives to continue the narrative of the people and environment through her creativity; whether it is visual art, music, research and documentation, production and TV work, or language preservation and cultural activism. She’s also one of the first and few female sape’ players, a traditional lute instrument.
Tell us a little more about what you do?
In a nutshell, people call me a cultural activist, and I suppose that’s the closest to what I do. I’m a singer, musician, dancer and painter, telling stories from the Orang Ulu people of the upper Baram river in the rainforests of Borneo, where my village lies.
How did your career as a professional touring Sape artist begin?
I left my corporate management consulting job in 2013 to pursue an art course. When I finished the art course I didn’t know what I was going to do and I was then invited by a Malaysian band Diplomats of Drum to be a sape’ player on their US Tour in 2014, to spread peace and understanding through music. On the four-week tour I realised that there is so much interest and curiosity in our stories, and back in Malaysia I started playing my sape’ at open mics, local music venues etc., and the interest and demand for my music then grew.
What is your goal for sharing traditional Sape music?
To tell our stories, which means sharing our history, our community values, our language; and keeping these memories alive and relevant.
How do you think people have reacted to your music? What are the biggest hurdles of sharing such a unique traditional culture?
One of the biggest challenges is presenting the music in a way that relates to modern, urban and young audiences, without compromising the authenticity of the music.
Share with us more about your documentary.
“Songs Blowing Across the Island” is a documentary series produced by one of my bandmates Ado Kaliting Pacidal on Taiwanese Indigenous TV channel (TITV). The series has won several awards in Taiwan and internationally. It documents the stories, lives and processes of indigenous musicians. Being an indigenous musician I’ve realised is so much more than being a musician. We have a great responsibility to our communities, to issues such as land rights, language preservation, environmental protection etc.
The documentary crew followed myself and five other musicians on our European tour. The other musicians were from Taiwan, Solomon Islands, Easter Island, Madagascar and New Zealand. We play together in a production called “Small Island Big Song” which shows how we all have the same ancestral lineage originating from Taiwan 5000 years ago. We travelled to Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Spain, Italy and Taiwan.
How do you think clothes and textile shape our culture and heritage?
Clothes and textiles are part of culture. What you wear expresses your identity, and your values. In today’s context I feel that fashion, very much like music, is becoming homogenised – we want to follow the same fashion, to listen to the same music – much of which comes from the West. If we look closer to home for fashion and for music, we wear the clothes that tell our stories, listen to the music that tells our stories.
In Borneo for example, the Iban pua kumbu weave told stories at certain points in time, and a woman who was an expert weaver gained spiritual power and good energy. For my people, the Kelabit, our different costumes throughout the last 150 years tell the story of poverty, development, migration and trade; by the materials that were available for our clothes.
Creating textiles and clothes involves artisans, communities, the environment. Crafters who have the ancestral knowledge of weaving by hand, harvesting and making natural dyes, placing meaningful motifs onto cloth; are people who should be respected for this amazing knowledge. Within the knowledge lies a wealth of meaningful stories and of community values which I believe are truly lacking in today’s world. I also still very much appreciate things that are handcrafted. I truly believe the time and attention one human being puts into creating something, can really be felt by the user. The product carries that positive energy.
We are inspired by Alena’s intentions to share her cultural narrative through the authenticity of music and are proud to have her as Fieldtesters, a group of inspiring individuals that test MATTER products in their everyday journeys of passion, to help us improve durability and design. Alena is wearing the Sideswept Dhoti + Kangura Charcoal and Modern Monpe + Philippines Teal in Size 2.