The disappearing art of Sarawak’s sape

Eugene Kuek Padan (left) and Aldrinn Adrianolv with their sape.

KUCHING: From a house in Kuching here come the sweet notes of a song. Outside it’s raining, but inside, Eugene Kuek Padan and Aldrinn Adrianolv are absorbed in their instruments.

Perhaps fittingly, the song they are playing is called “Intik-Intik Kenai Hujan”, or “The Sound of the Raindrops”.

They are playing the sape, a traditional instrument of the Kenyah people.

The sape was originally called the sampe, but its name changed after the early 1960s.

It is a heavy, boat-shaped instrument made from adau or pelaie wood. It varies in size but can be as big as four to five feet long.

Padan, from Long Nawan, Belaga, has been playing the sape for almost 40 years now and has often performed at international events.

Eugene Kuek Padan in a photo shoot with his sape.

He said “Intik-Intik Kenai Hujan” is about a person reminiscing about his village and the hardships faced by his people.

“Sape music is not just ordinary music,” he told FMT. “Each song has its own significance and a story to tell.

“The sounds are inspired by nature. Back then, people did not simply play it. It was considered a ritual performance.”

The 51-year-old said people would only play the sape on special occasions such as weddings and child naming ceremonies, or for religious purposes.

“The sape would also be used for spiritual guidance by shamans to treat people who are unwell,” he said.

Women, however, were not allowed to play the sape.

“They were not even allowed to touch it. This was to prevent their children from getting cursed,” he said.

These days, things have changed. Many people can play the sape now but Padan says most of them do not understand the history of the instrument or the significance of its music.

“Many sape players today are only after fame and money,” he said.

Originally, the sape had only two to four strings. However, modern versions now have six strings, which enables players to play contemporary music.

“By right, though, the sape cannot be modified as that would go against our culture,” Padan said.

“In fact, a few years ago, there was an issue about the modification of the sape. A lot of the traditional people were not happy about it.”

Despite efforts to maintain the original structure of the instrument, he added, contemporary versions are more popular.

Adrianolv, who learnt to play the sape from Padan, agreed that the sape should be promoted “the right way”.

“There are too many people who play the sape well but do not know the purpose of its music,” he said.

The 40-year-old from Kampung Taee, Serian, has been playing the sape for 25 years now and gives music lessons to children.

“The earlier you learn it, the easier you’ll master it.”