The turbulence and uncertainty caused by Covid-19 have cast a gloomy shadow over the local music and film industry for the past year and a half. So, when Sarawakian songstress and sape player Alena Murang’s music video, Warrior Spirit, bagged two awards at the International Music Video Awards (IMVA) in the UK, it was as though dark clouds had parted and sunlight began to stream in. It was a sign for better days to come.
Warrior Spirit scored Best Asia & Pacific Music Video and Honourable Mention for Best Costume at the IMVA and proceeded to win the Special Jury Award at the Los Angeles Film Awards as well as Best Music Video at the Rome International Movie Awards — all in the month of June. At the time of writing, it is currently a finalist for Best Music Video, Best Ethnographic Film and Best Cinematography at the New York International Film Awards.
“I feel very honoured and so proud of the whole team,” says Murang in an email interview. “The whole team deserves these awards and it’s a testament to what a dedicated group of artists can do, even in trying times. That is the warrior spirit, in itself.”
Murang, who is of Kelabit descent — one of the smallest groups indigenous to Borneo — was one of the first few women who picked up the sape. The traditional Dayak lute instrument is usually only reserved for men, but Murang has defied stereotypes and made waves in the local scene for incorporating indigenous sounds into contemporary music.
When she wrote Warrior Spirit, she was inspired by a sape folksong intended for a solo male warrior dance. “I visualised a warrior watching the morning mist rise above the mountains in his meditation before battle,” she shares. She roped in her producer Joshua Maran (who is also her cousin) and guitarist Jonathan Wong Ketshin and later on the rest of the band to build her vision into a rock song.
“We wanted to depict that semangat of the warrior within, guided by the values of our past and our rich heritage, with relevance to contemporary times.
“The music does just that and we felt it didn’t need lyrics,” she added. The instruments carry the song effortlessly, offering gentleness and dynamism where intended with minimal vocals lifting the tune towards the end.
The music video was also directed by one of Murang’s cousins, Sarah Lois Dorai, and was co-produced by Project Room and Kanid Studio. Dorai wanted to create a visual that would serve as a statement of identity. “Instead of beginning with ‘How do we want this film to look?’, the team at Project Room started with ‘How do we want people to feel?’,” she explained.
“We wanted Borneans who watch the music video to have the feeling of pride in who they are, to feel an awakening in their spirit to say, ‘That is me. This is who I am! I am a warrior.’ And for those who are not of this culture to feel intrigued and interested to find out more about who we, Sarawakians in particular, are.”
The Bornean spirit was not only evident in the final cut, but also in the people who were involved during the entire production process. The video was enriched with details styled by Saerah Ridzuan of Styllar who has worked with Murang in the past. “Saerah knows me, my character and what suits me,” says Murang. “She has Sarawakian (and Sabahan roots) so she understands our vision in terms of merging the contemporary and the heritage in an honourable and beautiful way.
“She and her team of assistant stylists were always present on set and she worked with different Malaysian designers and Sarawakian craftswomen [including those from Tanoti and Raben Beads] to bring the looks together.” Makeup maestro Gebriel Padan, who is from Limbang, was responsible for Murang's bold hair and make-up.
Dorai recalls an unexpected downpour that happened during the second day of the shoot. “We were held back by rain that refused to stop,” she says. “I remember feeling very stressed out because we were losing light.
“Our crew and director of photography, Fabian Joseph, were game to shoot in the rain so I went over to ask the dancers if they were okay with it. With a thundering voice, they replied me in unison, ‘Let’s do it!’ and they immediately ran out into the rain from under their umbrellas. As I looked at the production team and dancers all come together to do this last scene with such gung ho-ness despite the rain and their tiredness, I thought to myself, ‘That’s the warrior spirit right there.’”
The recognition has been a long time coming for Bornean creatives. “These wins are an indicator that the local film industry, while often side-lined, has so much to offer in bringing Malaysia to the world stage,” Dorai says. “There is an increased interest in stories from our part of the world, particularly those from indigenous voices.”
Warrior Spirit is one of eight tracks featured in Murang’s latest album, Sky Songs. Listen to it on all streaming platforms or purchase the physical CD here.
Watch the music video here: