Sape artist Alena Murang gears up for an evening of soul-stirring music at PJPAC

The 'Live in Kuala Lumpur: Alena Murang Sky Songs' show is titled after her second album, 'Sky Songs'.

Murang will perform 10 to 12 numbers from her first and second albums, as well as some unrecorded songs (All photos: Alena Murang)

You will always remember your first encounter with Alena Murang. Be it her down-to-earth demeanour or the way her soulful singing intermingles with the gentle strumming of the sape and fills the air and your inner being with a feeling unlike any other. Her art is a mix of rich heritage and the profound.

But Murang is more than that. She sings in the endangered Kenyah and Kelabit languages and is carrying on the legacy and traditions of her forefathers while spreading far and wide the seeds of awareness and appreciation for oral storytelling and sape music.

From sold-out shows in Sarawak, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur, the heritage advocate is excited to bring her show to this side of the country once again. During the month-long celebrations of Gawai, countless stories are exchanged and songs sung. Therefore, what better time to bring a slice of Borneo to KL than now.

Before she came along, little did we know that the sape musical instrument was used for healing and could only be touched and played by men. Murang became one of the first few to shatter the taboo when she picked up the revered lute at the age of 10 and has not looked back since. She has a strikingly contemporary approach to the age-old tradition but without desecrating the sacred art form.

When she started learning the sape in 2000, there was barely anyone of her generation (or her father’s) playing the musical instrument. Born in Kuching to a Kelabit father and an English-Italian mother, she was encouraged by the latter to pursue a deeper appreciation of her heritage before it faded away over time.

“It has been incredible to see the sape gradually being picked up in the last 23 years, and I’d say it is now considered a common instrument. And it is not just the younger generation who are picking it up, I had a 70-year-old student and another, a lady in her mid-forties. Overall, many more people have come to know the sape compared to 10 years ago.”

The Live in Kuala Lumpur: Alena Murang Sky Songs show is titled after her second album, Sky Songs, which gathers a playlist inspired by elements of the sky — the stars, moon, morning mist, swirling clouds, a soft breeze and the different sounds of thunder. She will perform 10 to 12 numbers from her first and second albums, as well as some unrecorded songs.


Murang with renowned sape master and mentor, Matthew Ngau Jau

“My shows are a journey through the Ulu Baram river and up into the Kelabit highlands of Sarawak. For our people, songs are a way of keeping stories alive through oral tradition, and being on stage is the continuation of transmitting these stories to the hearts and souls of listeners,” she shares in an email interview with Options.

Murang will be accompanied by her cousin Joshua Maran on drums, a music producer with whom she has written many of her songs. Introducing the band, she says: “Simmy is a very talented keyboardist and songwriter, and she plays the tin whistle very well. Jonathan Wong Ketshin, the guitarist, has been playing with me since my first album launched in 2016 and he also writes songs with us.”

The other musicians include Sara Heng, co-founder of Guzheng Academy in KL and one of the most renowned guzheng players in the country, on electric guzheng, while Fook is a well-known bass guitar player.

The most difficult thing about playing the traditional sape (which is what she plays, as opposed to a contemporary one) for a long show is maintaining the tuning and frets of the instrument. The frets are movable between songs and the sape is just in one key, so it needs to be retuned for certain songs. There’s a lot to think about during a live show, she says.

“At the end of it, I just want my audience to walk away with a greater love and compassion in their hearts. Besides the songs, there will be a visual playground of some sort by OtherHalf Studio, which specialises in immersive art experiences.”

According to Sumay Cheah, co-founder and visual artist of the studio, the visuals during Murang’s show depict nature’s soft gentle moments from dusk to dawn, abstract and light like the breeze, dreamy and surreal, familiar yet nostalgic. “We hope to take you to a place you can call home, just like the true notions in her lullaby-like songs,” she says.


The artist is all for contemporarising traditional music

Murang will be tied up in a few upcoming shows, both in Malaysia and overseas. “I will be collaborating with Handep, a Dayak-led social enterprise creating beautiful fashion and lifestyle items, and we’re releasing a line called Sacred Hands, which are handbags for the modern woman, using woven rattan from Kalimantan, handwoven textiles (pua) from Sarawak, and leather from Java,” she says.

Plans to release more singles are in the pipeline, but not albums since more time is needed to collect the materials. “I’m inspired by stories. Sometimes, an elder will share a story or a song with me. I think about them for a while, sometimes a few weeks or even years. Then an idea develops in my mind, which I share with Maran to bring a story to life through music.”

She would write the lyrics in Kelabit and run them by her father and aunts to refine it, as she is not fluent in the language. “We’re always intentional in the writing of a song, from the lyrics to the music. We think about the rhythms and melody of Kelabit chants or songs and see which elements to include in the music, considering each song’s context as well,” she expresses.

Her anticipated solo concert is part of 1 Utama’s Borneo Festival, from June 15 to 18, which will feature a variety of vendors and workshops, including authentic crafts by the Penan, Iban and Dayak tribes. The famous Dayak BBQ Rumah Asap will serve up its bestsellers. Look out also for a range of authentic Sarawakian food and snacks.


'Sky Songs', June 17, 8.30pm, Stage 1 Theatre, PJPAC, 1 Utama, PJ. Tickets are priced at RM150, RM120, RM100 and RM80 and can be purchased at Seats are available for those who need wheelchair access.

This article first appeared on June 12, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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