The Sape’ Demystified



The most typical of Sarawak musical instruments, the sape, pronounced “sa-peh”, is a traditional lute of the Orang Ulu community or “upriver people” of central Borneo. It is traditionally used by the Kenyahs, Kayans and Kelabit tribes.

Carved from a bole of white wood which repels insects, the sape is a masterpiece of woodcarving. The carver, usually a musician, hollows out the body of the sape with similar tools used in boat-building to a length of about over a metre, and approximately 40cm wide.

Initially, the guitar-like instrument measured less than a metre, and had only two rattan strings and three frets. Today, however, it is common to find sapes with three, four or even five strings. The strings – slender wires used in fishing rods – are held by movable wood frets, and are tightened or loosened with wooden pegs.

The sape was once played solely during healing ceremonies within the rumah panjang (longhouses), but gradually became a social instrument that is used as a form of entertainment. The colourful jungle motifs that adorn the body of the sape mark this change in purpose.

The music of sape is thematic, more often than not inspired by dreams. There are specific compositions for specific ceremonies and situations (marriages, births, harvest times, rain etc) which often differ from one sub-ethnic group to another. The traditional pieces, which have many variations, are usually passed down through the generations.

According to legend, the sape came about through a dream of a Kenyah man, who went into the forests to look for medicinal herbs for his sick wife after several shamans failed to cure her. While taking a rest under a tree, the man dozed off in a deep sleep. He dreamt of his ancestors telling him his wife was in the spirit world and he needed to ferry her back to the real world. So he carved a wooden block into the shape of a boat – to symbolise the transportation needed to save his wife. After stringing the boat-shaped contraption with roots and leaves, he played a tune, complete with a chant, to pave the way for his wife’s return to the human world. The man later became a shaman.

In the olden days, the sape, was considered taboo for women to even touch, let alone play. It was played by male shamans and men from the Orang Ulu community only. However, that taboo is not as prevalent now, after many of the natives embraced mainstream religions, and the sape became more accessible. Alena Murang, currently one of the leading practitioners of the instrument, was one of the few ladies allowed to play the sape. An apprenctice of legendary Sape proponent Matthew Ngau, she not only teaches the sape and performs regularly as a solo artist but is also the co-founder of an all female Sape band- Ilu Leto.

In recent years, the sape has been brought to the attention of music lovers all over the world and is gradually pulling in the younger generation here in Malaysia as well. To appeal to a wider market, modern innovations (such as the electric sape) are constantly being created and there are new arangements of traditional sape music. 

Kenyalang Alive: Sape Musica Expression


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