Alena Murang’s second solo album, Sky Songs, continues the mission set out five years ago in her debut, Flight , which is the musical conservation of the endangered traditions and languages of Borneo, something often forgotten in official Malaysian narratives.
The Kuala Lumpur-based recording artist – the child of a Kelabit father from the highlands of the Baram River in northeastern Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, and an Anglo-Italian anthropologist mother who spent most of her life researching in Borneo – established herself as one of the first women to play the sape, a lute-like instrument of the Dayak tribes of Borneo which is traditionally played by men.
“I started at the age of 10,” Murang says. “People were surprised and encouraging. I’ve never encountered resistance from the elders. Now they only resist passing on certain old songs and traditions that came from the old belief systems.”
Sky Songs, an eight-track album distributed by Kuala Lumpur-based regional punk-hardcore label Tandang Records and supported by the Dayak Cultural Foundation and the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia Malaysia, breathes new ethnic-pop life into the ancestral songs passed down to her by her longhouse-dwelling great-aunts.
“Both men and women can pass on Kelabit culture, whether it’s dancing, singing, fixing fishing nets, beadwork, hunting, planting rice, languages,” Murang says. “But I think that in many cultures it’s women, as mothers and nurturers, who play a vital role in passing on heritage.”
Her new release includes a few original pieces that she composed over the past two years.
Sung in the endangered Kelabit and Kenyah languages of the Kelabit highlands – a borderland wedged between Brunei and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, inhabited by 6,600 natives as of 2013 – Sky Songs is inspired by tribal ancestral beliefs.
Lives on Earth are sacred under the sky, which according to Kelabit belief is the “big sun hat dome” beneath which all earthly creation lies.
“I’ve always felt close to the natural environment – the rivers and rainforests in particular, and looking at the sky as the big dome that cradles all of that,” says Murang. “I wrote a lot of the lyrics when I was travelling in planes, because in pre-Covid times, I was flying a lot and that was the only time I had space to myself.”
Murang has spent the past few years touring and turning heads internationally, including in Europe and Central America. Her music video Midang Midang won the Best Styling Award at the Buenos Aires 2020 Music Video Festival, where it was also nominated as Best International Video alongside a Madonna video. “I literally wrote a lot of lyrics in the sky,” says Murang.
Sky Songs is the first album she has recorded with a backup band, bringing new, suave ethnic-pop dimensions to her music. A blend of dreamy, lullaby-like vocals over a base of world music, her songs are always dominated by the sape , the “guitar” of Borneo’s indigenous tribes.
“The band has developed over the last three years and together we definitely create a unique sound – I’m not sure what genre to describe it as,” says Murang. “The core band members come from different disciplines – rock, metal, traditional Chinese music, RnB. Through it all, we understand that for this music, the sape is the main instrument and the band supports it.”
This combination of influences gives Murang’s Sky Songs an eclectic feel. The opening Gitu’an and the closing Meno pieces are filled with melancholic hooks and hope.
Meno is a song about missing home that her ancestors sang when embarking on long journeys away from the village, and Murang released it as a single in January when Malaysia entered a second Covid-19 lockdown.
In Maya, a dreamlike soundscape, the lead is given to Murang’s sweet and soulful vocals, reminiscent of the Irish singer Enya.
Atmospheric instrumental Warrior Spirit is a duel between the sape and the electric guitar: they push and shove in a barrage of twin solos that nod to Mali’s desert blues as they do to Irish rock band Thin Lizzy.
Sunhat Song, the album’s only English-language track, is a radio-friendly funky earworm tinged with heavy rock tones.
Murang’s pioneering “music of conservation” also extends to her “Project Ranih”, a digital archive of Kelabit folk songs, chants, lullabies, and action songs.
“People abroad tend to link Borneo with headhunting, which is our history, but it’s no longer practised,” Murang says. “I want to show people that we are modern, contemporary Dayak people with a modern upbringing, in the contemporary world, just like you; creating a bridge of understanding.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.