There is perhaps no other musical instrument that can better represent Sarawak more than the traditional lute of the Orang Ulu called Sape. Carved out of a single tree trunk and adorned with Orang Ulu motifs, this plucked instrument produces sound that is so soothing and enchanting. The Sape was traditionally used by shamans in healing rituals. Today, it has become a musical icon of Sarawak and has reached a worldwide audience, who more often than not are bewitched by both its aesthetic and aural magnificence.
But while Sape is undoubtedly the most famed of Sarawak’s musical instruments, many are unaware that there is a plethora of other strings, percussions and woodwinds that are unique to Sarawak. Many of the traditional instruments of the ethnic groups here are made out of bamboo, which grows abundantly in the forests of Sarawak. It is for this reason that it comes as no surprise why many of the tribes in the Land of the Hornbills play bamboo musical instruments that are in many ways similar in appearance and functionality to one another.
Once fairly unknown to the general community, the pratuokng of the Bidayuh tribe is gaining recognition not just locally but internationally as well. We owe this to Bidayuh band Madeeh from Annah Rais Longhouse in the mountainous region of Upper Padawan near Kuching. The band, now disbanded, took the instrument to as far as Spain, where they played it along with two other Bidayuh instruments, sritakng (wooden xylophone) and gaduok (percussion) at the 20th World Music Expo (Womex) in 2014.
The pratuokng by definition is a six-stringed zither traditionally played by the Bidayuh community, particularly within the Padawan Region. It is made entirely out of a single bamboo tube, with the strings carved out and raised from the surface of the bamboo itself. What’s interesting about this instrument is that when played solo by a masterful pratuokng player, it can produce full-sounding music as if played by an ensemble. The sound produced by the pratuokng is truly beautiful and hypnotic.
Similar in some ways to the pratuokng is the pagang, played by the Kelabit community of Bario and the nomadic Penan tribe. Interestingly for the Penan, the pagang is only played by their women as it is believed that when played by a man, he would be killed and eaten by wild animals from the very forest they inhabit.
This nose flute is a typical musical instrument of the Penan community of Sarawak. Made from a single small bamboo section, the keringot is a simplistic form of instrument that is light and convenient to carry around or played while one is on the move, which is what the Penan folks always do as they traverse through the forest. Three holes are cut into the bamboo, including fingering holes and a breath hole, to help create incredibly soothing, breathtakingly beautiful sounds when played by an expert Penan nose flutist.
Suling and bas
Still on the subject of flutes, this one belongs to the Lun Bawang community. The suling is made from a single small, thin walled ‘bulu sebiling’ bamboo with six holes cut into it to produce different notes when played. The tone of the suling depends on the fingers’ positions and the force of the airflow blown into the instrument through the mouthpiece at the head of the flute.
For the Lun Bawang, the suling is usually played together with the bas, which is a bass instrument made with a bigger bamboo called ‘bulu talang’. The bamboo is first dried completely to ensure that the sound it reproduces does not change over time.
The giant water snail known as kiromboi is a delicacy to the Bidayuh people. But for them, the snail is more than just a tasty morsel. Its shell can be made into a musical instrument as well. A kiromboi is a traditional percussive instrument fashioned out of two snail shells, attached to two ends of a forked bamboo. Originally, this instrument was used to summon the rain or to attract frogs after the downpour.
These are just some of the fascinating musical instruments made from bamboo that can be found in Sarawak and are proof that music has long been an integral part of this lovely Land of the Hornbills.