Instrument of Unity | The star

IN FEBRUARY this year, 257 undermining musicians gathered at the Kuching waterfront to perform a concert for the finale of Citrawarna Keluarga Malaysia, a four-day program that featured cultural performances and traditional activities.

The show entered the Malaysian record books for having the most undermining players in a single performance.

What made the concert even more special was the presence of not only Sarawakian musicians but also other Malaysians and some international artists, said Danison Manium, chairman of Persatuan Anak Seni Sape Kuching (Pusak).

For Danison, whose association was involved in the concert, it illustrates the sap’s growing popularity and its ability to bring Malaysians together in appreciation of its distinctive singsong tones.

“The sape is a traditional lute instrument of the Orang Ulu communities of Sarawak.

“It was originally used for healing and in rituals, to heal the sick and to call on spirits,” he explained.

“When Christianity came to the Baram region (where the Orang Ulu lived), the sap became an accompanying instrument for dancing.”

The 1980s saw another stage in the evolution of undermining with the advancement of electronic technology and devices such as pickups and amplifiers being introduced.

“Previously the sape was played like an acoustic instrument, but now it can be plugged into an amplifier,” said Danison, 34.

Tomi says it takes at least a week to make a sap. — Photos: ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE/The Star

He said the sap entered a new era beginning in 2000 when musicians like Jerry Kamit introduced the modern sap, which had up to six strings.

The traditional sape has two or three strings for playing traditional tunes, but modern four-, five-, or six-string instruments can be used to play contemporary music.

“Undermining has become more popular because artists like Jerry Kamit and Alena Murang are playing it in new ways.

“They don’t just play traditional tunes or use it to accompany traditional dance, but incorporate it into current musical trends, bringing sapping closer to the hearts of the current generation,” he said.

Danison, who teaches sape, has seen a growing interest in the instrument among people in the Malay Peninsula, Sabah and other countries.

He said Pusak had received calls from customers in Terengganu, Johor and Pahang who wanted to buy the sap.

“It shows that there is growing interest in the instrument,” he added.

Alena, 33, said it was “amazing” to see the undermining revival.

“When I started learning in 2000, there was hardly anyone from my generation or even my father’s generation who played undermining,” she recalls.

Alena observed that sap makers adapted the shape, size, and sound of the instrument to make it easier to transport and use with modern equipment.

For her, the appeal of sape lies mainly in its unique sound.

“I hope people will learn about our heritage stories and our culture through undermining music,” she added.

Sape maker Tomi Bulen, 57, agreed the musical instrument has become popular due to its contemporary vibe.

Danison, who teaches sape, showing some of the instruments at Pusak's office in Kuching.Danison, who teaches sape, showing some of the instruments at Pusak’s office in Kuching.

“You can play undermining in a band now because it’s become better known.

“In the past, we played in longhouses, not in urban areas.

“But that has changed; anyone can learn to play undermining if they are interested,” he said.

Tomi, who works at the Sarawak Cultural Village, said he had friends in Kuala Lumpur and Negri Sembilan who played sape.

“An Indian friend who plays the sitar now also plays the sap.

“Another guitarist friend also picked it up.

“If you know how to play the guitar, it’s easier to learn because it’s also a string instrument,” he added.

Tomi said he received orders from customers in Sabah, Peninsular Malaysia and overseas.

It takes him at least a week to make a sap, from preparing and carving the wood to decorating it with traditional patterns.

“The wood must first be dried and traditionally it is smoked.

“This will protect it from noise and improve the sound of the instrument,” he said.

Tomi uses different types of wood to make sape, from softer varieties such as nyatoh and adau to hardwoods like meranti.

“It will sound different depending on the wood,” he said.

“Softer wood will sound more acoustic, while sap made from harder wood will sound higher,” he explained.

For Danison, the undermining has the potential to promote unity among Malaysians.

“You can’t really play this musical instrument alone, it’s more fun to ask someone to play it with you.

“We now have undermining players all over Malaysia and that’s a good thing,” Danison added.

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