Anderson Kalang believes that the sound of the Sape’ can soothe the soul and transport you to a place of healing. Legend and folklore would attest to the magic of this traditional instrument.
“I really believe it is important to understand the history of the Sape’ in order to play the Sape’,” said Anderson.
The Sape’ is a healing ritual instrument that originated from the Kenyah people of the Orang Ulu group that includes the Kayan, Penan, Lun Bawang, Kelabit and many more minority native tribes.
Anderson, who hails from the Kelabit tribe shared that there are origin tales of the Sape’ and one of them tells of a Kenyah man, named Anyie Selong.
The story goes that, Anyie Selong had a wife who was ill and bedridden and he was trying many ways to heal her. After consulting a few village Shamans, he was told to go deep into the jungle to look for certain healing herbs and plants for them to make medicines.
Spending days in the deep jungle searching for herbs, he got very tired and fell into a deep sleep leaning against a large Adau tree. While asleep, a spirit appeared to him in the form of his ancestor and told him that forest herbs would not cure his wife, because she was already in the land of the spirit and not of the humans.
He was instructed to cut the Adau tree he was leaning against and make a musical instrument in the shape of a longboat. The sounds from this instrument will later transport his wife back to the human world and cure her illness.
So Anyie Selong spent quite a bit of time doing this and he created the Sape’ Bali, a 2-strings boat-lute instrument. He also learnt a chant and how to play it from the spirit in his dream.
He returned home to chant and play the melodies to his already comatose wife, who eventually awoke and returned into the earthly world.
According to Sape’ player, Anthony Abong, no one truly knows the origin of the Sape’ except from stories or legends.
Another version has it that the Sape’ was made by a man found lying on the riverbank after his boat capsized. Semi-conscious, he heard a soft and beautiful melody emanating from the jungle and the river. After recovering, he made a musical instrument shaped like a longboat, and for “acoustics,” he copied the jungle-river sound he heard while lying half awake on the beach.
“That’s why the Sape’ is made to look like a capsized boat — long and oval with a flat front and a hole punched at the back to act as the sound box,” Anthony said.
The Sape’ was initially used exclusively in healing ceremonies in longhouses but evolved into a social instrument for entertainment, as indicated by its vibrant jungle motifs.
Anderson Kalang began playing the guitar at the age of 13, primarily in church. Despite lacking formal musical training, he had a remarkable ability to play songs purely by ear and was recognized for his exceptional talent.
“When I was 4 years old, my dad and grandfather taught me to dance the Orang Ulu Warrior dance and to always be in tune to the melodies of the Sape’. This is always at family gatherings and the highlight of our evenings,” said Anderson.
“Unfortunately our Kelabit Sape’ masters did not properly archive our original Sape’ songs and we Kelabit Sape’ players have no reference of our traditional tunes. But the Kenyah did archive their melodies, hence the traditional songs we play today are mainly originated from their tribes. Sape’ music is usually inspired by dreams and there are over 35 traditional pieces with many variations. The overall repertoire is slowly increasing,” he added.
In 2014, Anderson’s discovery of playing the Sape’ from his cousin, Hezekiah Asim, a renowned Kelabit Sape’ player, sparked an epiphany about his musical talent and his purpose in the world.
In that instant, he became aware of his role as a “bridge” connecting the captivating essence of the Sape’ with the people, especially those in Peninsular Malaysia who had limited familiarity with this significant musical heritage instrument.
This marked a significant shift in perspective for Anderson, who had initially pursued a corporate career in the oil & gas industry. Eventually, he transitioned into the financial protection sector while never abandoning his creative pursuits, concurrently managing various creative partnerships.
In July 2016, Anderson made his debut performance on a global stage; he was among the 17 international Sape’ players who performed at the Rainforest World Music Festival.
The groundbreaking performance was a major milestone for both Anderson and the Sape’. It not only introduced the Sape’ to a global audience but also initiated the momentum for this tribal instrument to gain international recognition.
“The guitar cannot produce the melodious tone of the Sape. It is unique,” asserts Anthony Abong.
Anderson agrees. As a musician, he acknowledges and embraces the distinctive qualities of the Sape’. He also actively seeks ways to preserve its traditional origins while embracing the evolving world of technological innovations.
During performances with other Western instruments, Anderson delves into the realm of ambient sound and explores the potential of incorporating techniques inspired by specific guitar effect pedals. This experimentation allows him to push the boundaries and create unique musical experiences.
In contemporary times, the Sape’ has evolved to feature 4 to 6 strings. The traditional Sape’ was initially a relatively simple instrument with two strings and three frets. Nowadays, Sape’ instruments come in variations with three, four, or six strings, equipped with over 17 frets, enabling a range of two and a half octaves
The Sape’ is distinguished by its unique playing style, utilizing a single melodic string while the secondary to fourth strings fulfill the roles typically handled by separate instruments like bass and rhythm in guitars. Additionally, Sape’ playing incorporates a distinct flicking technique that sets it apart from the guitar.
Anderson’s band, “Naungan” will also perform at the upcoming 66th Merdeka Gala on the 26th and 27th August 2023, as well as at the Malaysia Fair Tokyo 2023, from 3rd to 5th November 2023 . He was also the Contemporary Sape’ Mentor for the 2023 Sape’ Junior Competition in Kuching.
All images sourced from Anderson Kalang.