The Beads and Beats of Sarawak

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By Li Yen
Epoch Times Staff

Sarawak, also known as Bumi Kenyalang (Land of the Hornbills) is the largest state in Malaysia, and one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, bordering Indonesia, Sabah and Brunei.

Apart from its rainforest, hornbills and orang utans, Sarawak is also distinctive for its people. Its indigenous communities of more than 45 recognised ethnic groups account for approximately 45% of Sarawak’s 2.6-million population. The Chinese constitute another 30% and—in contrast to the other Malaysian states—Malays accounts for a modest 25% of Sarawak’s population.

Sarawak Beadwork
Sarawak’s indigenous communities are classified into three groups—the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu. The various ethnic tribes include the Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Murut, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, Berawan and Penan.

Sarawak’s vibrant beadwork is a unique craft of the indigenous people of the Kayan, Kenyah, Bidayuh and highland Kelabit communities. Their artistic beadwork products range from clothing, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, purses, to headgears, and even intricate and colourful vases.

The patterns, designs, styles and techniques differ between each ethnic community in Sarawak. For example, Iban women sport an elaborate beaded collar called marik empang.

Beaded garments and ornaments are used to represent a person’s status. The beads are handed down as traditional family heirlooms from mother to daughter-in-law. Beadwork skills are passed down from mother to daughter, and the beadwork are made for home use or in festivals. During weddings, the bride wears a bead cap known as pata.

These unique beadworks are extremely popular among tourists, and are sold in souvenir shops along Kuching’s Main Bazaar and the Waterfront in Kuching, Sarawak.

Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival 2015
On 7 August 2015, Taiwanese artiste Sangpuy’s spiritual singing praising the gods of the natural world resonated throughout the serene rainforest at Sarawak Cultural Village. Situated at the foot of the mystical Mount Santubong, his ethereal vocals spoke to nature on the first night of the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) 2015.

In many ways, Sangpuy’s ancient music of the Pinuyumayan aboriginal tribe in Taiwan resembles the traditional music of the indigenous people of Sarawak. Both also have a tradition of headhunting, tattoos, animism and reverence of the natural world.

RWMF’s initial vision was to showcase Bornean ethnic music to the world. And in this year’s music festival, the sounds of the Bornean jungle were brought to us by the musical trio Lan E Tuyang. Led by Mathew Ngau Jau, they played the ethnic music of Kenyah—an indigenous tribe of Sarawak’s Orang Ulu.

The Orang Ulu, also known as the “upriver people”, reside in longhouses along the rivers of Central Borneo. Their unique musical instrument is the sape—a traditional boat-shaped, two- to four-string lute, that is adorned with ornamental carvings.

The sounds of the sape are beautifully light and warm. Through their mesmerising music, Lan E Tuyang transported the audience back to life in the rainforest in the olden days.

That night, Kobagi Kecak of Bali, Indonesia created music using their own bodies as “musical instruments”. Kobagi Kecak, which means Crazy Body Community, flew in specially to attend the festival, despite the disruption of flights from Bali due to the ongoing eruption of Mount Raung.

Another highlight of RWMF is the traditional blessing of the festival by a representative from one of Sarawak’s tribes. This year, a ‘miring ceremony was performed.

A Smorgasbord of Traditional Music
This year’s RWMF assembled the world’s most unique traditional music. On this year performing list were Georgia’s Alaverdi, who specialise in traditional Georgian folk music and church chants; Tunisia’s Bargou 08, telling the stories of ancient Tunisian traditions through their songs; Morocco’s Driss El Maloumi, who presented Arabic music fused with classical Western music; and the unique deep throat singing of Mongolian Enkh Jargal Dandarvaanchig.

Harubee from the Maldives featured Boduberu music, a music form brought in by sailors from Africa in the 11th century. Poland’s Kapela Maliszow played traditional music of Beskid Niski and Pogorze. Ndima from Congo featured music to raise awareness of the endangered culture of the native Congo pygmies. Lindigo from Reunion Island demonstrated the passionate traditional Malaya music and dance; and the list goes on.

Malaysian talents also shone at RWMF, such as the light-hearted Hokkien music by Penang’s Culture Shot. The Kenwy Yang-Qin Ensemble, led by Ken Wy, performed the yangqin—a traditional Chinese instrument which has its origins in Persia. The audience also had the chance to relish Sarawak music through the Sarawakian band Sayu Ateng.

Mankind’s Universal Language
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once called music “the universal language of mankind”, and he could not have been more accurate.

At RWMF, people of various nationalities and races mingled with each other and danced along to the beat. The yodelling of Swiss, Jordanian and Congo performers at each corner of the performing square was a perfect example of music bringing people together.

Besides the three-nightly stage performances by musicians across the globe, musical workshops and jamming sessions kicked off as early as 2 pm in the afternoon at the Dewan Lagenda, Iban Longhouse and Bidayuh House in Sarawak Cultural Village.

The workshops were interactive and educational as international musicians shared their music with visitors. Through the various workshops, one could learn about Sarawak’s ethnic music, dance and its unique instruments, including the Ritual Eagle Dance of Borneo, the famous sape, and a workshop titled “Mythical Sounds: traditional tales, instruments and rhythms of Borneo”.

The Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival was once again voted into the top 25 international music festivals by Songlines, a renowned world music magazine based in the UK.

Must-Try Eats in Kuching, Sarawak
There is only one word to describe Sarawak’s most popular dish kolok mee, and that is ‘sedap’ (delicious)! This springy egg noodle dish, which is accompanied with black vinegar sauce, can be found everywhere in Sarawak.

Next on the must-try food list is Sarawak laska. The laksa comprises vermicelli cooked in a thick shrimp-based soup, which is seasoned with sambal belacan, sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemon grass and coconut milk. It is served piping hot with bean sprouts, prawn, chicken strips, sliced omelette, fresh coriander, and lime.

In Sarawak, you are likely to come across these multi-coloured layer cakes called kek lapis (Sarawak layer cake). The traditional method for baking the colourful cake was handed down over many generations of Sarawakians. Mira Cake House is probably the most popular kek lapis shop in Sarawak. Personally, I like the kek lapis made by CKIN Cake.

Forget about drinking Starbucks in Sarawak. Instead, savour Sarawakian coffee at Black Bean Coffee & Tea Company along Ewe Hai Street, Kuching. Its freshly ground Liberica beans and Robusta beans are planted by the Bidayuh in the mountainous region of Sarawak. This coffee shop has been featured in a Danish travel magazine, and is said to be Kuching’s finest brew.

Craving for homemade Baba Nyonya desserts and delicacies? 33 Old Street Enterprise at 33 Jalan China serves homecooked nyonya rojak, ice kacang, leng chi kang and kantong (blended ice on a stick). Leng chi kang is a refreshing dessert cooked with healthy ingredients like lotus seed, barley, jelly, dried persimmon, winter melon candy, sea grass, and white fungus.

The old courthouse in Kuching is now the Sarawak Tourism Complex, and houses the Visitors’ Information Centre and the National Park Booking Office. After making your tour booking to Bako National Park, rest and have a cup of hot chocolate or coffee at the Magenta Restaurant located in the Old Courthouse premise. While sipping your coffee, take some time to admire the outstanding belian (ironwood) roofs of this old colonial architecture built in 1874.

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