Alena Murang: Sky Songs

Looking Up

Listening Post 333. The Earth doesn’t move beneath our feet but it does rotate, offering far flung lands with unique cultures a view of the same heavens. Perhaps this explains why Alena Murang’s songs evoke both the mystery of a faraway people and instant identification with their reverence for the sky. Murang is a Malaysian singer-songwriter and prodigy of the sape’, traditional lute of the Dayak peoples who inhabit the riverbanks and highlands of Borneo—and the first woman to play the instrument professionally. In Sky Songs she tells stories inspired by her ancestors who according to legend lived in the skies and came to Earth via a giant waterfall. Most of the album revolves around celestial phenomena—stars, clouds, thunder, moon, wind, birds—but she tells her tales from the ground up, in Kelabit and Kenyah (endangered languages indigenous to Borneo) and English. Murang is part of a preservation movement to recover oral histories rooted in ancient belief but lost over the past century as Dayak adopted new religions. Cultural erosion accelerated in her father’s generation when many children went to distant schools, depriving them of time with tribal elders. Sky Songs mixes traditional themes and instruments with folk, blues and rock touches, Murang’s sweet and supple voice shifting deftly between soft ballads and driving beats. The common thread is connection: “We are our ancestors,” she asserts in Gitu’an (Stars, video 1); while We Are Watching the Clouds portrays villagers in a drought-stricken region looking skyward for signs of when to establish a new settlement (video 2). Sunhat Song is a road trip to the past in amped country-blues garb (video 3); while Meno’ invokes nostalgia for the multi-family longhouses in which village dwellers live (video 4). And in the stunning instrumental Warrior Spirit—less about combat, all about community—lute strings and movement gracefully bind heritage to future, generation to generation. (Wind Music International)

Alena Murang: Sky Songs
Alena Murang: Vocals, sape’, backing vocals, claps
Joshua Maran: Drums, pagang, percussion, guitarlele, electric guitar, rattan mat, shaker, synth, backing vocals, claps
Jonathan Wong Ketshin: Electric guitar, acoustic guitar, nylon-string guitar
Herman Ramanado: Bass guitar, backing vocals, claps
Jimmy Chong: Taiko drums, tubong, woodblock, bongos, claps
Niko Coyez: Flute
All songs produced by Joshua Maran

 

Gitu’an / Stars
Composed by Alena Murang & Joshua Maran
Introduction: Tepu’ Ngalinuh Karuh

From the artist’s notes: The song came about when we were learning about our great ancestors Tuked Rinih and his wife Aruring Menepo Bo, who lived in the skies and travelled to Earth via a great waterfall. Although our lives are very different now and the Kelabit community at large practices different belief systems, the community values (togetherness, looking after each other) and the things we valued (rice, beads) are still the same and very much ground us in our identity. We are who we are because of those that came before us.

(From the Kelabit lyrics)
Like the beads, like the rice paddy
We are our ancestors/We are people of the sky
We are our ancestors/We are people of the sky

The sun, round as a sun hat/Skirting the edge of the cloudy sky
Journeying through the circumference of the vast heavens

 

We Watched the Clouds
Adapted from Tama Sepai @ Mengah Tepun & Ose Murang @ Tadun Bala
Composed by Alena Murang & Joshua Maran

Artist’s notes: The song is derived from our traditional benging, a form of chant. It tells of how our ancestors, circa 1910s, looked at the clouds for an indication of a good time to migrate from the villages Long Kelit & Long Seluit to Long Pa Luan, likely in search for more fertile land. Long Pa Luan, now called Long Peluan, is where my father was born.

(From the lyrics in Kelabit, Long Peluan dialect)
I went and stood by the decorated end of the longhouse to look up at the clouds.

The clouds swirled and surged over the Masia’ mountain range with steep slopes
We went on to Long Seluit, wondering if the drought is a minor or a major one
Hoping to catch fish at the rivulets at Long Seluit.

Showing off a sturdy physique, attractive in a coat made from coarse threads from the talun bark
I went and stood by the upstream end of the longhouse to look up at the clouds
The clouds moved in tandem and surges over the barren Masia’ mountain range
They went on and arrived at a place Long Pa Luan, their appointed destination.
Wondering if the drought is a long or a short one
Hoping to catch fish at the rivulets at Long Pa Luan.

 

Sunhat Song
Composed by Alena Murang & Joshua Maran

Artist’s notes: Country blues music has a strong place in our rural highland communities… I grew up hearing more western country, blues & folk music from my uncles and aunties than I did our own traditional tunes. The elders say they can relate to the lyrics about missing home, the buffalos, the crop, the family, the dirt road.

Sunhat Song was written with our cousins in mind, those scattered all over the world in what we call our “global longhouse”, and how we all look to the Kelabit highlands as home. Our ancestors likened the sky to the “big sunhat dome” and all creation lay under it.

Start the engine we’re on our way back/From Miri to Ulu Baram
All my brothers and sisters you hear me/We’re taking the old dirt road home

We all need that one root or an anchor/And mine’s where the great old trees grow
Tell me how sweet the sound of the mountains/And grace that which brings us back home

Say a prayer/For all my lovin’ ones
Under this sunhat/Up in the highlands

Nothing bigger and nothing is smaller/than watching the clouds float on by
When the rain falls I don’t cry no longer/I don’t miss sadness when it’s gone

 

Meno’ / Yearning
Adapted from Mathew Ngau Jau

Our ancestors made long journeys from the highlands to the coast of Miri to trade. They went by long boat through the rapids, up through the dense jungle, sleeping at villages or in the jungle on the way. They would sing belian meno’ (wistful songs), of yearning, thinking of something or someone that is not there.

(Rough translation from the lyrics in Kenyah)
The day that we meet
We come together
We gather in close fellowship

Lunde’ Along I yearn for you
Yearn for the community
And the longhouse

Don’t be shy
Let’s walk together
Walking by the veranda

Goodbye to you, you go now,
Go back home,
Return home

 

Warrior Spirit
Composed by Alena Murang & Joshua Maran

Dedicated to “warriors who watch the mist rise on the morning of battle,” Warrior Spirit, is a form of poetry in movement celebrating strength in unity and working together for the common defense.

 

 


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