From Longhouse to Concert Hall
ASIA TIMES Oct. 8,1999, Southeast Asia

KUCHING, Malaysia - Music may not be the first thing that comes to mind at the  mention of Malaysia, but that may change if Canadian musician Randy Raine-Reusch succeeds in his mission.

Raine-Reusch has been commissioned by Sarawak's tourist authorities to help this Malaysian state on the island of Borneo to tune up to the world beat. He says Malaysia is sitting on a goldmine of traditional music that is bound to entrance listeners from elsewhere. The Canadian's enthusiasm for Sarawakian music precedes his hiring by the state. In fact, it was partly because of his excitement over his musical ''find'' a few years ago that  officials here finally decided it was time to realize their dream of putting Sarawak on the  world music map.

Sarawak has some 26 indigenous ethnic groups, each with its own musical culture. But because these peoples have traditionally lived in communal longhouses in the forests, cut off from the towns and cities, urban Malaysians are themselves unfamiliar with Sarawakian music.

These days though, Raine-Reusch and Sarawak officials are thinking beyond Malaysia's borders. Indeed, for the last two years, they have been holding a Rainforest World Music Festival that highlights not only Sarawakian sounds but also other indigenous music from all over the world. Organizers and participants say the festival exposes local musicians to world music while also introducing outsiders to the musical instruments and melodies of Sarawak.

The second festival, held last month, brought together musicians from Sarawak, East Malaysia, Cuba, Madagascar, Peru, Scotland, Canada and China. ''We want to bring down  our musicians from the longhouses and the kampongs [villages] in the interior and expose  them to the international musicians who are here,'' explains Mohd Tuah Jais, chairman of  the festival organizing committee. ''This is where creativity comes in, to see whether you can blend your kind of music with that of the other groups.'' Sarawakian music would be a welcome addition to an industry that is gradually going truly global. Until the so-called ''world music'' took off in the 1990s, most new musical forms and styles originated in the West, especially in the United States, even though their roots may have been in Africa or South America.

But now indigenous music and cultural values of Asia, Africa, South America and many other parts of the non-Western world are been exported to other regions without having to  adapt Western musical idioms to be successful. Western musicians are now the ones adapting other musical forms and instruments, such as the Indonesian gamelan, the Japanese shakuhachi and the Indian tabla, into their own music.

Both Raine-Beusch and Mohd are betting that the Sarawakian traditional guitar, the sape,  will be the next non-Western musical instrument to take the world music scene by storm.  Observes Raine-Reusch: ''There's a style of music from West Africa called Kora which has been selling well. Sape music has that same appeal.''  Sape is a ''boat-lute'' played by the Orang Ulu or the upper river people of central Borneo.  Often used to accompany songs and dances, the Sape traditionally had only two strings, but now three, four and even five-string instruments are common. Most musicians now play it amplified with an electric guitar pickup.

''Some foreign musicians now identify the music of Malaysia from the sound of the sape,'' remarks Matthew Ngau Jau, one of Sarawak's leading exponents of the instrument who has recently given concerts in Germany and France. He says the sape was traditionally played in longhouse ceremonies, but had begun losing appeal among the younger Sarawakians who preferred to play the guitar. Ngau Jau says the recognition sape is getting overseas now may change all that. Community leaders, however, have criticized previous attempts to modernize traditional Sarawakian music, saying that such attempts corrupt local musical cultures. But Mohd points out that blending traditional music with Western instruments may just be the ticket to getting outsiders interested in what Sarawak has to offer musically.

''Many traditional ceremonies and rituals are disappearing,'' Raine-Reusch notes. ''That's why we're not seeing young musicians playing this music. They are playing rock-and-roll.  Because the rituals are dying, the only way to keep the music alive is to change the context  of the music. So we switch to performing music. It does change the music, it's true. But it helps to allow the music to survive and may even allow it to grow and change.''

By Kalinga Seneviratne
  (Inter Press Service)


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