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Traditional Borneo orchestra in works
Published on: Monday, September 28, 2015
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WITH its rich and diverse culture, Borneo has a lot to offer, especially in music. In Sabah alone, there are more than 30 recognised ethnic groups and each group has its own unique sound and music instruments.Plus, local traditional musicians had also made the country proud in international competitions like the World Championship of Performing Arts (WCOPA) – which is often dubbed as the 'Olympics of Performing Arts' and held annually in Hollywood, California.

And that notion had driven the Sabah National Department of Culture and Arts (JKKNS) to pursue an initiative of forming a Borneo Traditional Orchestra (OTB), which also includes prominent musicians, among them being Razali Abd Rahman and Jerry Kamit.

"In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Traditional Orchestra has already been formed. And this has inspired the initiation of OTB.

"We wanted to do a branding for Bornean music so that we could stamp out the perception of certain quarters that Bornean traditional music couldn't go far," Rhythms of Kinabalu (ROK) Performance Director Sharip Zainal Sh Shek told Daily Express after a concert, recently.

Sharip disclosed, they are planning to combine 55 traditional musicians from Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan through OTB.

"But for ROK, we only managed to gather 31 musicians from Sabah and Sarawak. For the next project, we will try to combine musicians from all four components of Borneo.

"The orchestra is balanced where we have a group of senior musicians while the rest are youngsters. Whoever that is involved in ROK will be a part of OTB.

"OTB is still in the midst of planning. If possible, we would like to launch it later this year or by first half of next year… it involves a lot of parties to be materialised."

Sharip said, he has high hopes that Bornean music can be further highlighted internationally.

"We have our own unique 'flavour', the feel to the music itself. We could showcase our culture, ethnic groups and history. We could educate outsiders to know our music and our culture," he said.


Kulintangan maestro, Razali said, at the moment, they are still experimenting with the idea of forming OTB.

"Should the response is good and if all goes well, we will continue our effort and I'm confident that we can bring the traditional sounds of Borneo to a higher stage.

"As the saying goes, music is an international language as in music there's rhythm and melody which can be easily understood by everyone. As for the lyrics, we can introduce the local ethnic languages to foreigners.

"And we should broaden our scope… to encompass the whole of Borneo and not only focus on traditional music in Sabah," Razali said.

Jerry added, Bornean music has high potential as based on his observation, even outsiders had shown their interest.

"People from the peninsula and other countries come here to find and do exploration for materials. So, we as the 'owners' of this treasure should've exploit it more.

"We already have many platforms to do so, in Sarawak, we have the annual Rainforest World Music Festival… that's where we can showcase our talent and works," Jerry said.

Jerry even ditched his guitar for Sape after he started learning the art of playing the traditional instrument nearly 20 years ago as "the opportunity for me to go global is bigger."

"If I stick to guitar, there are many guitarists out there… I used to play the guitar in a band. But after I'd played Sape, I put my focus more on Bornean traditional music instruments.

"My love for Sape started when I began working at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching… I was in my early 20s then. And prior to that, I've never even touched a Sape."

He admitted that there's a big difference in playing a guitar and a Sape as there's no proper chord in playing the latter unlike the former.

"For Sape, you have to listen to the original song and then you have to 'transfer' the melody and the frets to Sape… just like what I always do, when traditional music is being played in contemporary style.

"This is one of the ways to attract youngsters because if we only play traditional music then it would be too monotonous. We have to innovate the sound."

Such efforts are fruitful as proven in the increasing number of followers for traditional music instruments as well as the number of Sape players, not only in Sarawak but beyond the Land of Hornbills as well.

"Back when I first started, I think I was the only prominent young Sape player, especially in Kuching.

"Now there are a lot of Sape players, even female players. It's more global now where the sounds of Sape have travelled around the world."

Both Razali and Jerry had made their mark in the world stage, most significantly in WCOPA.

"After winning medals in WCOPA, I received a lot of offers to join other competitions, including Asia's Got Talent. But, for now, I want to explore new things and materials. And thanks to God I've also received a lot of job offers," Razali said.

Jerry brought home 10 gold medals for solo and group effort with Tuku Kamek in WCOPA 2009 and now has a collection of 15 Sapes.

In its own class

ROK is one of the department's effort to celebrate and showcase the unique sounds of Borneo, particularly from Sabah and Sarawak.

This year's edition is the fourth instalment of ROK and the second time it was conducted at JKKNS Auditorium. The theme was 'Light, Sound and Style' which captured the elements of the lives of Sabahans.

"This two-day concert is one of the programmes lined up for Year of Festivals 2015 conducted by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. It combined traditional musicians from Borneo, intertwining traditional and modern music instruments.

"It is hoped that it can bring this kind of music to another level as traditional music is in its own class where it is not only played in the villages but also can be adapted to play international tunes," JKKNS Director Mohamad Raizuli Mat Jusoh said.

It is also hoped that ROK could increase the appreciation and awareness for music among the local community.

Raizuli added, the programme will be continued as it received an overwhelming response with almost 1,500 people coming to support the concert as well as fringe shows outside of the auditorium.

"The fringe shows are more on local artists so that they could gain more exposure to showcase their ability and creativity.

"And we've also opened an arts bazaar where local entrepreneurs could sell their products."

The show was divided into three segments – the first one was a tribute to the earthquake victims in Ranau, especially the mountain guides, the second segment focused on instrumental and experimental pieces by soloists and guest performers, while the third one showcased the fusion performance of modern songs with traditional instruments.

Apart from Razali and Jerry, local singers Janrywine J Lusin and Clarice John Matha and Den Bisa had also kept the audience entertained with their energetic performance.

Among the instruments showcased during the concert were Sompoton, flute, Bungkau, bamboo saxophone and gongs with 31 musicians performing on stage.

It was the first time Sharip and Razali were given the task of being the performance director and music director respectively.

"Preparation was made two months before the actual show. The promotion was good as well as the commitment shown by musicians and artists. The response from the audience was unexpected.

"I had intentionally showcased all of the elements of performance art on stage – music, dance, acting and singing, and we used local artists which proved that we don't need big name artists from KL to attract the crowd.

"And I was made to understand that the expensive tickets were sold out earlier than the cheaper ones… the fans had really shown their support," Sharip said.

On the selection of musicians for ROK, Sharip said, they had considered a few factors like the instruments that would be highlighted and the districts that have existing musicians.

"During the planning stage, we thought of the bamboo orchestra from Ranau and also Kulintangan from Beaufort. And then we spiced it up with the inclusion of Sape and middle eastern-styled Gambus. We wanted to display something different… not the usual Gambus found in Sabah."

Asked on his experience performing in ROK for the second time, Jerry stated that the feeling was different than the first.

"The first edition of ROK was held in Kinabalu Park… in an open space and I think, it was more of a trial event. It was free admission then and the response wasn't as good as now where the audiences have to pay for the tickets. The response is great," Jerry said.

As for the songs, they were finalised after a thorough discussion. Sharip said, aside from familiar songs, they also performed newly-composed songs.

Some of the new compositions are Dalam Ingatan, sang by Janrywine, Simpang Mengayau which was sang by Sharip, Tekayo-kayo – composed by Jerry Kamit and Razali's Zapin si Capin.

Razali hoped OTB and ROK will garner continuous support, especially from the public.

"I would like to mix young and veteran musicians and artists. With the involvement of youngsters, we can ensure that there would be a new generation of musicians. In Beaufort alone, there are around 30 young Kulintangan players."

Jerry also said ROK should be held continuously every year as "it would be getting better by the year."

"We should further explore less known materials. This is the time for everybody to learn and share ideas," he said.


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