Share This

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Forgotten Sounds


The sape and its gentle lilting music is readily recognised as a cultural icon of Sarawak. Yet, for centuries, other instruments reigned supreme in the Baram. Many lie forgotten or survive pre- cariously in remote villages, played by a few aging exponents.


In a recent rare performance of Takna' (Kayan epic ballad) in Kuching, Adrian Jo Milang, a talented teenage singer, referred to the keluri: “her voice echoes across the river like the soothing sound of the keluri, gourd set with pipes of brown bamboo”. The instrument referred to, the keluri (or keledi, Kayan; kedire’ in Kenyah, engkerurai in Iban), is a mouth organ, consisting of six to seven bamboo tubes bound together in a circle, with their ends enclosed in a gourd wind-chest.

Possibly the oldest instrument in the world to play in harmony, its melodies are based on pentatonic scales, accompanied by a drone (a single, repeated pitch) both above and below the melodic line. The keluri may have disappeared physically from most villages, but its melodic and harmonic influence lives on in song. Melodies in the same pentatonic scale are sung by Kayan and Kenyah soloists in epic ballads, complemented by a majestic choral response on a drone sung by the whole gathered community.

Once occupying a central role in Kenyah-Kayan culture, the keluri’s role has now been usurped by the sape, for instance in leading processional dances such as the Kayan hivan upah and the Kenyah saga lupa. This was demonstrated to me in 1998 by one of the last surviving keluri exponents, seventy-year old Imang Ajang from the Kayan village of Long Laput. The practice is also mentioned in Charles Hose’s “The Pagan Tribes of Borneo”, where he describes keluri players leading warriors in a triumphant dance after returning from war expeditions.


The mouth organ is so ancient that it is believed to be the ancestor of the harmonica. This free reed instrument originated in Southeast Asia, spread to China where it evolved into the Chinese sheng, then was carried to Europe where it inspired the invention of the harmonica, accordion and reed organ. Ironically, although the keluri is almost extinct, its “grandson” the harmonica has been happily incorporated into the musical ensembles of Kenyah villages.

Harmony is a distinct characteristic of Kenyah musical ensembles. Instruments made from wood and bamboo dominate these ensembles: sape, jatung utang (wooden xylophones), suling (flutes) and lutong kayu (zithers). They combine in strict tuning with western contemporary instruments such as harmonicas and guitars and homemade banjos.


A second ancient instrument displaying harmony is the jatung utang. Originating in the rice-fields, where slabs of waste-wood were suspended near the farm-hut were struck to scare away animals from the ripening grain, it gradually evolved into an instrument of entertainment. Consisting of 9 to 13 bars of light wood tuned to a pentatonic scale (do re mi so la) and suspended on a rectangular trough, it is played with a pair of wooden beaters. As the jatung utang is a percussive and robust instrument, its fairly recent addition to the ensemble has enlivened the atmosphere of dance performances. However, as jatung utang can only be played in one fixed key, sape players in the ensemble must tune their strings accordingly and are often obliged to forgo much of their original repertoire. Formerly, to accompany the women’s solo dance (kanjet leto), the sape player would move the frets to form a different scale (do mi fa so ta). Tunes in this scale such as Ilun Jebut, have an ethereal quality rarely heard nowadays.

Nevertheless, jatung utang tunes are catchy and easy to learn (continued) especially if an associated song can be traced. For instance, the song Chut Tunyang, “step in the mud”, tells of a forlorn suitor slinking off in the dark (in rural Sarawak, this entails stepping on muddy ground) after being rejected by the girl his heart desires; this indicated by her refusal of the profferred sepak melu (betel nut and lime paste, indispensable in Kenyah etiquette).


Another instrument in the Kenyah ensemble, the wooden lutong (a board zither) evolved from the bamboo lutong (Kenyah term) a cylindrical bamboo zither. The newer version of the instrument is made of wood instead of bamboo and looks strikingly different as it has a five-cornered box-like body, with six strings, each attached to a separate tuning peg. The strings, tuned with bamboo frets to the pitches so, do re mi so do, are played with thumb and forefinger applying the same technique used for its bamboo precursor. The resulting melodies are, however, very different as this contemporary form of the zither is tuned to exact pitches matching those of the other instruments in the ensemble.


The bamboo lutong (satong in Kayan) popular among Kayan and Kenyah women a generation ago is now extremely rare. Unjong Lawai of Long Moh, one of the few remaining exponents, played a dozen tunes for me in 2004, while her sisters danced and sang associated songs. Before the advent of radios and telephones, the lutong was the Kenyah women’s handy means of entertainment and communication. They played the lutong while cooking rice in the early morning or during leisure hours at night, not only to express their emotions but also to convey messages, sometimes directed to their sweethearts. One song from the lutong repertoire has these associated lyrics: “Ti ruti lun, bekubek duai lun (Come and sleep, let us make love)”.

These colorful instruments, ingeniously made with materials from the jungles of Sarawak, may soon disappear unless they are brought to the attention of a wider audience, and the skills of new exponents nurtured. Although the sape has enjoyed a renaissance and is well known internationally, the other instruments remain obscure. This is not simply an inevitable consequence of modernization. It is puzzling, for example, that the keluri has almost disappeared while its close relative the sompoton is thriving in Sabah.

One environment where they could thrive is in school music classes and music clubs. The jatung utang would be an effective instrument to use in the modern classroom to introduce musical concepts and skills to children. The wooden lutong, with some modifications could be employed in school ethnic ensembles. Both jatung utang and lutong have been introduced successfully to schoolchildren during workshops conducted with the help of a team of facilitators from Batu Lintang Teacher’s Institute in Kuching.

Without concerted efforts to revive the popularity of these instruments, they may well be relinquished to the footnotes of history.

1. Imang Ajang on the keluri, Long Laput, 1998.

2. Ensemble at Long Moh (jatung utang, harmonica, sape) 2004

3. Lutong players, Long Semiyang, 2004

4. Uma Baka ensemble, 2004

5. Unjong Lawai on the bamboo lutong, Long Moh, 20045.

6. Lutong, Long Bedian, 1996


Chong Pek Lin, D. Mus, M.A., B.Sc. Hons, Dip. Ed, LTCL, was a lecturer at Batu Lintang Teacher’s Institute, Kuching until she retired in 2015. A recipient of the ISME-Gibson international award in 2006 for outstanding music educators, she has conducted research in Sarawak ethnic music for the past 20 years. Determined to share the rich musical repertoire she encountered, she has written several books. These include Songs from the Kenyah Community (1998), Songs from The Baram: Kenyah Songs from Upriver Longhouses (2006) and Introduction to Selected Instrumental Ensembles and Folk Songs of East Malaysia (2011). The third book, co-authored by Anne Anthony Lajinga, includes Kadazandusun songs from Sabah.

KINO Calendar



SFbBox by


KUCHING IN & OUT magazine has been birthed out of the desire of Kuching residents to explore and discover more about all the unique places, activities and resources in this region that make Kuching such a special place to live.

We are the people of Kuching, and we are proud of our diversity of cultures! We are embarking on a journey of rediscovering the charm of our cultures, traditions and flavours, revealing Kuching’s refreshing vibrancy. We are excited about creating a voice for the local individual. As a connector between all our rich and different communities, More About Us


MARIAN CHIN Editor-in-Chief


MARIAN CHIN +60198579576

Published bi-monthly by

Email Subscription



Go to top