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Kayan verbal art, Takna’ and Arap

During a rare performance in Kuching, from left to right: Grand-uncles Anyek Imut, Ngo Laing, Adrian, grandmother Hulo Laing and mother Victoria Mujan Nyagu’ (standing).

ACCORDING TO THE TRANSLATION from Tubau and Balui, the word Takna’ stands for poetic tale told in song. Arap or kejun are two words that mean the same, the spontaneous singing of a poetic song. These ancient verbal arts were once the main source of entertainment, greatly prized by the Kayans since centuries past, assimilated from one generation to another orally, until today. My late grandfather, Nyagu’ Gong, was an iconic singer skilled in parap/ngeju (to sing a poetic song) and nakna’ (to sing a poetic tale), as claimed by the elders that heard him in their day. When he passed away 25 years ago, his widow, my grandmother Huring Emang, dreamt of him. He told her not to mourn for him but to parap like he did amongst those who are still around. She was asked to sing at a wedding just a few months after the dream, and she has been doing so until today.

When I was a child, my grandmother put us to sleep by telling us long (folktales) and takna’. It never did work for me, because when she started to tell us takna’ as a bedtime story, I would stay awake until she finished the tale. I had no idea of its significance to the whole community, until, during one Christmas visit to our longhouse, my attention was drawn to her parap/ngejun for my relatives at the veranda. I sat next to her not knowing what she was singing, but I recorded it on my phone. As days passed by I listenend to that recording on repeat until she noticed my obsession. She searched her bags for my late grandfather’s tapes for me to listen to. From that moment on, every day when I got back from school I went to her and listened to the tapes. I nagged her to tell me the meanings of the words I was listening to. Slowly I started to learn to habe (sing chorus), and with every mistake I made, she corrected me until I got it right. My obsession grew uncontrollably until, when I was thirteen, I had a vague dream and in that dream, as best I can recall, I saw her and some relatives singing, parap/ngejun. I told her about it when I woke up, and she said it was a good sign, a good dream, because I was crazy about arap/kejun and takna’. Then, after this, doors of opportunity opened for me to sharpen my skills.

She was just simply passing on her family’s legacy to a new generation. I talk about her all the time when I am asked how I have learnt to parap/ ngejun, more often than I tell people I was given a sign in a dream. She is one of the main reasons that I have come this far. If it weren’t for her, none of this would have happened. Words can’t express the love I have for her, for her guidance and patience in teaching me. Most of the time I could be a mild annoyance to her for my constant curiosity, but she went through with it regardless. She never stopped telling me new or old information about this verbal art,. Even at the age of 86, she always believed in the talent in me that is yet to be unleashed and matured. Wherever and whenever she parap/ ngejun she would first look for me to habe/nyabe her even when I was not near. The kind of connection we have when we parap/ngejun is that we read each other’s minds. We know the flow of each other’s arap/kejun very well, just as I know the flow of song of her late husband, whose evergreen voice lives forever in tapes as my inspiration and my admiration, expanding my knowledge in this unique art. One of my greatest hopes is that their names echo eternally among those who are warmly remembered for saving and preserving part of Borneo’s ancient cultural heritage.

19 year old Adrian Jo Milang is currently living in Bintulu and is completing his third grade piano course in order to pursue one of his goals and that is to become an ethnomusicologist hence to expand his knowledge about this verbal art, and thus, hopefully spark the passion that our ancestors had for it among the youth of his generation.

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