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A Kenyah song from the Baram

Uma Sambop Singing

PERHAPS YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE GENTLE, lilting music of the sape (a boat-shaped lute) and the graceful dances of the Kenyah, one of the indigenous groups of Sarawak who dwell in the upper reaches of the Baram and Balui rivers. Less well-known are their melodious dance-songs (termed belian dado’) often sung in two to three-part harmony, while performing simple line-dances on the verandah of their longhouse.

Twenty years ago, in search of folk songs for my choir to sing, I began my sojourns into upriver Sarawak, singling out the Kenyah as a likely source. Fieldwork involved complicated journeys by river, traversing hazardous rapids and rough logging roads to remote settlements. The effort has been well worth it; of the eighty-odd songs documented, many have been recreated on stage by my choir at Batu Lintang Teacher’s Institute and taught in various schools by my students.

One of my favourites is the nostalgic Mudung Ina (“That mountain”), which colourfully portrays life in the hinterland of Sarawak. Accompanied by humorous actions, it never fails to elicit laughter among both participants and audience. The first four verses and their accompanying actions are described below.

The song begins with the singers pointing at a distant mountain, usually visible from the longhouse verandah. The third verse refers to the amusing antics of pet monkeys. In an attempt to startle predators, the monkeys stamp on tree-branches (mecun daan, “tread on branches”) causing them to vibrate.

Mudung Ina (Chong P.L., 2006: Songs from the Baram)

1.Tiang mo’ mudung ina Tiang mo’ mudung ina Tiang nga linget mata Tiang mo’ ta’at lesan

Friends behold that mountain Friends behold that mountain Though clouds block our view We can see through clearly

Verse 1:Point to a distant mountain
Chorus: Oi mo nelan londe Tiang mo’ mo-on tawai Uyan me
Chorus: Truly dear friends, We long for times gone by
ChorusStretch hands and flick wrist up
as if dancingThen cross wrists and
place hands over heart


2.Tiang mo’ pabat piboi Tiang mo’ pabat piboi Tiang mo’ adang toi Tiang mo’ payun peman

Friends let’s chase and run Friends let’s chase and run Like hornbills we flock together With our arms around each other

Verse 2:Run in single file in a circle; f lap arms like a bird. Turn to face inwards; place arms around each other’s shoulders


3.Tiang mo’ piboi pabat Tiang mo’ piboi pabat Tiang mo’ kulong kuyat Tiang mo’ mecun da’an

Friends let’s run and chaseFriends let’s run and chase We are like pet monkeysTreading on and rattling the branches

Verse 3:Run in single file in a circle Stamp on the floor, while lifting shoulders in ‘ape-like’ manner


4.Tiang mo’ madong juong Tiang mo’ madong juong Tiang mo’ kusun lesong Tiang mo’ mecat siai

Friends we squat down together Friends we squat down together With mortar and pestleWe pound rice and smoke meat

Verse 4:Squat down and ‘pound padi’ with mortar and pestle

The song has a gentle, sentimental melody built on an anhemitonic pentatonic scale (five-tone scale, do, re, mi, so, la).

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