KUALA LUMPUR -- The lilting melody, once sung by girls watching over paddy fields, mesmerized the audience at Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Gallery -- even small children barely moved, gripped by musician Alena Murang's wistful voice and soulful accompaniment on the sape, a traditional lute.
It is rare to see the sape being played, let alone at a children's storytelling session, but Murang, 27, often uses the heavy wooden instrument to accompany her renditions of traditional songs, keeping alive the music of her ancestors.
"These sorts of small, intimate sessions are the best," Murang said, perched on a high stool and surrounded by colorful beanbags and mats at the Kuala Lumpur gallery. The songs were traditionally sung in the evenings, lit by firelight in the communal longhouses of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.
The sape, carved from a single piece of wood measuring more than 1 meter, is a traditional instrument among indigenous people who live in the mountains near Sarawak's Baram River. It is played by plucking its strings, usually numbering four to six, and is enjoying a resurgence in Malaysia, where the few remaining makers of traditional instruments cannot keep up with demand.
"In the last five years, I've noticed a much bigger take-up of the sape," said Murang, who is frequently asked to recommend sape teachers.
Her first album, "Flight," featured five traditional songs sung to sape accompaniment, and quickly sold more than 1,000 copies after its release last year. Since 2015 she has performed in London, Paris, the Netherlands and the U.S. as well at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and the George Town Festival in the Malaysian state of Penang.
George Town Festival director Joe Sidek, who invited Murang to join the festival's opening show in 2016, said he is intrigued by her talent. "It's fascinating to see a young person go on a journey to learn an instrument that very few young people would take up, and make beautiful music from it," he said.
Murang began studying the sape, and learning the old songs, as a teenager. Part-European, she grew up in Sarawak, and says her identity was formed by her descent from the Kelabit people, who form one of the smallest ethnic groups in the state. The Kelabit traditionally lived in longhouses in the isolated mountains of central Borneo, but many now live and work in cities.
Murang said the Kelabit people's hold on their culture weakened during her father's generation, when many began leaving their villages for the cities. In her father's remote village of Long Peluan, then several days' walk from the nearest town, children would leave home for boarding school at the age of 12. Most never returned, except during school holidays.
"At that time, there was a lot of emphasis on mainstream education, English and so on, and they also did not spend a lot of time with their parents. There was no emphasis on their culture," she said. The upriver settlements had also converted to Christianity, and many of the old songs were gradually sidelined -- especially those about love affairs and animal sacrifices, which came to be considered inappropriate.
When Murang began learning the sape, her teacher -- master sape player Matthew Ngau Jau -- was initially hesitant about teaching her. Traditionally, girls did not play the sape, or even touch the instrument, because they were thought to bring bad luck. Ultimately, however, the importance of the instrument's heritage won the battle for Murang. "We certainly didn't realize the significance at that time," she said.
Recording the music presented unique challenges. The pieces do not have titles, singers have their own individual versions, and it is common for the lyrics to be changed as the songs are sung. The songs also have no fixed conclusion -- typically, they end when the singer stops.
Murang's cousin, a music producer, crafted the melodies into recognizable structures, with permission from the elders who taught the tunes. The sape provides the main accompaniment, but instruments such as the cello are also featured. "Fusion music is more often pop or rock in nature, but I didn't want that. I want to retain a certain emotion, a certain nostalgia, a call for people to remember life in the longhouse and nature," she said.
Murang does not categorize her work as conservation, or even as traditional. Her approach is that of an artist, rather than that of a conservationist or academic. She describes her style of music as contemporary and indigenous, and as a reflection of an evolving Kelabit culture.
"We have lost a lot of the old values as we focus on material growth, and I include myself," she said.
Murang is now planning to learn other traditional musical instruments such as the pagang, which is made of bamboo, the lutong, a sape intended for women, and the jaw harp. These, she said, do not get as much attention as the iconic sape, but are just as important to her people's heritage and culture.