SAPEH, sape, sampet or sampeh, in whichever way it is spelt, this stringed instrument of Sarawak’s Orang Ulu is primordial in essence. When plucked and strummed, it eludes a haunting tune, so divine and sacred, that those who dance to its music convulse into a trance.
The home grown musical instrument of Central Borneo’s upriver folks was once played to lend music during ritualistic ceremonies in the aboriginal enclaves of the longhouse. However, over the wheels of time, the sapeh morphed in status and in its role.
Though electric sapehs deliver a rhapsodic repertoire for modern social occasions today, the musical wooden contraption that resembles a boat to some, and a mega bass ball bat to others, will always retain the lyrical quintessence of its indigenous pedigree.
Avid sapeh player Thomas Goh, who recently spoke to thesundaypost, says: “The sound of the sapeh will forever be lilting and esotericeven though it has undergone startling changes through a series of improvisation.”
According to Goh, a trainer and musician with the Kuching-based Dayak Cultural Foundation, sincethe last few decades, the sapeh had evolved tremendously.
“The original sapeh had rattan strings. From rattan strings, it was fitted with nylon strings and eventually it was donned with steel strings that give an enhanced twangto its sound,” Goh explains.
Goh, of Iban-Chinese descent, says the sapeh is relatively a simple instrument but its music is complex. It was originally a two-stringed instrument with only three frets. It was then solely used to induce a hypnotic trance during ceremonial rites, but in later years, it was remodelled to become a three, four, five or six stringed instrument for the purpose of providing music for social entertainment and leisure, he notes.
Goh adds that the sapeh can produce different tones and notes, according to the way it is tuned and the number of strings and frets it has, and more importantly, in the specific way the frets are arranged.
He perceives the sapeh as a very “versatile and progressive” musical instrument because of the many phases of development it has undergone.
“I can use the sapeh to play ballads, hymns, folk songs, Yuletide melodies and gospel songs,” Goh says, adding, that he loves to play Amazing Grace on the sapeh as the song’s intense sentiments match with the sapeh’s distinctive tonality.
For Goh, his long relationship with the sapeh saw its “defining moment” when he brought theromantic sound of the sapeh to Hong Kong, where he gave a rendition of an old Mandarin love song on stage.