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Within Us, Always

02 May
Mon, 12am

By Alena Murang

In many Dayak1 languages, there is no word for music, or for art. Yet, our community is filled with song, poetry, dance, paintings, and carvings.

Perhaps this is a testament to how engrained art and music are in the fabric of our highland communities — how there is no “performer”, no “performance”, but rather that music was a part of ritual, of togetherness, where everyone was either playing an instrument, singing together, or dancing. The village chief was often – though not always – a painter, a carver, a musician or singer, and a good dancer.

Takna (a form of choral poetry from the Dayak Kayan group), and the pantun (Iban sung poetry), inform MEPAAN. Both are a type of poetry, with a loosely fixed form and no fixed words, the lyrics varying from singer to singer, from time to time. That’s what I love about our lyricism, that it changes. It always has, as the singer adapts the words to express that very moment. The length of poetry/song changes all the time; when there is nothing left to say, only then does the song end.

We all know that artists, throughout time, are influenced by their experiences and their environment. Our ancestors, up until recent history (my grandmother’s generation), didn’t know concrete, and high-rises, and cars, and brands; they knew the magnificent tall trees of the oldest rainforest in the world; the clear rivers and skies; the gentle wind in the highland valleys, the torrential tropical storms. They knew the names of every bird and insect in one of the most diverse biological landscapes in the world, and the use of the plants. Their world was a place where the cool nights were spent by the river with true friends, under the soft moonlight. Their souls, so entrenched in the dense rainforests, sang like the ways the tips of ferns curl in, sang like the shallow waters rippling over rounded rocks. From their hearts were born instruments like the sape’, song, poetry, dance.

And so, MEPAAN will be a showcase of the mysterious ability of music to convert the human experience, human emotion and memory, into sounds. Across time and geography, listeners will be invited to relive these experiences. And I believe that a person who hasn’t even been in a rainforest will feel immersed in its presence. As a sape’ musician myself, I have seen the power of this unassuming, few-note instrument, and its ability to reach into the corners of the souls of people across the world.

When I heard about the creative process of MEPAAN, I was intrigued — how were these city-dwelling creatives of Singapore going to embody and translate the spirit of rainforest song? For much of the process, the composers were unable to physically meet the Dayak artists and to be in the community’s environment, due to travel restrictions. The rest of the creative team were in the same situation — the fashion designer, set designer, lighting designers, and the musicians themselves. But this isn’t the point. The beauty in MEPAAN is in its collaborative nature.

This congregation reminds me of the times when people would travel from far and wide to meet in a village to celebrate something, each community bringing their own gifts to the table. Whilst we may have different stories, we are all inherently one and the same, a people with cultures rooted in nature; travellers since the dawn of time, sharing our god-given gifts of music, poetry, fashion, and film to create something. The gift of creation is divine, and through all these creators today is divinity in its workings.  

Amongst these different creators, of different histories, different disciplines, different artistic backgrounds and approaches, different livelihoods, the innate desire to be in nature is common. MEPAAN will restore the definition of the word power in the venue of its staging, the defunct Pasir Panjang Power Station, generating a force that will light up every being. In the face of development, we forget that as humans we have an inherent need to be close to nature, because we are part of nature. And I believe that’s what MEPAAN is here to remind us of. With the guidance of our elders, it awakens a memory from a time, not so long ago, when we honoured nature, because we are part of nature.

My dear creators, you are beyond your ancestors’ wildest dreams. If only they could see you now. In a power station, it is not just the power of music, but the presence of a million ancestors that run through the souls of all the creators in MEPAAN. You are here, because of them.

1 Dayak is the umbrella term for the indigenous peoples of Borneo.

About the writer

Born of the Dayak Kelabit people of Borneo, Alena Murang’s work of art is a dedication to her heritage presented in contemporary form. Read more about Murang here.

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