Musician, Singer, Songwriter, Sape Musician
Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Alena Murang draws inspirations from the past and present, from her Dayak Kelabit heritage, growing up in nature’s playground on the island of Borneo, living in the metropolitan Manchester and now Kuala Lumpur, her name has become synonymous with the sape’, a lute instrument of the highland tribes of the island, created for the purpose of healing physical, spiritual and emotional ailments. The first female to professionally perform and teach the sape’, Alena has been learning the instrument from master sape’ player Mathew Ngau for twenty years, and also master Salomon Gau.
Born in Kuching, Sarawak, to a Kelabit father, Ose Murang and English-Italian mother Valerie Mashman, Alena and her older brpther were immersed in a mesh of cultures and environments since birth. With weekends filled with long hikes to waterfalls, nights in villages staying awake through ceremonies, Alena was quick to learn that every rock, tree, mountain, bird, rhythm, and melody had a name. At the age of six she learnt traditional dances of Sarawak at the Dayak Cultural Foundation in Kuching, later on receiving the arang kadang (long dance) and solo Hornbill dance from her aunties. In 2000, seven girl cousins decided to pick up the sape’ – the first students of their generation, and the first girls to play. Alena was one of them. The young group of dancers and sape’ players were known as Anak Adi’ Rurum Kelabit, and were later on named Kan’id, cutting their debut album in 2007 – Rhythms of the Kelabit Highlands.
Kelabit people are one of the smallest groups indigenous to Borneo, with a population of roughly 6000 people. They are part of the Austronesian language group.
In her early 20s Alena rose to the call of inheriting these songs, with more certainty. Seeking out grandaunties and aunties that could teach her songs of times past; and uncles that would teach her other styles of playing the sape’. At this point we should explain that many of these oral histories, which existed as music, are not remembered by many; for two main reasons – the community taking on a new religion, and Alena’s father’s generation focusing more on getting an education meant they spent barely any time with their elders, as schools were far away (ten days walk in the jungle!)
Though never formally studying music, Alena’s lifelong journey receiving the dance, song and music from her elders has led her to be a keeper of stories for her people. Working closely with her cousin Joshua Maran as producer, they draw on their musical influences of world, rock and folk music, combined with narratives of growing up indigenous in contemporary urban settings, to produce a sound that is distinctive, earthy and fresh; resonating with centuries of oral histories.
Her first EP, Flight (2016), presents interpretations of traditional Kelabit and Kenyah songs. For Alena it was important to do this as there were just a handful of good quality digital recordings of these lesser known songs. She has presented these songs in festivals across the world, including SXSW (USA), Colors of Ostrava (Czech Republic), Paris Fashion Week (France), Rudolstadt Festival (Germany), OzAsia Festival (Australia), and Rainforest World Music Festival (Malaysia). Since then her self-produced music videos in collaboration with like-minded artists, have been selected for film festivals in different corners of the world. She was also a youth representative a the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, and UNESCO Asia-Pacific for her work in intangible cultural heritage.
2020 will see the release of singles leading up to a new album, inspired by elements of the cosmos – the sky, moon, wind, stars, clouds. Alena works with a team of people, including her family, on this journey of making cultural heritage, and it’s values of togetherness and caring for the Earth, relevant and prominent in today’s urban, contemporary settings.
She started Kanid Studio (previously known as ART4 Studio), an organisation that aims to use art and music as a medium for positive impact, grounded in indigenous community values that are strong in the longhouse villages.
Alena Murang has been featured on Nat Geo People, Channel News Asia, Asian Nikkei Review, NPR Radio, BBC Radio 2, Radio 6, CBC News, Discovery Channel, Double J, etc.