Mathew Ngau Jau, of the Ngorek tribe, is known as Keeper of the Kenyah Nogrek Songs, from Long Semiang in Ulu Baram. He is considered by the Malaysian government as a national living heritage and is one of the few professional sapeh-players in Borneo and is recognised as the undisputed authority on the instrument.
Matthew grew up amidst the traditional music instruments and rhythms of the Baram River region in central Borneo. He is one of the most famous players of the sapeh, the long lute-like stringed instrument made from a single bole of wood which is hollowed out and decorated with elaborate designs.
The sapeh was used originally for healing rites and was capable of bringing about a trance state. Nowadays, Matthew Ngau Jau is giving the instrument and Kenyah tradition a new lease of life, preserving the traditional foundations yet without curbing future development.
Matthew Ngau Jau is the cultural guardian of the Kenyah, a people of north-eastern Borneo whose musical practices are becoming increasingly rare. Mathew says that when he first started playing the sapeh nearly 15 years ago, he was worried that the tradition was in danger.
“Young people would pick up a guitar, not a sapeh; they were more into western music.”
Gradually, however, as Mathew Ngau Jau and other sapeh players continued to perform and the Sarawak Tourist Board lent its support, young people saw the sapeh becoming popular around the world and became more encouraged to try it.
His work is based on age-old sapeh techniques, which he also highlights by using them in his own contemporary and innovative compositions. His appearances internationally have not only brought the sapeh to the attention of the world audience but have also given the young people of the region a fresh interest in their cultural heritage.
Mathew has toured extensively in Europe and the USA playing in numerous world music festivals and concerts. He is also an ardent advocate of Borneo’s musical traditions, both in his own country and much further afield.
LAN E’ TUYANG
Matthew Ngau Jau: sapeh, nose flute, vocals
Solomon Gau: sapeh
Lian Gau: war dance
A Longhouse community of wonderfully hospitable, hard-working farmers and excellent boatmen, descended from a powerful line of legendary Baram chiefs, the Ngorek are splendid musicians, storytellers and singers. A sub-tribe of the Kenyah, (together with other up-river tribes collectively called Orang Ulu) they particularly enjoy jovial drinking, songs, lustily harmonizing and bawling out bawdy choruses.
Longhouse parties are legendary and often documented in song, as the highlights of one party are recounted and sung at the next. The rainforest environment and their deep love for it is reflected in their songs, which also celebrate their noble lineage. The cultural heritage of the Ngorek – whose numbers are rapidly dwindling – is in danger of dying out, along with the tribal elders. Mathew Ngau Jau is unique amongst the younger generation of Ngorek because he has dedicated his whole life to keeping the songs and the music – and thereby the cultural and spiritual essence – of his ancestors alive.