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The Dayak Cultural Foundation's Ethnic Orchestra. (Brief Communications).

In November 1999, when I first came to Sarawak, I found that the three officially recognized Dayak communities: Bidayuh, Iban, and Orang Ulu, each had its own cultural organization in the modem state capitol, Kuching. (1) Moreover, in 1992, the three communities joined forces in the Dayak Cultural Foundation with the object "to receive and administer funds for cultural, educational, scientific and charitable purposes, and for public welfare." (2) Since the beginning of 2000, the Dayak Cultural Foundation headquarters have been located in the Tun Jugah Tower, a new high-rise building in the business area, which also houses the Tun Jugah Foundation, a non-profit Iban cultural heritage foundation. In accordance with its objectives, the DCF aims to preserve cultural traditions, and one of the ways it does so is by organizing courses in Dayak dance and music. The set-up of these courses fits within the framework of the three officially recognized Dayak communities, so that each community has an appointed time for weekly instruction and group practice in the Foundation's spacious dance studio and music rooms. Special sets of costumes and musical instruments, selected according to what is considered characteristic for each community, are stored and available here. Iban and Bidayuh groups have ensembles of gongs and drums to accompany dances; the Iban have several long barrel drums (gendang) (3) and a gong ensemble consisting of a set of eight small bossed gongs resting on strings (engkrumong), deep-rimmed tawak gongs with a prominent boss, and single-bossed gongs suspended by a rope or chain (bebendai/chanang). The Bidayuh have long wooden drums originally used in headhunting rituals (sebbang), a wooden xylophone (gulintang), and a set of suspended gongs of various sizes, large, wide agung and smaller bebendai. The Orang Ulu group mainly uses the plucked lute (sape), originally a two-stringed, three-fretted instrument used in rituals associated with healing ceremonies (Langub 1997:177). (4) The present three- or four-stringed, multi-fretted sape is either played as a solo instrument or combined with another sape, and/or a wooden xylophone (tuvung lutang/jatung utog). Other instruments, such as bamboo flutes and the tube-zither (satong), bamboo stamping-poles (tongkat), and mouth organs (keluri/engkrurai), are used by more than one group. (5)

Music and dance practices are usually held separately, in the evening or during the weekend. Students tend to join a music or dance practice group (some study both music and dance) which corresponds with their tribal background--a child of Iban descent will frequently be put into an Iban dance or music group by its parents--indicating that for many students these practices function to support one's tribal identity. Yet, there are people who are keen to learn another style beyond their own, and join different groups. Each of the three main communities has a DCF dance company consisting of young adults who have successfully passed the basic course and must regularly attend practices in order to maintain a repertoire of group dances for public performance.

In accordance with its location in the state capitol, the music and dances practiced at the DCF express group identity at the state level. They remain confined within the framework of one of the three officially recognized Dayak communities and conform to state-developed standards of beauty and appropriateness. (6) Improvised dancing in an individual style, as is common in the longhouse, is replaced by uniform movement in orchestrated group compositions in three specific styles, created to express either Iban, Bidayuh, or Orang Ulu identity. Male and female dancers wear different costumes, basically, a selection of what is traditional festive dress in various Dayak communities. In addition, contrasts between the sexes are stressed by giving them characteristic movement patterns. This is most evident when groups of male and female dancers are combined, for which the DCF choreographers have a preference. In order to achieve faultless execution of--more or less complex--spatial patterns and uniform movement sty les, a period of preparation with group-drill is required, resulting in the smooth execution of previously fixed patterns. However, the DCF policy is in the first place, to preserve traditional culture, therefore dance and music teachers try to maintain whatever they have learned of the traditional arts, which has often been acquired in a longhouse setting. (7)

At the same time, there is also a demand for the production of new, large-scale compositions for important social occasions, the main one being the annual State Gawai Dayak celebration. This recently-created Dayak national holiday, (8) celebrated annually on 1st June in a ballroom of one of the largest international hotels in Kuching, is attended by the most important state dignitaries. As an important state ceremony, it provides a major incentive for dance and music practice, as each of the three main Dayak communities must, on that occasion, display a great spectacle in a characteristic style.

Julia Chong and the foundation of the Ethnic Orchestra

One of the few musical experts in Kuching involved both theoretically and practically with the development of Dayak music was the late Datin Julia Chong, a Western-educated musician of Chinese background. (9) In an article published in the Sarawak Museum Journal entitled "Towards the integration of Sarawak traditional instruments into 20th century Malaysian music" (J. Chong 1989), she states that the folk music of Sarawak lacks development in material and is too repetitive, so that "listening becomes uninteresting."

Taking as an example the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, she suggests that Sarawak composers "should attempt to produce musical works for the chamber orchestra and score according to the potentials of the individual traditional instruments." In forming such a chamber orchestra, one has to "group the strings, woodwinds and percussions with care so that they will be balanced."

But Julia Chong was not only interested in modernizing Dayak music, also, as she writes: "the folk music of the natives of Sarawak will be distorted to a certain extent because it is based on oral tradition," and therefore "efforts must be made to notate them." Moreover, she advises recording and publishing the technique of playing the different instruments, "so that generations that follow will master them correctly," and, "not only the proper way is learned but it can reach thousands of people" (J. Chong 1989:126).

In the following years, Julia Chong had the opportunity to realize her dream in cooperation with the staff and musicians of the Dayak Cultural Foundation. According to DCF records, the first ensemble of Dayak musical instruments was formed in 1997 for a workshop on Iban traditional music, dance costumes, and songs organized jointly by the DCF and the Sarawak Museum. On this occasion a group of children performed Julia Chong's composition, "The Sound of Sarawak." The musical instruments played were: tawak and bebendai gongs, two sets of engkerumung gongs, seven long drums (gendang panjai/ketebung), and nine mouth-organs (engkerurai), plus eight stamping-poles (tongkat gurong). All are considered Iban instruments. (10) After this, Julia Chong continued teaching Dayak orchestral music to staff and students at the DCF.

In November 1999, when I visited the class, I saw a variety of instruments being used: seven mouth-organs (engkrurai), three short-necked lutes (sape), some one- and two-stringed fiddles (serunai or terunjang). Instruction was given in a classroom; the group was instructed from the front, and conducted in a Western manner, with the help of music notation written on the blackboard.

Since its first performance, the Dayak Ethnic Orchestra has developed from a small chamber ensemble into a large orchestra in which mature, as well as young musicians play a variety of instruments. Thus, the ethnic orchestra depicted in Julia Chong's publication on traditional musical instruments of Sarawak includes, besides an Iban ensemble, a number of different instruments from the three main Dayak communities: four Bidayuh hanging gongs and a long wooden drum (sebbang), a cylindrical drum (dumbak), bamboo flutes and tube-zither (satong), stamping-poles (tongkat), as well as wooden shakers (gurong).

As I took a keen interest in this unique orchestra, I was invited by Julia Chong to cooperate with her in preparing a concert for the official launching of the Dayak Cultural Foundation's Ethnic Orchestra. The concert was offered by the DCF on 13 July to the participants in the Sixth Biennial Conference of the Borneo Research Council. For Julia Chong and the artists, this was a fine opportunity to present the Dayak orchestra to an international audience.

In consultation with the directors of the DCF, a concert of fifty minutes was agreed upon, comprising compositions based on traditional music of the various Dayak communities. The concert program, entitled "Sounds of Borneo," consisted of the following four pieces:

1. The Sound of Sarawak--for full orchestra,

2. Prunchong--for bamboo instrumental group,

3. Jungle Sounds of Borneo--for ensemble of bird-whistles, and

4. Liling merry-making--for full orchestra.

The pieces differed in composition and structure: in the first and fourth pieces, instruments of the three main communities were combined to form a large orchestra of drums and gongs, with strings as well as woodwind instruments. They played in novel arrangements created by Julia Chong, in cooperation with the DCF artists and the author of this article, who was responsible for the choreographic arrangements.

The Sound of Sarawak

As there was not much time for preparation, we started working on musical pieces which had been practiced before. The ensemble of the piece, The Sound of Sarawak, originally consisted of Iban instruments, but was extended with Bidayuh gulintang, drums and gongs. The revised structure of the score (11) was divided into three parts: the first part had predominantly loud percussion instruments and gongs, entering one-by-one first, then merging into an ensemble. The softer second part had a group of four mouth-organs (engkerurai), followed by a solo on the one-stringed fiddle (serunai). A group of five men with bamboo stamping-poles (tongkat) made the connection to the third part or finale in which all the instruments played together.

While the basic rhythms and playing styles of the various instruments were maintained, initially much time was spent working on elements such as phrasing, dynamics and tone production. (12) Predictable problems arose when instruments were combined which did not usually play together, such as mouth-organs, wooden xylophone, drums and gongs. Mouth-organs were especially problematic, as these are basically solo-instruments and are not tuned to play with other instruments. Moreover, changes in dynamics, to which most musicians were not accustomed, such as variations in loudness, and speeding up or slowing down the tempo, were difficult to coordinate. While the musical pieces were taking shape, Julia Chong requested me to make them more interesting by adding choreographies, corresponding to traditional performance practices in which dancing is supported by music.

Since I intended the choreography to mirror the structure of the music and to parallel the combination of instruments in the orchestra, traditional choreographic patterns were maintained. The character of the piece was dominated by the strong sound of gong and drum ensembles, not surprising since it originated from a composition for strong Iban instruments. Therefore I selected three male dancers, one from each of the three communities, who should use their own warrior's dance style in a danced combat scene. The confrontation, situated in the jungle, was dissolved through the entrance of a magnificent Iban masked dancer representing the spirit "Antu Guruk." This enchanting mask pacified the warriors and conducted them into a harmonious line-dance, similar to a group of bards marching around and beating rhythms with their stamping-poles.

Liling-merry making

The second large orchestral composition, Liling-merry making, was based on a popular long-dance song (belian dadu) from the Kenyah community, Liling, "to turn around," documented in a publication of Kenyah songs by the composer's daughter (Chong Pek Lin 1998). In a study of vocal performance traditions of the Kenyah Lepo' Tau people of Sarawak, Gorlinski explained that "the word dadu (long) refers to "the particular dance context (tu'ut dadu) for which these songs were intended" (Gorlinski 1995: 226). In the longhouse this type of song is sung by the whole community while performing a simple line-dance proceeding counter-clockwise along the verandah, usually as an opening for a major dance event. The basic step of tu'ut dadu, which is characterized by Chong Pek Lin as "the simplest version of the group dances," consists of a step and a shuffle (Chong Pek Lin 1998:23). The song is started by a solo singer, with the other participants joining in on the second or third lines and in the chorus. The turning of the dancers may have connotations of wardancing (Chong Pek Lin 1998:39-41). (13)

The orchestral piece had a strong rhythmic opening played on a set of Bidayuh sebbang that were struck with wooden rods. While these large drums had to remain in a fixed place, the next group of musicians came marching in from the side: beating in unison on their Iban gendang, they stepped in a circle around the dance floor before they came to a halt in front of the platform. As the melodic theme was gently introduced by the two sape players, supported by soft drum beats, a group of dancers made their first entrance and danced one round. The dance was followed by alternating instrumental groups and solo-parts. In line with the character of the long-dance song, a group of four musicians playing the mouth-organs came in, walking in a circle.

For the conclusion of the piece, all musicians played together, led by the expert sape musician, Henry Anyie, who also sang the solo-lines of the well-known Kenyah lyric:
alam ini telu tuyang pemung jaiee,
Pemung jaiee tawai uyan.
Tonight, my friends, we gather together,
We gather together and recall the old times (Chong Pek Lin 1998:40).

The traditional line dance was performed by a mixed group of dancers from all three communities led by a beautiful young Orang Ulu dancer. While joining in the chorus lines, the dancers performed the traditional long-dance step with the turning variations, accompanied by the full orchestra. (14)

Prunchong and Jungle Sounds of Borneo

In alternation with the orchestral compositions for percussion, wind and string instruments, two pieces were performed by a small ensemble using mainly one type of instrument. The traditional Bidayuh prunchong, a set of tuned bamboo tubes hit with a rod, was played by a group of eight male musicians moving around in the semcircular dance space while striking various traditional rhythms. According to the Bidayuh musicians, this type of music was mainly performed during agricultural ceremonies.

Jungle Sounds was a completely new creation, played on various types of bird whistles (binchiu) imitating bird calls. These were combined with sets of snail shells (tegalerg) imitating the sound of croaking frogs, as well as coconut shells and wood-shakers (gurong). The idea behind the piece was the waking up of the animals in the forest, heralded by various birds and developing into midday concerts of frogs and other animals, then fading into a sunset scene with the sweet sound of the sape played by a young man wandering alone in the forest. The idea for this piece came from the Bidayuh musician Gerald Oscar Sindon who made most of the instruments, helped by the Iban instructor, Ubang Kendawang. A number of mature artists, including Julia Chong and the author, cooperated in creating this new piece. As all insisted that I should also participate in the performance, I gladly accepted a part in the happy croaking of the frogs.

On Thursday, 13th July, the period of hard and intensive training culminated in a spirited performance at the Poolside Reception Area of the Holiday Inn Hotel for the members of the Borneo 2000 Conference. Special guests included Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr. Alfred Jabu anak Numpang and Datuk Amar Dr. Leonard Linggi Jugab and the Board of Trustees of the Dayak Cultural Foundation. The artists, a group of approximately thirty musicians and dancers, received warm applause from the audience, many of whom joined in the round dance of Liling. Local newspapers reported the event, and performers and members of the audience asked for more such concerts in the future.


The Dayak Cultural Foundations Ethnic Orchestra provides an excellent example of "modernization" in the sense of incorporating Western influence into originally Dayak music and dance. Some people may feel that this leads to "hybridity" in these Dayak art forms, or perhaps the term "syncretism" might be appropriate, in view of underlying religious implications. (15) To the author, it was an exciting experience to participate in creating the various musical items and choreographies. Although the novel combination of different tribal traditions did not seem to work in the beginning, after ten days of intensive rehearsals, the performance turned out very satisfactory and inspiring, not only to the performers, but also to an international audience.

The successful launching of the DCF Ethnic Orchestra proves that live performances of Dayak music and dance can play a significant social role, not only by adhering to well-known patterns, but also in creating new forms. Indeed, changes of form, structure, and content are only to be expected in a changing environment. Moreover, one should realize that live performances in longhouses are not necessarily static entities but variable events, capable of adapting to different circumstances, both in the present and the past. Accordingly, they often fit into more than one type of context, having entertainment value and also functioning to maintain social values or to support religious ceremonies. As these art forms are by nature flexible and adaptive, there is no need to fear their imminent disappearance.

(1.) My visits to Sarawak in November 1999 and May-August 2000 were kindly sponsored by Datuk Amar Dr. Linggi Jugah, Director of the Tun Jugah Foundation, and the Dayak Cultural Foundation in Kuching.

(2.) The Memorandum and Articles of Association, 30 December 1992, also states that it aims "to foster, develop and improve culture and education of all kinds."

(3.) There is some variation in musical and dance terminology. Names of instruments in this article are in accordance with the terms used in J. Chong's "Traditional Musical Instruments of Sarawak."

(4.) Matusky mentions that "the Kajang also use the sape in pairs, played only by men, to provide music to accompany dance and for certain shamanistic rituals" (Matusky 1986:189).

(5.) Patricia Matusky kindly explained that "the Iban engkerurai usually has quite long pipes, while the pipes on the keluri/keledi are shorter overall. The gourds are often similar in size and the number of pipes is the same among these. Because of the longer pipes, the Iban engkerurai will have a lower overall range. Also, the Iban instrument usually has an amplifier of sound (terubong) on top of the lowest pipe, which is usually decorated with bird feathers" (email communication).

(6.) It is, for example, considered inappropriate for male dancers at DCF public performances to leave part of the buttocks uncovered, as is usually the case when wearing the loincloth in the traditional way.

(7.) Interview with DCF staff members, November 1999.

(8.) Spearheaded by Datuk Tra Zehnder, a former Iban Assemblywoman, see Boulanger 2000:50.

(9.) Sadly, the news of Julia Chong's sudden demise arrived shortly before the draft of this article was ready to be sent to her (see the Memorial section of this volume).

(10.) The use of the stamping-poles in Kajan communities during the ancient ngayau ceremony was described by Matusky in an article with musical notations (Matusky 1986:193, 217-18).

(11.) The piece was based on a written score in accordance with the composer's concept that "the material should have local flavor based on traditional scale and rhythm" (...) "but the composed music should have correct forms" (Chong 1989:126).

(12.) The importance of these is emphasized in Julia Chong 1989:126.

(13.) Chong Pek Lin's publication on Kenyah songs cites a comment of Bishop Galvin (1962:510) that "the reference to turning around is symbolic of the young warrior looking to the right and left in search of the enemy" (Chong Pek Lin 1998:40). See also Seeler 1969:169: "each performer turned half about at every third step, the even numbers turning to one side, the odd numbers turning to the other alternately. All stamped together as they completed their turns at each third step. The turning to right and left symbolises the alert guarding of the heads which are supposed to be carried by the victorious warriors."

(14.) As described in Chong Pek Lin 1998:41

(15.) In her article on traditional dances of Sarawak, Seeler does make a distinction between dances which are part of a religious ceremony, and social dancing, but this is immediately modified to: "in these cultures the religious is usually intermingled with the social, and the dances reflect this" (Seeler 1969:163).


Boulanger, C. L.


"On Dayak, Orang Ulu, Bidayuh and other Imperfect Ethnic catagories in Sarawak," Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Borneo Research Council Conference, ed. Michael Leigh, pp. 44-66, Kota Samarahan: Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

Chong, J.


Towards the Integration of Sarawak Traditional Instruments into 20th Century Malaysian Music, Sarawak Museum Journal 61:125-130.


Traditional Musical Instruments of Sarawak. Kuching: Jabatan Muzium Sarawak.

Chong, Pek Lin


Folk Songs of Sarawak. Vol. 1, Songs from the Kenyah Community. Kuching: Dayak Cultural Foundation.

Gorlinski, V. K.


Songs of honor, words of respect: Social contours of Kenyah Lepo' Tau versification, Sarawak, Malaysia. PhD dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Langub, Jayl


Orang Ulu Music and Dance Workshop April 7-8, 1997, Kuching, Borneo Research Bulletin 28:177-184.

Matusky, P.


Aspects of Musical Style among the Kajang, Kayan and Kenyah-Badang of the Upper Rejang River: A Preliminary Survey, Sarawak Museum Journal 57 (New Series), pp. 185-229.

Seeler, J.


Some Notes on the Traditional Dances of Sarawak, Sarawak Museum Journal 34-35 (New Series), p. 163-201.
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Author:Brakel, Clara
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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