Master of Borneo Lute Dies in Sarawak

Uchau Bilung
Uchau Bilung
Sarawakian musician Uchau Bilung, a master of the sape (a lute from the island of Borneo) died July 5, 2009. Two years ago, Mr. Bilung endured a hip operation, followed by a mild stroke which impeded his movements.

Uchau Bilung was born in a Kayan longhouse in a very remote region in the northeast of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan in Borneo. As a young man, he decided to leave Indonesia and traveled by foot for weeks across the forested mountains of Borneo to reach Sarawak. Twenty-six years after  leaving Indonesia, while standing at a bank lineup in Kuching (Sarawak), Uchau was surprised to meet Tusau Padan, the master sape musician. He  was related to Tusau by marriage.

Soon after, the duo started performing together throughout Borneo, but not overseas. It was not until Tusau passing that Uchau took on the helm to continue the legacy. Although Uchau was a very accomplished sape player, he often took the position as an accompanist performing on both sape and the jatang utog, a wooden xylophone. His work took him to many countries in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Mr. Bilung was also an excellent carver. He manufactured both sapes and jatang utog for sale, made at a factory on the outskirts of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak (Malaysia).. Uchau Bilung was also one the leaders of sape group Lan-e tuyang (among friends). Bilung performed Orang Ulu (upriver people) traditional music, song and dance from the Kenyah community.

"Uchau Bilong was a good friend of mine," said Canadian musician Randy Raine-Reusch, who is also the artistic director of the Rainforest World Music Festival, in an exclusive interview with World Music Central. "He died just a few days ago, just before the festival and I had actually enquired as to whether he was healthy enough to perform for us.

"I took Uchau together with three other musicians and a dancer to Marseilles, to WOMEX in 1997, at the request of WOMEX to perform just showing the music of the region and many of the promoters and agencies were in tears because they didn’t think music this pure and authentic still existed.. And we traveled quite a bit together, brought them back and became instant stars at home because they got overseas recognition. Things like that usually happen.

Over the years he’s been a really good friend and every time I came to town I would come and see him and we would play music together. He was just a really wonderful man. He was a grandfather, with a big family.

What’s also interesting is that he was the "brother" of Tusau Padan who was known as the best sape player in Borneo. Tusau and Uchau used to play together around the world. They toured internationally representing Sarawak. Tusau passed away about 10 years ago and now Usau has joined him so they’re back again playing sape together."

Uchau Bilong participated in the recording Masters of the Sarawakian Sape (Pan Records. PAN-2068CD, 2000), which also featured Tusau Padan. The album was recorded and annotated by Randy Raine-Reusch.

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