Artist Profiles: Sayu Ateng

Sayu Ateng at Rainforest World Music Festival 2015 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Sayu Ateng at Rainforest World Music Festival 2015 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

In Borneo, among the Orang Ulu people, Sayu Ateng means welcome. This 7-member group has been making waves in the local, regional and international music scene.

All over the world, the old musicians and their knowledge of the lore and songs of their countries have been dying out. Ancient instruments lie forgotten and the younger generations very often are not interested in learning how to play them. That is not the case of Sayu Ateng. The musicians have found a sound that is refreshingly modern yet full of traditional Sarawak flavor. They have mixed and molded traditional instruments with contemporary ones, composed their own lyrics and melodies and based their songs on the nature, landscapes and folk stories of Sarawak.

The group expresses the tales of legendary mountains, accounts of the arrival of Islam to Sarawak, tributes to the man-eating crocodile that possesses supernatural powers: the Bujang Senang. There are illustrations of mythical princesses and colorful personalities that make up the people of Sarawak. There is also a culinary appreciation of the sago palm tree worm: the Ulat Mulong!

The music is evocative and graceful in the simplicity of its design. The melodies are steeped in Sarawak tradition and create a very distinct sound that is unmistakably Borneo. Rhythms are fluid yet strong, mixing world beat with the subtle intonations of the rainforest.

Drums are used by every indigenous tribe in Sarawak for their celebrations, festivals, feasts and rituals. Sayu Ateng uses a collection of them: the subang (Bidayuh drum) and the kedumbak (Iban drum). They also play the Malay gendangs and congas.

The other essential element of the percussion section is the gong of which there are many versions, such as the Bidayuh papan and the large Iban gongs called tawak. Gongs are a must at events in Borneo and the rhythmic patterns created by them provide an almost hypnotic trance like atmosphere.

Wooden keyboard percussion also contribute a parallel melodic line to either the singer or the accompaniment. The sape lute is of course present. Sayu Ateng juxtaposes all these traditional Borneo instruments with instruments from other countries like the congas and panpipes of South America as well as modern ones.

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.

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