October 2012 | Sabah, Malaysia
Sabahan musicians bring sexy back to indigenous music.
DJ Atama Katama spent six years making a name for himself spinning decks across the Malaysian club circuit. Then a good friend and fellow DJ issued him a unique challenge – writing a song about the sumazau.
The sumazau, a traditional dance of Sabah’s largest indigenous group, the Kadazandusun, was far removed from the strobe-lit clubs that Atama had come to call home.
But 10 years later, he made good that promise.
The Kota Kinabalu native, born Andrew Ambrose Mudi, returned from Kuala Lumpur in 2003 to discover his Kadazan culture and to become a recording artiste, a dream he had harboured for the past decade. While on a personal pilgrimage around Sabah he called ‘My Tribal Roots’, he recorded an album of the same name.
His first single, Throw your hands in the air, saw him fulfill the decade-old agreement he had with his DJ friend.
The rap number samples popular folk song Taragang Rasuk, which Atama remixed with the bungkan (a mouth harp), the sompoton (a reed organ), and the sound of gongs – all of which are backing instruments of the Sumazau.
Atama is among a group of Sabahan musicians who have given the state’s traditional music a face-lift, fusing it with the more youthful genres of hip-hop, rap and pop. By modernising Kadazandusun music, these artistes hope to attract the younger crowd, most of whom have little knowledge of their roots and mother tongue.
“There is a wealth of knowledge in traditional music. All this knowledge, and the challenges and messages of a generation, can be passed down through songs,” said the 37-year-old.
For musician Andy Ongkino, it was his inability to relate to the Kadazandusun songs of old that led him to reinvent them for a younger generation. The 30-year-old, whose father is well-known Kadazan singer and composer Ongkino Moidon, grew up listening to the elder Ongkino’s tunes.
When it came to making his own music, however, Andy and his band mates gravitated towards modern pop or R&B covers, because that was what the industry wanted.
But when their father turned 72 last year, Andy and his three siblings came together to record an album of his compositions as a tribute – and Andy, who is most comfortable belting out trendy pop ditties, took the chance to give his father’s traditional songs a modern spin.
He updated Kokito Unguk Ngadau by giving it a more upbeat, poppy tempo, changes he made after getting feedback from his friends about the original number.
The challenge, said Andy, is to make an old song fresh while keeping it recognizable to the older folk who still appreciate the classics.
Even as young musicians like Andy and his sister Jannet do their part to preserve the Kadazan culture, they are learning from it too. Both were not familiar with the language before the embarked on the album recording, and struggled initially with their enunciation.
But they are now recording a second album, and Jannet, who practiced reciting the lyrics for a few months before she embarked on the recording process, has even penned a few numbers for the upcoming album.
The full-time mother of three wants to encourage the younger generation to listen to more Kadazan music – starting at home.
Her teenage son James Brady, usually a fan of rap and Justin Bieber, spins the CD on repeat because he ‘loves the gong beats of Kadazan songs’, said Jannet proudly. The fourteen-year-old now listens to Kadazan radio station VSM regularly, and can sing along to certain numbers.
James represents the future of Kadazan music. So does Eric Spencer Benedict.
The 22-year-old runs Borneo Bonita, a blog that serves as an unofficial directory of Kadus musicians. Benedict, a science education undergraduate at the Tawau Teacher Training Institute, collates songs, videos, and artiste information. The blog, which has been around for seven years, sees an average of 2,500 visitors a month.
Benedict provides both English and Malay translations for the lyrics, which use a wider Kadazan vocabulary than everyday speech – something he feels is crucial to the Kadazandusun identity.
“Imagine waking up one day without knowing who our parents are,” said Benedict, likening it to the loss of Kadazan music.
But things are looking up for the industry. More new singers are venturing into Kadazandusun music and the overall quality of albums has improved, according to veteran Danny Malinggi, who has been singing since 1996.
And his generation of artistes are ready to pass the baton to their younger counterparts.
Malinggi and Atama, both 37, see it as their ‘social responsibility’ to mentor upcoming new talent, like the indigenous musicians Atama sings about in Can’t stop the sumazau. His second single is a nod to the musicians’ struggles against record labels for their big break.
“I want them to know that dreams become reality,” said Atama, “After all, mine did.”