Emma Ruran Raja makes beautiful music with a traditional Orang Ulu instrument, writes Dennis Wong
THE only word to describe Emma Ruran Raja’s sape playing is brilliant, in a musical language that one can understand.
The sape (lute) is a traditional instrument of the Orang Ulu community in Sarawak. It was once an instrument played only by men as it was taboo for women to do so.
With her brown hair slightly covering her face, Emma played three Orang Ulu songs — Datun Julud, Leleng and Lan E Tuyang — prior to this before the interview. Her fingers moved fluidly along the frets, and she played beautifully.
“I’m sorry if I don’t play very well,” says the 20-year-old modestly.
Emma began taking sape lessons 12 years ago from maestro Matthew Ngau, who has performed in world music festivals.
Her interest in the instrument began in her village in Long Peluan in upper Baram, where older men would play it to welcome visitors, on special occasions and as a pastime.
“I was captivated by the sound every time I heard it. At that time, I only knew how to play the guitar and I told my family that I wanted to try playing the sape,” recalls Emma.
Not long after that she received a sape as a Christmas gift and she has been safeguarding it dearly ever since.
Emma is no stranger to the stage, having danced with cultural group Anak Adik Rurum Kelabit at the annual Rainforest World Music Festival nine years ago. Her skilful sape playing put her on that stage again three years later with the rock band Kanid. Imagine listening to traditional songs played on modern instruments and the sape.
Though once taboo for women to play the sape in their community, Emma’s grandparents have encouraged her and others to pick up the trait, which is also a dying tradition.
But as Emma is hoping to pursue her studies in Liverpool, UK, this year, it may be some time before she holds a sape show.
“I don’t see it as a responsibility for me to carry on with the tradition, but as a hobby,” she explains.
Of Kelabit and English parentage, Emma believes that these her stint abroad will allow her to learn new cultures and she is hoping that these could be translated into her music.
“One thing is for sure — I’m going to bring my sape along. I may even play some Beatles tunes with my sape while I’m at it,” she says.