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Darwin Kunama, welding metal to make gong at his workshop in Kampung Sumangkap, Kudat. NSTP/AVILA GERALDINE

KUDAT: IT is fascinating and at the same time worrying to observe 56-year-old Darwin Kunama welding metal without wearing safety glasses.

Darwin, who is from the Rungus ethnic group, squints his eyes as sparks fly from his welding work, so close that one could almost swear they skim across his eyeballs.

He, however, is unfazed by the sparks and easily holds a conversation with visitors while he shapes his traditional musical instrument.

“I’ve been making gongs for more than 30 years and I’ve never worn safety oggles. I am doing just fine,” he smiled when met at his workshop in Kampung Sumangkap here recently.

Known as the gong-making village, Kampung Sumangkap is home to the finest gong makers in Sabah and a must-visit place for tourists.

The village, about three hours’ drive from Kota Kinabalu, has more than 30 skilled gong makers.

Four of them have attained expert status, including Darwin.

The father of five said he quit his job in the public sector after noticing his friends earning a better income making brass gongs.

“I was in the Public Works Department in the 1980s and was based in Putatan (near Kota Kinabalu). I would often return home during the weekends to learn the art of gong-making from the elders.

“Because my gong-making friends were earning quite well, I decided to quit my job in 1991 to focus on making gongs full time.”

Darwin said he never regretted leaving the public service, adding that the gong-making business allowed him to be his own boss and spend more time with his family.

He was among 35 apprentices when he first started learning the craft. In those days, he said, it was difficult because most gong makers used the traditional method to knock and shape the metal by hand.

“Now, we can use welding machines. I used to take up to one week to complete one gong. Now, depending on the size, I can complete one gong in one or two days.

“It took me four years, with diligent practice, to master the craft. It is challenging, but satisfying because I am keeping the tradition alive, as well as earning an income from that.”

He said gong makers could earn up to RM10,000 or more a month, adding that he usually received more orders between September and December for the annual Harvest Festival, which falls at the end of May.

He said besides Sabah, his customers also came from Sarawak. His wife and their son are also engaged in making gongs.

Solina Mogimbing, 38, another gong maker from Kampung Sumangkap, said she learned making gongs from her father at the age of 18.

Her genuine interest in the craft spurred her to master the art.

She said she did not attend any formal course in gong making.

“I observed what my father did. When you do something for the first time, it is always difficult, but I slowly honed my skills.

“Gong making is our main income. Even the younger generation is showing an interest to learn the skill from their parents.”

Solina said of her four children, only her 17-year-old son knows how to make gongs, although smaller in size for a start as he learns the skill and the trade.

Like Darwin, Solina also markets her gongs in Sarawak, with her main customers comprising the Iban, Kayan and Bidayuh communities.

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