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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Borneoans in Penang

Migrants from Borneo – home to over 60 proud ethnic groups – make an exciting mark on Penang.

By Izzuddin Ramli, Nurul Fadilah Ismawi

Leaving home is painful but unavoidable for many: the unbearable longing for familiar comforts both tangible and intangible, the rhythmic music of the sape’, the sounds of the forest, the songs of the people and the hypnotic dances of celebration.

But leaving home can also mean forging a path towards new opportunities. Many come to Penang to build a home away from home, and unwittingly provide local people with a sampling of their rich and vibrant cultures.

Far from the Eyes, but Close to the Heart

Penang is not entirely physically dissimilar to Borneo. Both are islands, Penang’s beaches are reminiscent of Manukan’s and Sipadan’s, and its pre-war buildings bring back memories of strolling down Main Bazaar in Kuching.

But the homesickness remains. To alleviate this, Borneoans in Penang, most of whom are students and civil servants (such as nurses, teachers and military members), meet often to celebrate their cultures.

Linalin Kaca is an Iban student from Sibu, Sarawak who is currently studying at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Every weekend, she gathers with her fellow Sarawakian friends: “We have a club called Perkumpulan Anak-Anak Sarawak (Perkasa) and I am one of its exco members. The club organises Sarawak cultural activities such as ‘Malam Bumi Kenyalang’ just so we can bring our home to Penang and strengthen the bonds between fellow Sarawakians,” she says. “Malam Citra Bayu”, organised by Pertubuhan Siswa-Siswi Sabah (Persis) is the equivalent of Perkasa’s “Malam Bumi Kenyalang”.

Apart from rituals, song and dance are inseparable in Borneoan culture: shows are written, sung, played and staged everywhere; connecting musicians and listeners, participants and observers. Their music distinguishes them from the rest of the world and keeps memories of home alive.

The annual Gawai and Keamatan Festival held at Fort Cornwallis in May brings together Penangites, Sabahans and Sarawakians who have made the state their second home. The festival serves as a platform for Borneoans who come from various social and economic backgrounds to mingle. Dancers enchant the audience with their talents and traditional attire during the festival’s Cultural Night. Linalin was one of them: “I dance at home. Here in Penang, I teach traditional dances to those who are interested in learning them,” she says.

The sumazau dance is one of the best-known traditional dances in Sabah. It belongs to the Kadazan-Dusun ethnic group, and is usually performed during traditional ceremonies to honour the spirits as well as to cure illnesses. As for the Bajau and Suluk of Sabah, the daling-daling, pengatay or mengalai dances are vital in their lives, staged and showcased everywhere, as glamorous and ritualistic as the mangunatip or Bamboo dance of the Murut people. In Sarawak, the ngajat is the most popular, having its roots in Iban culture. Sarawakian Malays, on the other hand, are famous for their lyrical bermukun or bergendang performances.

Most of the music from Sarawak and Sabah’s tribal groups includes vocals for epic stories and narratives; songs are mostly based on life cycle events and rituals associated with religion, healing, rice-growing, hunting and war.

Sounds of Borneo

Sada Borneo, a Penang-based band playing traditional Borneo music with a modern twist, made their name in the music industry when they became semi-finalists at the show Asia’s Got Talent 2015 – the only Malaysian group to do so.

“We were only students back then. We drove a van from Penang to KL to try our luck at the audition just for the fun of it,” says Allister from Sarawak, the sape’ player, bassist, percussionist and guitarist of the band. What started as a hobby took a more serious turn as they unintentionally made their way to fame. Sada Borneo has since gone on to participate in various local and regional contests, and perform globally.

Established in 2011 in Penang, Sada in the Iban language means “sound”, but Bob Harris from Sabah, who is also the band’s percussionist, jokingly says that the word also means “fish” in Dusun. The band consists of Sarawakians, Sabahans and a Kedahan, and they play traditional music instruments such as the sape’, kompang and bungkau, alongside modern instruments.

Nick Fadriel from Limbang, Sarawak, the guitarist and one of the sape’ players of the band, says that it is now also one of the band’s duties to bridge Borneoan culture with West Malaysia. “We used to play music because it was fun. It’s different now – we feel responsible for preserving the traditional music that we showcase to our listeners, and I like to think that it is also one of our duties, apart from entertaining, to introduce Borneo’s music to the world.”

Sada Borneo, a Penang-based band playing traditional Borneo music.
Sada Borneo, a Penang-based band playing traditional Borneo music.

The band is planning to make Penang their second home permanently, as all the members feel that Penang is a better place for musicians and every one of them is comfortable being there. “Most of us graduated from university years ago,” says Alvin, a Sabahan who is the keyboardist of the band. “Penang or KL is a better place to keep our traditional music alive.”

A Taste of Home

Linalin and the members of Sada Borneo both gave the same answer when they were asked what they missed most about home, apart from their family: the food. Pansuh, hinava and midin goreng belacan are some of the names that trigger gastronomical cravings.

While there are a few restaurants serving Sarawak and Sabah dishes in Penang, the taste is just not the same: “We cook our food here, but there are some ingredients that we cannot find in Penang. Every time we get the chance to go back home, we will stock up on ingredients and bring them back,” says Allister.

Penang has as a rule been welcoming of people from all around the world, including Sabah and Sarawak. In fact, the Penang state government has promised to organise and support activities that benefit both Penangites and Borneoans. Whether they stay or leave in the end, they are forever Borneoans at heart and are simply continuing the legacy of their ancestors to bejalai – to leave their longhouses in search of knowledge, adventure, fortune and glory – in foreign lands.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, August 2017.


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