The Sape

  • Sape and traditional Sarawak icons
  • Modern electric Sape
  • Modern electric Sape
  • Lan E Tuyang at Rainforest World Music Festival
  • Lan E Tuyang and his Sape
  • Sape production

The Sape (in Kenyah dialect means ‘scratching’) is a traditional plucked lute chordophone family of  instruments used by many of the Orang Ulu (Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit), or ‘upriver people’, who live in the longhouses that line the rivers of Central Borneo and Kalimantan. Sape originated from the Long Nawang, Kabupaten Bulungan at the border of Sarawak, Malaysia, and East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Ancient use of Sape

Ancient use of Sape

The story wants the idea of the Sape to come through a dream of a farmer who fell asleep in the hut of his paddy field after returning from seeking a witch-doctor to cure his wife’s sickness. In his dream, the farmer was directed to look for Adau wood, from the trees that the Hill Myna birds used to perch. The shape of Sape appeared in his dream and whenever the Sape was played, he dreamt the spirit would come and cure his wife’s sickness.

Sapes are carved from a single bole of selected fine grain wood, with many modern instruments reaching over a metre in length. Initially, the Sape was a fairly limited instrument with no design. It had two strings and only three frets (the three frets only appearing around the second decade of the 19th Century). Its use was restricted to a form of ritualistic music to induce trance. Still today, the Orang Ulu people believe that when there is any death in the longhouse, the Sape should not be played since it would cause the musician to become deaf, a condition only possible to cure with the sound of gongs called Tawak.

Lan E Tuyang and his Sape

Lan E Tuyang and his Sape

In the last century, as time passed the Sape gradually became a social instrument to accompany dances or as a form of entertainment. Today, three, four or five-string instruments are used, with a range of more than three octaves. Most of them are still hand-made.

Technically, the Sape is a relatively simple instrument, with one string carrying the melody and the accompanying strings as rhythmic drones. In practice, the music is quite complex, with many ornamentations and thematic variations. There are two common modes, one for the men’s longhouse dance and the other for the woman’s longhouse dance. There also is a third rarely used mode. Sape music is usually inspired by dreams and there are over 35 traditional pieces with many variations. The overall repertoire is slowly increasing.


There are two types of Sape:

The Sape Bali is used to cure sickness by the witch-doctor (Bali Dayong); during the ceremony, the player sits on the floor and later stands up to drive away the evil spirits (Udo).

Modern electric Sape

Modern electric Sape

The Sape Kanjet is used to accompany dances and it is double the size of the Sape Bali. These were first produced when the British first came to Sarawak and brought along the telephone cables, which were the first to be used as modern Sape’s strings.

Sapes are still being made in Borneo, and modern innovations like electric Sapes are common.

Lan E Tuyang is the head of traditional ethnic group Orang Ulu-Kenyah (the Orang Ulu) trio band performing exotic native Kenyah tunes, comprising two Sapes, a percussionist and a warrior dancer. To read more about them, go to

To enjoy the sape played live, do not miss the yearly Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Borneo (

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About the author

Thomas has a university background in the UK and in Latin America, with studies in Languages and Humanities, Culture, Literature and Economics. He started his Asian experience as a publisher in Krabi in 2005. Thomas has been editing local newspapers and magazines in England, Spain and Thailand for more than fifteen years. He is currently working on several projects in Thailand and abroad. Apart from Thailand, Thomas has lived in Italy, England, Venezuela, Cuba, Spain and Bali. He spends most of his time in Asia. During the years Thomas has developed a great understanding of several Asian cultures and people. He is also working freelance, writing short travel stories and articles for travel magazines. Follow Thomas on

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