The Kuching-born musician, Alena Murang, has a deep passion in art as she is a singer, a dancer and an earnest artist. Her music and drawings tell the many stories of the indigenous cultures in Borneo including the Kelabit, Kenyah and Penan ethnic groups. In her music endeavour, she plays the traditional lute instrument, sape. This year she is the ambassador for the 10th Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival which will be held on the 23rd till the 29th of October at Publika, Solaris Dutamas.
On 11th May 2017, the KLEFF crew had a lovely interview with Alena to know more about her and what’s in store for this year’s KLEFF.
Fara: Tell us more about your inspiration in art and music.
Alena: My inspiration is the natural environment. For me, art and music is my way of expressing the beauty of the natural environment. I’m a very visual person, if I go out to explore the nature, I’m sensitive to the wonders of nature. My eyes are caught by the shape of the ferns, the colour of the nature which is not just green but also blue and purple. Growing up in Kuching, my family and I always have trips to the jungle and villages. It was a norm for me to be in the environmental surrounding and looking back now, it was truly beautiful how the environment is part of the process of me growing up. In terms of my drawing, I am focusing a lot more in portraits of the indigenous people. I want to bridge the understanding and relationship between the rural and urban communities. I want to show how these indigenous people live their everyday life and to share their unique stories. I want to make people closer and celebrate the different cultures. These indigenous people, they have connection with the natural environment because that is all they know, see, live and breathe – for them it is the world – and I want to share these stories to others.
Fara: In your music endeavour, you play the traditional lute instrument, sape. At what age did you start playing the sape and was it a challenging process to learn?
Alena: I actually played the guitar before I learned to play sape. Prior to that, I was also dancing to the sape music so I was quite familiar with the instrument. I started learning when I was 12 years old and I think that was the age where you start looking for something to learn. The hardest thing was learning to maintain the sape. It was 16 years ago and the sape that I played today is much easier to maintain than the one I learned with back then. One thing I learned from playing sape is patience as I have to take good care of it.
Fara: Some of your music and drawings are emblematic of the beauty of life and the environment. You create drawings of wildlife, the indigenous community and there are also drawings of the Tree of Life. Do you think music and art can be mediums to spread environmental awareness?
Alena: I think the impact of art and music has always been intangible. It is very hard to explain as it speaks to people on an abstract and emotional level. I have had shows where people did not understand what I was singing because I sang in Kenyah and Kelabit. There were people who came to me while crying and some of them said that they were transported to a place where they have never been before but it was beautiful at the same time and there were others who felt peace listening to my music. I truly believe that art and music are very powerful in terms of delivering and translating emotions. I think that is generally the role of art. Personally, my style is more subdue so for me, art and music are my passive voyage of connecting to people.
Fara: Can you tell us more about the Tree of Life?
Alena: The Tree of Life exists in many cultures and has been translated across the world. If you go to the kampong (village) you will see that every long house has an artist – they could be a sape player or a painter. You can find the Tree of Life on the wall of the Penghulu’s (Head Man’s) long house. From the drawing, traditionally we would have spirit animals in the trees – there would be a crocodile which is closer to the Underworld located at the bottom of the tree and the hornbills which is the messenger between Heavens located at the top of the tree. Most of these are anecdotal as not much research is being done on it, hence over the years we start to see humans being drawn into the Tree of Life. I started drawing the Tree of Life in 2009 and I was in between countries at the time. I just came back from the United Kingdom and moved to Kuala Lumpur. It was a self-discovery moment for me as I was trying to find my place in this world. The drawing of the girl on the swing in The Tree of Life represents myself in this big world and the trees and animals – Mother Nature basically – gave me a sense of belonging.
Fara: That’s beautiful. This year, you are the “face” of the Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival or KLEFF. How long have you been involved with EcoKnights & KLEFF and how do you see your work being incorporated with the film festival?
Alena: I was involved in the 8th Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival in 2015. I played my sape and I think that was the first time I performed in a venue that is more known to the contemporary music. I feel as if my performance back then showed how sape music can exist in the contemporary field. In terms of incorporating what I do with KLEFF, I think it is the message that we bring. I believe we have the same message relating to the environment. In the last two festivals, I see how some of the films speak about the environmental issues such as the plight of the indigenous people, pollution of rivers and others. All of these films interlinked with part of the message that I’m delivering in my art and music. Our message is the same but how we convey it may be different, it could be through films, and as for me, it is through art and music.
Fara: Any sneak peek of what you will be doing in this year’s KLEFF?
Alena: Yes, I will be performing with my sape during the weekend of KLEFF. As I am a part of the Kuala Lumpur Sape’ Collective, I will be conducting a weekend workshop on how to play the sape as part of KLEFF Cultural and Arts Workshop Series. From 24th till 29th October, do check out some of my interesting artworks in the KLEFF art exhibition which will also showcase other artists’ work. If you wish to get some indigenous artworks, I will be selling them at my booth. On top of that, I will be speaking about my effort in preserving the indigenous culture in Malaysia in a forum especially for youth. Overall, through my participation, I will be communicating the stories from the Kelabit, Kenyah and Penan communities.
Fara: What are your expectation and hopes for this year’s KLEFF?
Alena: I hope that it would inspire people to make small changes in their lives into becoming more conscious about the environment. Start and save the world. There are many solutions out there, with all of the evolving technology and education that takes on various environmental issues in this world. You can make small changes such as increasing your air-conditioner up to two degrees which evidently saves your money at the same time. In the end, it comes down to the individuals’ attitude because you need to have the “want” to take one solution and implement it. I hope that the films will speak to the audience, and give them something to reflect about and start to make the changes necessary for a better world. Overall, to all of you reading this, do come to KLEFF, bring a friend and do your part for the environment. Thank you.