AN unfamiliar tune sweeps through the narrow corridors of the Zhongshan building in Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur. The small group of city-slickers who are seated on the floor seem to be completely mesmerised by the rapid-fire chant in a language almost unheard of on this side of the country. The tune is a Takna’, an ancient oral art form of the Orang Ulu people of Sarawak.
The storytelling through song is a tradition spanning hundreds of years and usually recited by long-time practitioners of the craft. But today, the sweet cadence is coming from Adrian Jo Milang, a 19-year-old Kayan boy who is dedicating his life to reviving the ancient art forms of his people.
While Adrian may be introducing Takna’ to the audience, the budding musician is also trained in Parap, another traditional oral craft which takes the form of an impromptu poetic song.
CELEBRATING POETIC WAYS
“I think the crowd of KL folks are finding it very fascinating,” Adrian remarks in reference to his performance at the Zhongshan building, his very first in Peninsular Malaysia. The Arap (Parap is the action of singing Arap), he informs, is something people rarely hear outside the walls of the longhouses in villages deep in Sarawak’s lush landscape.
The artform is sung entirely in Kayan and recited completely off the cuff by a Tukang Parap (the person who leads the Parap). It does not involve any form of rehearsals, written lyrics, instrumentation nor notes. The only support a Tukang Parap has is the habe, a choir of people who sing the chorus of the song. “I call it the Kayan acappella,” he adds with a cheeky grin.
“According to the comments of the audiences and of elders who have witnessed some of the best Paraps in their day, a Tukang Parap is spontaneous, witty and confident. He or she has to have excellent memory and like any other singers, they must most definitely possess a sonorous, beautiful voice,” he shares.
While only a few young Kayans and Kenyahs know how to perform Parap, the age-old tradition is still used to mark different occasions, especially by the older generation. Most times, the Parap is recited when welcoming guests or inviting someone to ngajer (or ngajat). The poetic song is also used as a version of a speech at formal events. The art form is so ingrained in everyday Kayan life that it is even sung while village folk tend to the fields or weave mats on the verandah of the longhouse.
Sometimes, Adrian notes, an Arap is performed depending on the situation. “In Arap, there are meaningful formulaic metaphors and phrases which are expressions of thanksgiving, gratitude, paying compliments, a longing to meet, hear and see relatives and loved ones,” he explains, citing examples of how women in Araps are often described as “having the beauty like soft light of the dimming sun, the light of the moving sun or the gleaming light of the moon”. The metaphors for men are often associated with more masculine-centric words as they are described as warriors with “blight-casting spirit creatures and the head-tilting hornbills”.
But to Adrian, the Parap is more than just a past time or something to entertain guests with. “Takna’ and Arap are the poetic songs and epics tales, which tell us about who we used to be and the things that relate to our ancestors in their daily life,” he explains.
FROM SPIRITS TO THE SON
The Orang Ulu (meaning river people) are one of Sarawak’s main ethnic groups and are known as fearless warriors and skilled craftsmen. Some of Sarawak’s most notable bead work, rattan weavings and wooden carvings come from the hands of Orang Ulu groups.
Considered the upper-river dwellers of the Rajang River, the sub-groups of Orang Ulu include the Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Bisaya, Penan, Saban, Lakiput and Berawan people, with the Kayans and Kenyahs forming the majority.
“Parap and Takna’ are art forms which have been around for centuries, even before the migration of the Kayan from Kayan Apo in East Kalimantan,” Adrian divulges, adding that the art forms are highly valued in the Kayan culture so much so that the Tukang Takna’ and Tukang Paraps are believed to have a special connection with the spirits.
As a child, Adrian’s grandmother told him stories of Kayan folklore in the form of Takna’. But it wasn’t till one fated Christmas visit to her longhouse in Tubau that he became completely besotted with the art of Parap — his grandmother was reciting it to relatives on the verandah. “I sat next to her not knowing what she was singing but I recorded it on my phone. As days passed, I listened to that recording on replay until she noticed my fascination with it,” he recalls fondly. His grandmother managed to rummage through a collection of tapes bearing the Parap of his late grandfather, Nyagu’ Gong, a renowned Tukang Parap in his community. Adrian’s fascination very quickly grew into an obsession and he began listening to the recordings religiously, trying to understand every phrase and word.
One night, as Adrian drifted into sweet slumber, he had a dream about his grandmother singing the Parap with relatives. “Since then I have had a lot of different dreams of myself and other people (spirits in the apparition of people I know) reciting Parap,” says Adrian, who notes that in these dreams, these people often used formulaic phrases he had never heard of before or phrases which were long-forgotten. At times, these people would even present new melodies to the same Arap he performs.
“When I asked the elders, they tell me that the spirits are teaching me. They say: “Sayu kah anan, dahak pekale ikak kah anan” (That’s good, “they” are teaching you).
WAYS OF ANCESTORS
Adrian may be blessed with the gift for Parap and Takna’ but as a young adult in a modern world, reviving an ancient art form isn’t an easy task. “People are usually quite surprised when they see me perform Parap or Takna’,” he recalls with a chuckle. “They find it rare for a youth to be able to sing the meaningful formulaic phrases and various types of Arap,” he explains, noting that he considers himself an apprentice as it takes years to master the art of reciting Parap.
Most young Kayans, he feels, are uninterested in continuing the art form. “Many Kayan youths are both conservative and shy. It’s very difficult to get them to try it,” he confides.
But their introverted mannerisms and disinterest in their heritage are only a fraction of the problem. When Adrian went down to Baram and Balui to study the patters and differences in the Takna’ there, he noticed a lot of young people took a keen interest in this ancient oral art but lacked the knowhow.
Since Parap and Takna’ are both artforms which were passed down orally from one generation to the other, the styles and phrases were never recorded on paper. Much of it, as Adrian points out, was also lost as a result of not being passed down. “It’s vital that someone should take the responsibility of preserving the genuineness of the art and the art itself. The art form is equally as endangered as the sape’ was once before,” he says of the better-known Orang Ulu musical tradition.
For Adrian, the survival or Parap and Takna’ is also a reflection of the Kayans identity and heritage. “Our identity is not known to many. Most only know us as fierce warriors and headhunters, but this ancient verbal art form is a thing of beauty long hidden. It’s about time we revived this gem.”
Adrian’s journey is a reminder of Gustavo Mahler’s great words: “Tradition is not to preserve the ashes of the past but to pass on the flame.”