Mathew Ngau Jau | Sapeh Master

Mathew Ngau Jau, of the Ngorek tribe, is known as Keeper of the Kenyah Nogrek Songs, from Long Semiang in Ulu Baram. He is considered by the Malaysian government as a national living heritage and is one of the few professional sapeh-players in Borneo and is recognised as the undisputed authority on the instrument.

Matthew grew up amidst the traditional music instruments and rhythms of the Baram River region in central Borneo. He is one of the most famous players of the sapé, the long lute-like stringed instrument made from a single bole of wood which is hollowed out and decorated with elaborate designs.

The sapé was used originally for healing rites and was capable of bringing about a trance state. Nowadays, Matthew Ngau Jau is giving the instrument and Kenyah tradition a new lease of life, preserving the traditional foundations yet without curbing future development.

Matthew Ngau Jau is the cultural guardian of the Kenyah, a people of north-eastern Borneo whose musical practices are becoming increasingly rare. Mathew says that when he first started playing the sape nearly 15 years ago, he was worried that the tradition was in danger. “Young people would pick up a guitar, not a sape; they were more into western music.” Gradually, however, as Mathew Ngau Jau and other sape players continued to perform and the Sarawak Tourist Board lent its support, young people saw the sape becoming popular around the world and became more encouraged to try it.

His work is based on age-old sapé techniques, which he also highlights by using them in his own contemporary and innovative compositions. His appearances internationally have not only brought the sapé to the attention of the world audience but have also given the young people of the region a fresh interest in their cultural heritage.

Mathew has toured extensively in Europe and the USA playing in numerous world music festivals and concerts. He is also an ardent advocate of Borneo’s musical traditions, both in his own country and much further afield.