on this page, you can listen and download Mathew’s recordings from his 2004 album Lan-Ē Tuyang – Ngorek Keeper of the Songs. The liner notes that explains the meaning of each song is located below.
If you like and appreciate what you hear, please consider donating to Mathew so that he can continue to disseminate the culture of Borneo.
Mathew Ngau Jau was born and raised in a longhouse in the far reaches of the Baram River in central Borneo. He is from a smal sub-tribe of the Kenyah called Ngorek, who were among the first settlers of the upper Baram. Surrounded by the rhythms and instruments used in traditional music during his youth, he is today one of Borneo’s few professional sape players and is regarded as one of the world’s top exponents of traditional Bornean music.
Credited with helping to preserve a centuries-old regional heritage, Mathew is also a contemporary composer and musical innovator in his own right. His international performances on the sape with partner Uchau Bilong have introduced Bornean traditional music to western audiences and revived local interest amongst a new generation, inspiring them to cherish and preserve their cultural heritage. With performances with Anak’ Adik Rurum Kelabit, a group of young Kelabit musicians, singers and dancers, Mathew has reestablished a long lost link between the Ngorek and the people of the Kelabit Highlands.
For Mathew Ngau Jau, the traditional music of the Ngorek people embodies the universal spirit of humanity, for the Ngorek mark every occasion with music and song: weather ritual healing or child naming ceremony, sporting event or longhouse dance, courtship, wedding, or funeral – indeed, from birth to death and beyond!
Describes the headgear of a man performing the warrior’s dance. An ancient but still popular sapeh tune, it accompanies the first dance performed during a feast or to welcome a visitor to the longhouse. The most virile and handsome ember of the longhouse is picked to perform this solo ritual dance. Twirling heroically, he enacts the fearsome taking of heads, a practice rampant during the head-hunting days of yore. With shrill battle cries, stamping of feet, and sudden leaps conveying great strength and agility, the warrior unsheathes his parang (long native sword) attesting to the machismo of his warrior ancestors. The dance ends with a hearty swig of Borak (rice wine) and this usually signals the beginning of another all-night longhouse party.
A traditional song inviting visitors and members of the longhouse to come out to the veranda and join in the singing and dancing. A man or woman sings a refrain, often part of a long story or a fabulous account of the visitor’s virtues. Visitors are instantly adopted by the longhouse and new names are bestowed on them. Cups of potent borak are placed before the visitors and at the end of the song, they must empty them voluntarily or have the drink unceremoniously poured down their throats. The visitor is then coaxed to sing a song in return and the whole process of filling up the cup and drinking every drop is repeated, as another member of the longhouse takes over to recite an even more outrageous account of the prowess of the visitor.
This popular tune welcomes the rain which falls upon the heavey belian shingles of the longhouse, on the trees, and on all growing and living things. The rain also swells rivers and generates the dangerous rapids for which the Baram is notorious. Longhouse communities depend on rivers for transport and the river features in every aspect of their lives. The melodious lilt of the sapeh mimics the rhythm of raindrops, from gentle drizzle to heavy downpour.
An original composition by Mathew Ngau Jau. Uyau tells of his life as an orphan. It is dedicated to his late parents and the longhouse community which took care of him – and nurtured his love for the sapeh and his tribal heritage.
Adapted from a traditional tune, this original composition describes the relationship of the longhouse community with their environment – the sacred mountains, the creatures of the rainforest and other communities living along the river. It also laments the loss of traditional knowledge and wisdom, as more and more young Ngorek abandon their longhouses for the big towns, in search of fame and fortune.
This tune depicts the fast-disappearing lounghouse way of life. The master musicians, keepers of the ancient word, and the gifted storytellers are gone. Electric guitars and imported drum sets now take the place of traditional musical instruments. At longhouse parties today, hip-hop and rock ‘n’roll are preferred by the young. The elderly can only sigh and wait for the youngsters to run out of steam – then they can bring out the sape and groove on come ‘real’ music!
Riverine communities depend on the river for everything – and the people of the Baran are magnificent boatmen who can negotiate rapids and whirlpools the way cabbies weave through city traffic. Boats are also used for daily trips to the farms situated in the fertile valleys. Even today, a journey to the nearest city can take weeks – depending on the water level and the strength of the current. This folksy tune advises us to paddle hard and arrive at our destination safely.
Describes a hunter’s elaborate preparations for a long trip through the rainforest. The hunter moves silently and intently – and when his prey is sighted, its fate is sealed. Nothing escapes the deadly accuracy of the hunter’s blowpipe.
While the sape is often the main instrument played in longhouses of the Orang Ulu (upriver tribes), the native version of the xylophone is also prominent, especially with the younger musicians. In the days of old, the lutang was used to scare away birds and animals from the padi fields.
While the mighty Baram is turbulent in its upper reaches, there are still pools at certain spots. Here quiet activities such as doing the laundry can take place and children can safely dive into the placid waters. This tune celebrates the tranquil environs and soothing quality of the lulau.
Known for their powerful vocals, the Orang Ulu are masters of song and dance. A man or woman sings a refrain, often part of a long story or the virtues of a visitor, and the entire longhouse, singing in harmony, comes in with a great full-chested chorus. The process is repeated over and over again.
When an Orang Ulu girl dances, she uses hornbill feathers and reenacts the graceful flight of the hornbill. Leto (and many other versions of it) is usually played to accompany female dancers. Every dancer will have her own favourite Leto and the sape player needs to be au fait with all variations and versions.
The elderly folk will tell you that life was much simpler in the old days and people had natural dignity and a sense of unity. This tune pays tribute to a way of life long gone but not forgotten.
Leiling is well-known as the unofficial Orang Ulu anthem. This much-loved traditional song is normally sung and danced towards the end of the festivities. Led by a sape player, a line forms and thew dancers pace up and down the longhouse, first along one side, and then the other, with graceful flying movements of the arms and gentle stamping of the feet – but always in perfect unison. Visitors are invariably coaxed to join the dance which can go on till dawn!
Dedicated to the musicians and storytellers of the Baram
Uchat Kajan, Tuai Rumah Ngorek, Long Semiang, Ulu Baram
Bun Kalang, late daughter of the late Tuai Rumah Tama Bun Kalang
Telon Jau, talented Ngorek singer and dancer Candy Biron, ardent fan and wife,
Lawai Kajan, honoured member of the Longhouse
Tuan Haji Tuah Jais, Sarawak Tourism Board
Nikki Lugun, journaist
Antares (kit Leee), inspiring friend
Simon Tchee, Simon Picture Maker
Anak’ Adik Rurum Kelabit