Sarawak’s Mathew Ngau Jau and Adrian Jo Milang shine at Singapore Arts Festival

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Imagine a people who live today as they lived before the dawn of history and come face to face with the 21st century. Is a civilization of shifting cultivators and headhunters for millennia embracing modernism and change, or sticking to the old ways of its ancestors? These questions were asked in Mepaan, the recent grand opening of this year’s Singapore International Arts Festival (Sifa).

Mepaan comes from the indigenous Kayan language of the island of Kalimantan (Borneo), meaning “always”. In this multidisciplinary and multicultural show directed by Natalie Hennedige, the answers were neither simple nor direct. The collaboration between the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (conducted by Yeh Tsung) and Tuyang Initiative of Miri, Sarawak (representing the Kayan and Kenyah peoples, conducted by Juvita Tatan Wan), could have weighed heavily in favor of the former. In reality, the latter’s three-person team more than held their own despite overwhelming odds.

In the cavernous space that is Singapore’s Pasir Panjang Power Station, Wong Chee Wai’s set design cleverly placed the orchestra on terraces, leaving room for a strategically placed ceremonial headdress and a lighted stand with the traditional sape (four-stringed boat-lute shape) at the back. The two lights were connected by ramps circulating on either side around the orchestra.

The stage was thus set for a visual and auditory spectacle from the multimedia direction of Brian Gothong Tan which also included photography by Sean Lee and the films of Harry Frederick projected on two large screens. Andy Lim’s vivid lighting design matched Max Tan’s costumes for the Aboriginal performers and orchestra members.

The climax of ‘Mepaan’ saw the ceremonial passing of the headdress from Jau to Milang (right), both representatives of the Tuyang Initiative.

The music was original and eclectic, including three world premieres, opening with the enthusiastic Eric Watson Island sunrise. The composers had worked with the Sarawakians to involve their folk songs and dance rhythms, all seamlessly integrated into the overall fabric. For example, Koh Cheng Jin’s offer Song of the Night Wind had incorporated two Kenyah love songs Ti Ruti Mon (Come to sleep) and Sayang Dau Kenai Tawai (My love for you cannot be said). Other works by Kong Zhixuan and Tang Jianping helped fill the 75-minute schedule.

Traditional Chinese instruments sounded particularly idiomatic, especially the dizi and the rushing winds that resembled birdsong and evoked mystery. Pipa and ruan were placed near the front, their stamps tied to the pinched sap. Chinese percussion provided the rhythms of pomp and pageantry in addition to imitating the pouring rain.

Tuyang’s Mathew Ngau Jau and Adrian Jo Milang stole the show, standing out with their throaty Kenyah songs, punctuated by the occasional scream. The 70-year-old Jau’s undermining display was unfortunately too brief compared to the pugilistic dance moves of the 20-year-old Milang. Both represented extreme ends of the generational divide, the frail shamanist alderman standing face to face with the sword-wielding young warrior.

The climax saw the ceremonial passing of Jau’s headdress to Milang, accompanied by Wang Chenwei’s Walk towards eternity, whose symbolism would not be lost on the grateful public. Will Sarawak’s centuries-old traditions survive the test of time? The answer should only be mepaan, or always. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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