The thundering cascades of Lata Iskandar roared and no speech could rise above it, except the sounds of the kereb (bamboo guitar) and pensol (bamboo flute) as the music flowed harmoniously with gushing waters.
It was almost dreamlike, the unity of the sounds and the totality of the tranquil place, as we watched Herry plucking the kereb and his uncle Alang swiftly dancing his fingers across the pensol.
And indeed, it was in a dream that Alang was revealed to the true owner of the song he currently played.
“This is the song of the earthquake spirit, which is my favourite song and was composed by me… I thought so, until one day the spirit came to me in my dream. The spirit came from the mountains, carrying the name of the person who originally made the song. It turned out that this song wasn’t mine. Its true owner is the spirit of the earthquake, and that’s why I named this song so,” Alang explained.
The relationship between Orang Asli and nature is inseparable, and it is evident even in their music and its instruments.
After all, both instruments are sourced from – and carried the voice of – nature.
REDISCOVERING ORANG ASLI TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENT: KEREB & PENSOL
If you drove along the trunk road from Tapah to Cameron Highlands, it’s hard to miss the magnificent view of Lata Iskandar, cascading over several tiers into a small pool at its last drop before turning into a narrow stream.
This place is Alang’s backyard, his village being just a few kilometres away, where they would “suluh katak” for entertainment during the night…and perhaps a feast after. He also forages for rattan and other fibres in the forests surrounding the waterfall.
Herry picked this spot for them to play the kereb and pensol because he wanted the sounds of the waterfall as a background.
“Actually, I just started learning to play this instrument not too long ago,” confessed Herry. For him, it’s the intention that matters.
“I grew up in KL so I’m not really a ‘pure’ Orang Asli. When my parents retired and we returned to their village in Perak, I wanted to reconnect with my culture,” he explained.
“One of my passions is music. Besides knowing how to play the guitar and other modern instruments, I wanted to learn Orang Asli music. That was why I reconnected with my uncle who taught me how to play the kereb.”
We first met Herry and Alang at the 2019 George Town Festival when they came to perform a folklore play as part of our Gerimis exhibition weekend programming. They were introduced to us by Persatuan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Orang Asal Perak (PKKOAP), who is one of our collaborators.
The two are from the Semai tribe of the Perak side, which is the largest of the Senoi group. The former isn’t sure of the history of the instrument, but according to the latter, Orang Asli usually derives ideas and inspirations from their dreams.
The kereb is made from bamboo. Most Orang Asli instruments are made from bamboo, perhaps due to its flexibility and its hollow structure. It is also easily found as bamboo clumps grow in abundance in the forest.
“However, not all bamboos could be used to make kereb. There are specific types of bamboo that we go for to achieve quality sound,” said Herry.
Herry explained that there are a few types of kereb. There are short and long ones, and there different ways to hold and play the kereb. You can hold it like a modern guitar, place it on your lap, or at your cheek.
“When you place it on your lap or at your cheek, it’s to control the flow of the wind and to achieve different sounds.”
The structure of the kereb has two parallel strips facing each other—one long (male) and one short (female). Both ends are secured with a strong rattan ring (like the chenos bracelet) and at which the two rattan strings of the kereb are raised and pulled over wedges to give them the tension needed to produce sounds.
“The two strings are played like the beat of chentong. If you have listened to that instrument, the kereb also follows this beat. This is the traditional way,” explained Herry.
“In the old days, kereb was normally played by the ladies,” began Herry. “When the girl misses the boy, she would play the kereb to pass time as there were no other forms of entertainment in the forest,” continued Alang.
“But today, no youths are playing it anymore so I took it upon myself to learn this instrument. Plus, it makes a nice combination with Uncle Alang’s pensol,” said Herry.
For Alang, his musical journey was a challenging one, but it’s an experience that he places close to his heart.
At as young as 8, Alang already showed interest in the traditional instruments. He recalled the first time he watched the elders playing pensol and how he was drawn to it. In retrospect, he said that it was perhaps because he has a musical soul. But Alang didn’t pick up the pensol until he turned 18.
“I was watching the elders playing the pensol at performances and at their homes, and a question came to me… ‘How did they make this instrument? What did the inspiration come from?’ I asked them and they would always shrug at me, saying that they don’t know as well since the knowledge was passed down by the ancestors. It was always the same response whenever I asked the elders,” Alang told us.
Nevertheless, his passion did not waver and instead burned brighter. He thought to himself, I’m Orang Asli and I will learn to play the pensol no matter what.
Alang went to look for bamboo in the forest, collected a basketful of them and brought them home. Without a reference or whatsoever, he carved holes into the bamboos and tested their sound—over and over again until he perfected it.
“It took me a long time to get the right tune. Whenever I thought I was almost there, it would still be out of tune. I looked for more bamboo and kept trying until finally, I achieved it,” he said.
The pensol usually has 3 to 4 holes, but the latter is more common among the Semai people. Alang explained that if you used 3 fingers to measure the length between the first and second holes, it should be the same measurement throughout.
“But the hardest part wasn’t over. Then, I had to compose a song.”
Going back to the story of how Alang dreamed the spirit of the earthquake, he stated that he composed the song before he dreamed of it. Here’s his story…
“The day after the Acheh tsunami, perhaps I thought about it too much, I had a dream that the earthquake that caused the tsunami happened right here, in a hilly area just like this place and my village. There was a building like the Highland Towers. My family and I were there in the dream and we felt the earth shaking. We were terrified.
In the dream, the spirit who came from the mountains came to me with a bamboo in hand. On the bamboo was its name. When we want to summon this spirit, this is the name we should call upon.
The bamboo was like the one that we use in our sewang performances to mandi bunga. We would put water, herbs, flowers, leaves, and aromatic plants from the forest in this bamboo.
I thought it was just like any other dream. Mainan tidur. I recounted my dream to my father and our hairs stood on end. One day, when my dad came to my home to do sewang, I asked him if I could ask the spirits about my dream. I wanted to leave it to the spirit world to tell me if it’s true or not.
My father said, “We don’t know but let us look for it first.” In the sewang, he sang songs of the tiger and thunderstorm spirits while looking for the mountain spirit. Eventually, the mountain spirit came and confirmed my dream. It’s true. It is his name and his song.
This is the sweetest pensol experience and I will remember it always. We must never forget that we are not the only creatures here on earth.”
The bodies of Orang Asli traditional instruments are from nature, and naturally, their music too. Herry said that they don’t follow the current Orang Asli musicians as their sound is more to what they hear from being within nature.
“Like where we are now and what we are hearing, we take inspirations little by little over a period of time. When we have enough, we will compose a song. That is why it takes a long time for us to make music because we want to achieve the right feeling that nature evokes,” explained Herry.
Although it can be plucked like the modern guitar, kereb can’t be strummed just like it. To play it is to follow the sound of nature—birds, streams, and even waterfalls.
“I’ve heard the elders playing the sound of water, but I’ve never learned it,” said Alang. “He can play the sound of a type of bird that you commonly hear in the mornings only,” stated Herry.
According to Alang, playing instruments at night is a taboo in Semai culture. They believe that it would attract animals such as the tiger. Although the sound can’t travel far, and what more penetrate the dense forest, tigers could pick up the sound of the kereb or pensol from afar with their extremely sharp hearing.
There is another taboo whereby they cannot perform spiritual songs as they please because every spiritual song has its owner. If you played the song as you wished, the spirits may take it as an insult, as if you are mocking them.
“After the performances at the George Town Festival and Semarak Muzium event, I invited my father and my siblings to do sewang at my village to thank the spirits for their gift of songs,” revealed Alang.
“We have spiritual songs and we have contemporary songs as well,” said Herry. “To attract the youths, we are trying to modernise the music but it’s not easy. Their basics are similar to the modern guitar and flute, but they are not identical.”
Herry explained the difficulty stems from the kereb’s lack of fraps, which are present on modern guitars. Next, traditional Orang Asli instruments do not share the same chords as modern instruments.
“For example, you can’t completely cover the holes on the pensol when playing certain tunes. There are parts that you need to loosely cover, leaving a little space between the hole and your finger,” he said.
“That is the challenge we face when we want to harmonise with modern instruments. There are no standard chords in Orang Asli instruments. We play mostly by heart.”
The two also started recording tunes so they could easily tune their instruments whenever needed. This way, they are standardising the tunes of the kereb and pensol. With the introduction to technology and the progression of Orang Asli socially, they are beginning to document their culture and traditions.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTINUITY
Herry’s initial search for his roots and identity grew bigger than himself as the duo continued to improve and expand their skills, as well as innovate the music and their performances to attract youths to also pick up the instruments.
To Herry, music and its instruments is one of the Orang Asli identities.
“I hope to inspire the Orang Asli youths to learn their own music and instruments. If we do not learn and do not look after it, our culture will go extinct because everything was orally taught and nothing was documented. We must start caring for our culture.”
“Beside traditional clothes and lifestyle, music has the power to bring communities closer. It’s such a universal thing.”
Alang agreed with Herry and said that their culture and traditions must be preserved as long as Orang Asli exists. To him, music is a connection to nature, and nature with us.
“If it’s not preserved and maintained with proper care, perhaps Mother Nature would be sad as she might think that we have forgotten her with the disappearance of music. Maybe the mountains would collapse and the world would change,” said Alang.
“Playing songs inspired and given by nature is a way to remember her.”
Similar to other parts of their culture, the Orang Asli music and instruments clearly show their respect and reverence to nature and its lives.
“The Semai soul, the Orang Asli soul… has a close relationship with nature.”
“The upcoming generation must maintain this musical culture because this is our soul and nature is our breath, our everything.”