Mystical Sabah, the land below the wind, is an explorer’s dream of ancient tribal cultures, diverse natural beauty and unexplored wilderness. But culturally, the Sabahan focus on family and togetherness is just as inspiring as the magical sunrises, remote jungles and wild animals you’ll encounter in this rugged land.
Community living in traditional longhouses under the guidance of a tribal chief isn’t unusual here and tribal villages work together to produce food and valuable goods for local families, communities and the state. It seems that in Sabah, everyone has a greater purpose and works together to ensure the wellbeing of their tribe.
My six-year-old daughter and I are exploring Sabah for a few weeks. As we drive on winding roads around mountains with peaks barely visible through the low, sullen cloud, past hillsides lined with green crops and thick jungle, alongside perfectly aligned palm oil plantations and brilliant-blue coastline, our guide, Sylvester, gives us a short introduction to each small village we pass.
“This village produces all the sweet corn for Sabah.”
“This is the village that grows Sabah’s rice.”
“This village has the best horses.”
“These villagers are farmers and some are sea gypsies.”
“The people from this village make all the honey.”
It seems as though every village has a role to play within the community and local economy based on the skills of the tribe, perfected over centuries and passed down through generations.
And then. “This is the village that makes the gongs.”
A musical village! We have to stop and explore. The golden-brown gongs are ubiquitous in Sabah and when played together produce the most beautiful, hypnotic sound. Sumangkap Matunggong in Kudat is the Rungus tribal village that handcrafts these musical gongs, considered to be the most important instrument in Sabahan culture. Rungus are experts in making these traditional instruments, which have played a significant role in tribal life of centuries.
Gongs are the source of the tribal music used in celebrations, religious ceremonies, official events, harvest gatherings and in daily life, and are also used to communicate over long distances and send messages through beats and rhythm. And that’s not all you’ll discover in this musical town – the village also boasts ownership of the biggest gong in the world.
The villagers believe the first gongs were brought to Sabah on ships from China when trade began during the 14th century. The Chinese traders taught the Rungus tribe to craft the gongs from bronze and now families pass their skills down from generation to generation, making the instruments by hand and tuning them by ear. Their gongs are sold throughout Sabah and to the Iban people of Sarawak for use in tribal festivities and ceremonies.
As we enter the village and walk down a dusty road lined with open workshops, we can see tools, metals and beautiful completed instruments hanging from ceilings. The sound of metal striking metal is loud and sharp in our ears.
Salina, one of the local gong makers, is sitting on a tiny stool in her open workshop, hammering a small dome into the centre of a thick, round piece of tin. She invites us into her space and shows us how she makes her gongs. The piece she’s working on will be attached to a circular base, similar to a round cake tin, with the small dome in the centre. When the small dome is hit with a soft mallet it will produce a deep note of specific pitch and timbre, depending on its size and shape.
Salina sells five or six sets of gongs each month directly to the Iban, earning a good wage from the sales to support her family and village. Each set of gongs includes one Kulintangin – a group of eight small gongs of 15–25 centimetres wide set upright into a waist-high wooden platform – and two standard-sized gongs of around a metre wide.
The Kulintangin take a week to make and each standard-sized gong takes three days of working the metals and refining the tone and pitch.
Back in the day, the gongs were made in one piece from bronze, but following the collapse of trade routes to Borneo during the Second World War, most gongs were made from two pieces of brass or some scrap metal welded together.
“It has been this way for many years now,” says Salina. “The gongs made from bronze in one piece were beautiful but would take one week to make each piece, and with tin I can do that in three days.”
Gongs are tuned by ear, by hitting the flat top with the mallet to create an indent and slight curve to modify the sound. As the shape changes, the gong is tested by its maker until it produces the desired pitch and timbre.
There are 20 families in this village, all making gongs from their government-supplied workshops. Before the government built the workshops in 1998, they would sit under trees in the heat, sunshine and rain, and make their gongs together.
“Now it is good to have our workshops,” says Salina. “We have shade, it is cooler and we stay dry in the rain.”
Selina followed her father into the gong-making business, continuing a line that spans generations. She has been crafting gongs for 12 years, and her father made gongs all his life. The skill is passed from generation to generation but it seems not everyone is gifted the talent to consistently produce a quality gong. Of Salina’s father’s six children “only three got the talent”. The next generation is quickly growing up – will they still be keen to stay in the village and continue the family business?
“I don’t know,” says Salina. “The kids aren't really interested but they’re still young. My son isn't interested in the gongs but he does love music, especially traditional guitar. Most teenagers want to go away to study. I hope they will stay and continue our gong making.”