"Sky Songs” breathes new ethnic-pop life into the ancestral songs that her longhouse-dwelling grand aunties have passed down to her…it’s a blend of dreamy, lullaby-like vocals over a base of world music"
- South China Morning Post.
“Alena Murang’s songs evoke both the mystery of a faraway people and instant identification with their reverence for the sky”
- World Listening Post
Famed as a sape’ songstress, Alena sings in the endangered Kenyah and Kelabit languages and is the first woman to professionally play the lute instrument of the highland tribes of Borneo. Alena has carried the enchanting sounds of the sape’ to over 20 countries, from Iceland to Australia to Thailand to the USA. Also a visual artist, her artwork is inspired by her Dayak Kelabit heritage. Alena’s pieces have been showcased in venues across Taiwan, Kuching and Kuala Lumpur.
Alena’s place in the music sphere is a unique one. Standing in the intersection of the past and the present, Alena’s songs transcend the borders of traditional and contemporary art schemes, producing soundscapes that are a medley of traditional Dayak tones and rhythms of the 21st century. She sees herself first as a storyteller and expresses her words not only through contemplative music but also through video production which is apparent in her music videos Midang Midang and Warrior Spirit.
Alena’s art, songs and tones are wholly intentional, pulling from the Kelabit stories of her community. For Alena, her art isn’t about preserving the Kelabit culture but rather actively living and breathing it through her music.
Born in Kuching, Sarawak, to a Kelabit father and an English-Italian mother, Alena and her older brother were immersed in a mesh of cultures and environments since birth. With frequent trips to the rural interiors of Sarawak, Alena’s childhood was consumed with long hikes to waterfalls, nights in villages and staying awake through ceremonies. Alena was quick to learn that every rock, tree, mountain, bird, rhythm, and melody had a name and draws from the emotions of nature in her craft.
At the age of six, she learnt traditional dances of Sarawak at the Dayak Cultural Foundation in Kuching, later on receiving the arang kadang (long dance) and solo Hornbill dance from her aunties. In 2000, seven girl cousins decided to pick up the sape' - the first students of their generation, and the first girls to play from master sape’ player Mathew Ngau. Alena was one of them. The young group of dancers and sape' players were known as Anak Adi' Rurum Kelabit, and were later on named Kan'id, cutting their debut album in 2007 - Rhythms of the Kelabit Highlands. Alena later would later train under the Saloman Gau, another sape’ master.
In her early 20s, Alena rose to the call of inheriting these songs, with more certainty. Seeking out grandaunties and aunties that could teach her songs of times past; and uncles that would teach her other styles of playing the sape'.
At this point we should explain that many of these oral histories, which existed as music, are not remembered by many; for two main reasons - the community taking on a new religion, and Alena's father's generation focusing more on getting an education meant they spent barely any time with their elders, as schools were far away (ten days walk in the jungle!)
Though never formally studying music, Alena's lifelong journey receiving the dance, song and music from her elders has led her to be a keeper of stories for her people. Working closely with her cousin Joshua Maran as producer, they draw on their musical influences of world, rock and folk music, combined with narratives of growing up indigenous in contemporary urban settings, to produce a sound that is distinctive, earthy and fresh.
Alena weaves the Dayak stories into her music and puts to paper storytelling that has remained oral for generations. Singing in endangered tongues, language fails to be a barrier in Alena’s performances. Audiences often find themselves transfixed by the melody, transported to the vast rainforests of Borneo and the gentleness of its rivers. Unknown to the meaning of the lyrics but the sound finds a place in their soul. It isn’t strange to find tear-streaked faces in Alena’s crowds.
Her first EP, Flight (2016), presents interpretations of traditional Kelabit and Kenyah songs. For Alena, it was important to create this album as there were just a handful of good quality digital recordings of these lesser-known songs. She then went on to play these songs in festivals across the world, including SXSW (USA), Colors of Ostrava (Czech Republic), Paris Fashion Week (France), Rudolstadt Festival (Germany), OzAsia Festival (Australia), and Rainforest World Music Festival (Malaysia).
In 2021, Alena released Sky Songs, an album inspired by elements of the cosmos - the sky, moon, wind, stars, clouds. It was met with open arms by listeners and critics alike,
Alena works with a team of people, including her family, on this journey of making cultural heritage, and its values of togetherness and caring for the Earth, relevant and prominent in today's urban, contemporary settings.
Kanid Studio (previously known as ART4 Studio), a brainchild of Alena, is a platform that aims to use art and music as a medium for positive impact, grounded in indigenous community values that are strong in the longhouse villages.
Alena presence as a World Music artist is recognised globally through the many accolades she has under her belt, especially for her self-produced music videos. For Midang Midang (2020) she was nominated for the Best International Video Award and won the Best Styling Award at the Buenos Aires Music Video Festival in 2020. For Warrior Spirit (2021), she won the Best Music Video and Best Ethnographic Film Award at the New York International Film Awards in 2021. She was also a youth representative a the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, and UNESCO Asia-Pacific for her work in intangible cultural heritage.
Alena has been featured on Nat Geo People, Channel News Asia, Asian Nikkei Review, NPR Radio, BBC Radio 2, Radio 6, CBC News, Discovery Channel, Double J, etc.
About the Kelabit
Kelabit people are one of the smallest groups indigenous to Borneo, with a population of roughly 6000 people. They are part of the Austronesian language group.
Our stories are held in
songs, passed down
Nothing is possible without the love and support of my team, friends, family, teachers and community.
These awards are for all of you.
Taichung Lantern Festival, TAIWAN
Tribal Gathering Festival, PANAMA
Colors of Ostrava, CZECH REPUBLIC*
Rudolstadt Festival, GERMANY*
OzAsia Festival, AUSTRALIA
International Container Arts Festival Kaohsiung, TAIWAN*
City Roars Festival, MALAYSIA
Spirit, by Alena Murang, MALAYSIA
Sarawak International Festival of Music and Arts, MALAYSIA
South by Southwest (SXSW), USA*
UN Panel by PeaceBoat, ICELAND*
Førde Traditional and World Music Festival, NORWAY*
L'isola del Cinema, Rome, ITALY
Etnosur Festival, SPAIN*
Wonderfruit Festival, THAILAND
Indigenous Celebration Festival, Bali, INDONESIA
Rhythms of Rimba Festival, Sabah, MALAYSIA
World Music Festival Taiwan, TAIWAN
Taoyuan, International Indigenous Musical Festival, TAIWAN
HereHear Peninsula World Music Festival, TAIWAN
Kenyalang Alive, KL, MALAYSIA
*as part of the Small Island Big Song production
Rainforest World Music Festival, MALAYSIA
ASEAN Para Games Opening Ceremony, MALAYSIA
World Stage Design, Taipei, TAIWAN
Sejong Festival & Seoul Music Week, SOUTH KOREA
Lan Berambeh, MALAYSIA
Shantanand Festival, KL, MALAYSIA
OzAsia Festival, AUSTRALIA
Rainforest Fringe Festival, MALAYSIA
Georgetown Festival, MALAYSIA
Our stories are held in songs, passed down through generations
Nomination for Budding Artist Award - 15th Fresh Music Awards (Taiwan) 2022
Pengiktirafan Khas - Jabatan Wanita dan Keluarga Sarawak (Malaysia) 2021
The Brand Laureate - Personality Award 2021 (Malaysia / International) 2021
Best World Music Video - BAMV Film Festival (Argentina) 2021
Nomination - Best International Group Recording - Summer Solstice Indigenous Music Awards (Canada) 2021
Special Jury Award - Los Angeles Film Awards (USA) 2021
Rome International Movie Awards (Italy) 2021
Best Asia & Pacific Music Video - International Music Video Awards (UK) 2021
Nomination for Best World Music Video - Paris Art and Movie Awards (France) 2021
Honourable Mention for Best Costume - International Music Video Awards (UK) 2021
Best Ethnographic Film - New York International Film Awards (USA) 2021
Best Music Video - New York International Film Awards (USA) 2021
Silver Medal Winner - Best Concept - Global Music Awards (USA) 2021
Silver Medal Winner - Best Music Video - Global Music Awards (USA) 2021
Nomination - Best Art Direction - Austin Music Video Festival (USA) 2021
Nomination - Best International Music Video - BAMV Film Festival (Argentina) 2020
Best Styling - BAMV Film Festival (Argentina) 2020
Nomination - Sinchi Indigenous Artist Awards (Netherlands) 2019
Tatler 30 Under 30 List (ASEAN) 2019
Prestige 40 Under 40 List (Malaysia) 2018
Tatler 30 Under 30 List (Malaysia) 2018
Songlines Best Album of 2018 (One song on Compilation Album 'Small Island Big Song') (UK/International) 2018
Channel News Asia Next Generation Leader (Singapore) 2018
Miri Mayor Award (Malaysia) 2018
ASEAN's Next Generation Leader (Channel News Asia) (ASEAN) 2017