Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Timang (Pengap), Pelian, and Sabak: Iban Leka Main Singing Styles

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Timang (Pengap), Pelian, and Sabak: Iban Leka Main Singing Styles

Article excerpt

Strong lines of communication between the seen and the unseen worlds are established through the singing of specific ritual poetic texts in the Iban society of Sarawak. The lemambang (bard) singing the poetry called timang or pengap, the manang (shaman) chanting the ritual poetry called pelian, and the tukang sabak (soul guide) singing the sabak poetry for a funeral are all part of a matrix of specialized singers who perform extraordinary texts for extraordinary purposes in Iban culture. These genres of sung ritual poetry, in particular, are often referred to as leka main, a repertory of sung ritual poetry to accomplish specific purposes. (2) Timang or pengap chants, performed for high ritual festivals (Masing, 1997), invoke the spirit world to join those in the community engaged in a celebratory event such as the gawai. The manang sings pelian poetical texts (Sather, 2001) in order to heal an afflicted person or group of people, while the soul guide sings a sabak dirge (Sutlive, forthcoming) to ensure that the soul of the deceased finds its appropriate place in the hereafter.

The power inherent in the words expressed by each of these specialist performers is unquestionable, and the means (or vehicle) with which the words are expressed by each specialist helps to make those texts highly efficacious. The vehicle for the actual aural expression of the words is the human singing voice, which is of the utmost importance in the performances by these specialist practitioners. The performance of each type of leka main projects a unique singing style (patah nyawa) that is particular and differs from one type to another. This study begins to describe and document the musical style in the singing of these three types of ritual poetry. Through aural investigation, musical transcription and determination of the musical characteristics of each type, a comparative view of these singing styles reveals distinct musical vocabularies for each of these specialists and, in the end, a distinct musical definition of each. in addition, determining the ideal sound characteristics that are appropriate in Iban culture for the singing of the timang (pengap), or the sabak dirge, or the pelian healing chant will give some insight into the way the connection is made from the seen world to the unseen pantheon of spirits and places, which has a profound effect on the performer and on those for whom the ritual chants are performed.

The Singer Specialists

Lemambang. The master practitioner/singer of leka timang (or leka pengap) is the lemambang or bard (bards around the world sing poetic verse and are usually itinerant). In Iban culture, most bards are male. They learn their art in an oral tradition within an apprenticeship system. Today this singer of leka timang (or pengap) conducts the rituals of the gawai (religious ceremonies with feasting and festivity, Sutlive, V. and J. 1994:79), and he also leads public invocations. The ritual poetic narratives that are sung or chanted by the lemambang are called timang in the Upper Rejang and Batang Ai areas (Masing, 1997), and in Saribas, Krian and Skrang they are called pengap (Sandin, 1977). In the Saribas, the term 'timang' denotes special invocations and praise songs to honor sacred objects or special people (Sandin, 1977: 6).

The master practitioners of timang usually perform in a troupe (called bala), and each bala has a principal bard known as the tuai lemambang. He performs with a second bard, the saut lemambang or penyaut. (3) In the Baleh River region this assistant is referred to as the orang nimbal or 'answering bard,' who is usually a full-fledged lemambang (Masing, 1977) and who sings an answer (or response) to the principal lemambang. As the lemambang sings the ritual poetry, he accompanies his singing with a percussive pattern that he plays with a stamping wood or bamboo pole (Photo 1).


The troupe also includes a small chorus of male singers, who are junior or apprentice lemambang, called pengelembung in Saribas (Sandin 1977). …

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