The Kenyah, an indigenous group dwelling in the mountainous plateau region and the upper reaches of four major rivers of Borneo, constitute one of many minority communities in Sarawak, the largest state of Malaysia. This small, isolated community has nurtured refined forms of visual and performing arts, such as the music of the sape, a boat-shaped lute which has become a national cultural emblem. Kenyah historical and socio-cultural background is shown to have played a major role in shaping the development of a sophisticated choral singing tradition featuring homophonic harmony. Their substantial repertoire of attractive recreational songs and community-wide participation in musicking form the focus of this thesis, viewed from the perspective of music education.
The growing stature of world musics within the sphere of music education has led to increasing collaboration between ethnomusicologists and music educators to investigate and disseminate traditional genres. Kenyah songs, being distinctly Asian in flavour, yet largely conforming to classical Western musical syntax, would be especially valuable for world music programmes. However, in Malaysia, the shortage of available, relevant teaching materials, especially folksongs in a variety of tonalities, ill-equips the teachers to teach music genuinely reflecting local cultures, or to implement international approaches such as those of Kodály and Orff.
Analysis of over eighty songs documented during fieldwork in two different river-systems since 1996 demonstrated that they display a range of tonalities (predominantly pentatonic, hence especially amenable to Kodály programmes), emotional variety, rhythmic consistency and associated dance movements. The song-texts feature poetic references to a variety of interesting subjects. Responses from schoolchildren, workshop-participants and teacher-trainees demonstrated that the songs held wide appeal for both inherent and delineated meanings. Many succeeded in mastering the melody, lyrics, harmony and movements despite lack of familiarity with the language.
Choral performances of the songs, although attracting some points of criticism regarding modifications, drew approval from culture-bearers who expressed gratification that non-Kenyah could perform songs fast disappearing from their own community. Kenyah recreational songs would thus be a timely addition to music classes and to choral repertoire around the world.