Monday, March 30, 2009

Music Instruments of Sabah

Who would have thought that Sabah has such a rich musical heritage with all those Sabahans recently featuring that high on Akademia Fantasia and the like! Hey, it is exactly the rich musical heritage that brought Sabahans there – the love of sound, music and song is in their blood because music has played, for time immemorial, a significant role in the lives of the locals. Sure, nowadays keyboards and karaoke sets figure more prominently amongst the younger generation but when hard pressed, most Kadazan, Dusun, Murut and Bajau will have to admit that they know at least the basics of gong play – until recently that was about the only instrument they were exposed to, next to the guitar; electronics and mass media has changed that thoroughly of late and I don’t know about youngsters nowadays. Will they still learn to play the gongs at an early age? Or will, in 10 or 15 years, still anybody be interested in gongs? However it is, at the moment many Sabahans, even the younger ones know how to play gongs. But there are so many more local instruments – instruments that have long ago yielded to the pressure of guitars and percussion bands. You can read more about them in my latest feature on my website!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gingers in Borneo

When hearing ginger, do you think of condiments and spices? Good. Anything else? What will you think if I tell you that ginger also means ‘snake bite cure’, ‘sleeping mats’, ‘winnowing tray’, ‘salad’, ‘rice wrapped in leaves,’ ‘roof’ and ‘fresh fish pickle’…? This is ginger in Borneo! With over 1200 varieties over 45 genera, mostly in tropical climates and with Malaysia (that includes nearly 30% of Borneo) having some of the greatest diversity in gingers, you might understand me better. Gingers are extremely widely used plants here, and when I bought my first “ginger book”, the “Gingers of Sarawak” pocket guide by Dr Axel Dalberg Poulsen and published here in Sabah by Natural History Publications I found my botanical horizon greatly widened. Now I can not only say: “another ginger”, but I can throw lengthy and complicated scientific names at my tourists… ah, that makes me look terribly learned! No, the scientific names are a by-product. I have known many useful plants that belonged to the gingers family, and I can point them out in the jungle: plants with edible flowers, fruit or stems, plants of which you use the leaves to make roofs or wrap rice, and the stems to make mats, and others that are used in local medicine. When you live in Borneo you cannot but realise a certain pattern, and the booklet allows me now to do a first rough classification when I am with locals and get lengthy and complicated local names thrown at my head… but that is a personal passion of mine. What gingers can be used for, and some general information you can now find in the feature section on my website ( – in English, French and German, nevertheless.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lazy times…

February is a notoriously slow month, and March promises not much better for my business, which is selling rice wine for those who don’t know me. You can refer to my profile where there is a link to the “real” Flying Dusun website with plenty of information on Sabah, its people, history and culture, the places of interest and of course on lihing: Sabah’s very own rice wine, the Dusun’s preferred party drink.

However, the Dusun have spent their money in December and January, now they are saving up for Ka’amatan – our rice harvest festival – which obviously cannot go without lihing. Worse, at the moment I cannot get any pulut – glutinous rice – which I need to brew lihing. At the moment it is not a problem, we have plenty of stock, but I don’t want to fall into a production hole. Anyhow, we have plenty of time and repaired the chicken coop where we now got 20 happy chicks, and planted some vegetables in what passes for a “garden” here, behind my house. And Jeffri made “wooden” garden furniture from concrete. So to speak a concrete project. Of course we also have plenty of time to make frequent use of my new kitchen and eat very well.

Furniture in the making:

Yes, that’s popular here, and now that Jeffri made them I don’t even find them so tacky any more, how curious. They are for sales. A set (1 table and 6 chairs) as you see in the pictures is priced at RM988 – call Jeffri directly for enquiries: 0135507161.

The finished product and a close-up:

Monday, March 9, 2009

Selling Arguments

In a shop in Pekan Nabalu, a popular tourism stop with a local market, I saw a beautiful waistcoat. It was entirely made from timbagan, the bark of a local tree beaten until its texture is similar to that of felt. The coat, reinforced with strings of rattan, looked like some medieval knight could have worn it to battle, and I was not far with my assumptions. The shop assistant, John, a friend of mine and expert player of the sompoton, Sabah’s most fascinating native musical instrument (an aerophone), realised my fascination when I spotted the waistcoat. He took it down for me for better examination: “Ah, this baju (coat), very strong and good for hunting in forest,” he praised its qualities like a good and busy merchant. Indeed, the baju was very thick. As a matter of fact, it could even stand on its own, without support, if placed upright on the ground. “You see, duri (thorns) cannot enter the baju, also good protection when blowpipe accident,” my friend continued, pointing out its qualities - a bullet-proof vest - and confirming rumours that hunting accidents are not that rare: sometimes people are being mistaken for game, and accidentally shot… could the natural colour of the coat facilitate such accidents? As if for confirmation, John continued: “Very good animal cannot see you in forest colour…” Still seeing me hesitating, he pulled out his most powerful vending argument: “You see, baju got pocket, very large at back, can take squirrel, and even ‘planduk’ (the smallest deer species in the world – the mouse deer), very easy carrying, no falling out!”
Such an argument I of course could not resist, but in my eyes the baju was far too expensive. RM 67.00 for a piece of bark? Not to mention the rashes it must cause when you wear it. But it was kind of my size, so I started the bargaining. After some haggling I got the much praised, multi-functional vest for RM 50.00, still a good price, but in the end it was not so much the money that mattered anyway.
I know for a fact that this vest has not been made for tourists. I also know that it was an old man who made the baju, and he made it the way he has seen his father, and his grandfather making them, for their own use. I fear that in a few years, one will not be able to get such authentic wear any more, hand-crafted and made for use, by someone who has put all his skill and knowledge into it, to make it a lasting coat – as if it was for himself.
To him, the coat has not cost a single cent. He went to the jungle, and extracted all he needed from nature, as generations before him have done. The money I have paid (and I don’t know how much my clever merchant-friend actually pays to him) he will use, maybe, to send his grand-children to school – and not to pay them sweets and junk-food now so easily available everywhere.
For me that coat is a piece of living history, like most of the local artefacts one can purchase here. However, they contain melancholy, for if nothing dramatic happens, the generation of my friend, the vendor, will never make such items, and his children will not even know how they are made. They won’t have such convincing selling arguments as: good for carrying squirrels and planduk… if ever they get the chance to see and sell them at all!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Long Week-End

I have just cured a respectable hangover that I have respectably merited. On Saturday I skinned and boned a cow - not that I really wanted to do it, but I happened to arrive early at the party. Boy, that was some work, I never imagined! On Sunday, during the 'official' party (a wedding, for that matter), we rewarded ourselves with a generous portion of rice wine... and ate the cow (which I hopefully did not have to cook!).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

My New Kitchen

Back to basics…

I have finally a new kitchen! And it is hugely popular! No, no fine Alessi kitchenware, designer cabinets and Italian tiles: we built a plat-form at the back of the house from recycled wood, added a corrugated iron roof, decided to do without walls and installed a traditional wood-fired stove, called ‘dompuran’ or ‘dompuan’ in various Dusun languages. It comes with a bamboo smoking rack, and further up is the drying rack for firewood, promptly occupied by one of my hens who decided to lay her eggs amongst the firewood. We put her eggs in a cardboard box of a local beer brewer and now she hatches her eggs in there, still on top of the firewood, forcing us to store the firewood somewhere else.

This primitive kitchen has become so popular that we have to think of enlarging it. A recently felled tree provides, cut in half, a bench that can seat about four, and another four can sit on the floor, but then the kitchen is really crowded and there is no space any more for the dishes. And cook we do: BBQ wild boar marinated in olive oil and rosemary, fresh fish from the seas, wild vegetable soups and fragrant hill rice, and stews of a variety of hunted animals. Recently I even made French fries, and occasionally I place my oven above charcoal and go for pizza. Everything always washed down with some home made rice wine, obviously!

It is curious, but I have often wondered why in Sabah the locals don’t have traditional stoves at home. Lighting up a fire is not that much work, and firewood is easily available. In Sarawak, nearly every home is equipped with a wooden fire, right next to the gas stove. On markets there, one can even buy bamboo sections for their ‘pansoh’ cooking, that is meats or fish, together with some condiments are cooked in a bamboo section over an open fire. In Sabah this is called ‘uluon’, the meats or fish thus prepared are extremely delicious but it is nowadays a virtually unknown way of cooking, to a point where it took me days just finding the vocabulary from some old lady. In Sarawak nobody has any hang ups combining the traditional with the modern. Maybe it is because here in Sabah the only people who do have a traditional kitchen are those that cannot, for one reason or other, have a gas-stove. The gas might be too expensive – firewood is easily collected and costs nothing but sweat – or they live in such remote areas that carrying a gas cylinder is simply not worth while. As such cooking over a wooden fire is maybe considered primitive, backwards and poor… but my, how good dishes are when cooked over a fire. Now and then I even boil my tea water over an open fire, which invariably perfumes the water and gives the tea a delicate smoked flavour.

Plus, my new kitchen has added to my pleasures in life: sit out there in the back in the evening, with a nice fire going, some wild boar or fish grilling, with a couple of good friends, and a couple of glasses of rice wine. I don’t exactly have a Balinese garden, but when you sit on the elevate platform of the kitchen, your head just a little under the full height of the wild yams and with gorgeously yellow flowering ‘doringin’ (Dillenia sp) at the back, my colourful chicken happily looking for the odd grain, my cat purring contently next to the fire and the dog watching sorrowfully as we devour wild boar, you actually start relaxing all by your own!

The new kitchen also incites my visitors from far away villages to tell me stories, teach me many new words and even make some handicraft. Some afternoons we sit there and work with bamboo and rattan, tell stories and legends and look for nearly forgotten terms in Dusun for the various artefacts we make. My new kitchen…!