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Borneo Bengkel's 'Soundbank' project offers folk music, storytelling a digital lifeline

Adrian Jo Milang, a traditional storyteller from Bintulu in Sarawak, is part of the Soundbank series. Photo: The Tuyang Initiative

Soundbank, an online interactive exhibition, will see cultural arts outfit Borneo Bengkel bringing together 16 musicians from Sabah, Sarawak, Indonesia and Britain to create a digital living archive of sound, music and endangered languages.

This exhibition will stream for free on Nov 5 at 8pm via Borneo Bengkel’s social media channels.

Highlighting a diverse and collaborative effort, the digital archive features recordings in several indigenous languages from the participating countries, including the highly endangered Kayan, Dusun and Gaelic languages.

Featured artists include Sarawakian sape musicians Alena Murang and Ezra Tekola, parap (spontaneous poetic singing) and takna’ (warrior tales) practitioner Adrian Jo Milang, Sabahan singer-songwriter Maya Bayu, Indonesian composer Nursalim Yadi Anugerah, Belfast-based multidisciplinary artist Cameron Clarke and Scottish singer Kaitlin Ross.

This long distance project also spotlights nature, with field recordings (morning birdsongs to cicadas in the rainforest).

“There is such rich folk music and cultural heritage in both Borneo and Britain, we wanted to bring these musicians together in an innovative way, and use technology to create conversation through music,” says Catriona Maddocks, one of the curators from Borneo Bengkel.

Maddocks, who lived in Sarawak for 11 years, returned to Britain at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, but is still actively working with the Kuching-based Borneo Bengkel’s programmes.

“This Soundbank project came from the realisation last year that while we were all so separated from one another, the digital world gives us so many opportunities to connect with people from distant places,” she adds.

In July, the invited collaborators presented and shared virtually about their music and creative works. They then spent the following months collecting and recording sounds, video and photography that represented their daily lives.

Adrian, arguably the youngest practitioner of the ancient oral traditions parap and takna’, shares that working on the Soundbank project made him realise the importance of preservation.

“For many, many months I haven’t been able to visit the community elders who I usually sing with. Taking part in this project, and sharing our music and recordings on the soundbank, gave me a chance to connect with others and see that the work I do is part of a much bigger story of indigenous representation and preserving endangered languages,” he says. Utilising a newly developed app “Living Archive”, the musicians then uploaded their works.

The Soundbank project is part of Borneo Bengkel’s cross-border programme Bor(neo): North + East, which is supported by the British Council’s Connections Through Culture grant programme.

Under the same programme, a cross-cultural poetry slam featuring seven poets from Sarawak and Britain called Lingua Franca was streamed virtually in July. Borneo Bengkel, put together in 2017 by Kuching creative arts hub HAUS KCH and social enterprise Catama Borneo, has been steadily gaining prominence abroad and building connections with arts communities in Malaysia.

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