With a name like Sada Borneo, one would think that the band had its start in Sarawak. But guess again.
Sada Borneo was in fact formed in Penang, more specifically within the grounds of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in 2012, where its members – all from different parts of Malaysia – were pursuing their tertiary education and for the love of it, occasionally performed at university showcases.
A little fun fact: the band – currently comprising close friends Allister Anak Changat, Nick Fadriel Anak John, Alvin Yong, Julian Anak Frederick, Mohd Hilmi Mohd Isa and Bob Harris Norbert – came up with their name just minutes before taking to the stage. “Sada”, to borrow from the Iban language, means “sound” – hence, the Sound of Borneo.
The band gained regional prominence when it auditioned for the first season of Asia’s Got Talent (AGT) in 2014, impressing both the judges and the audience with exquisite musical compositions that blend traditional folk music with fresh and contemporary elements – at least until their untimely elimination as semi-finalists.
But despite receiving the boot, the exposure helped to refocus the band’s musical direction and promptly kick-started their professional music career.
Making Musical Magic
“I would describe our music as instrumental with a healthy dose of contemporary fusion,” says band leader Allister. In live performances, the band’s instrumentation consists of the sapeh as the main musical instrument, followed by the bungkau, kompang, kulintangan, guitar, flute, keyboard; and echoes sounds of nature such as rainfall, thunder and birds chirping, to emulate the ambiance of a rainforest.
Life post-AGT has been an exciting one for the band: Sada Borneo cemented their name performing in a string of festivals, including IndiePG, George Town Festival, the Penang Island Jazz Festival, Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival and Rainforest World Music Festival; and even going as far as Sydney, Australia to perform at the Malaysia Festival in 2016. Just recently, the band performed for the first time ever in Ulsan, South Korea at the Asia Pacific Music Meeting.
“The more we perform, the more feedback and musical knowledge we receive from other traditional musicians, and this has helped us strike a balance between traditional and contemporary elements in the music we are making.
“On the flipside though, people often look to us as an example of a traditional band, but not all of us are traditionally trained. It was our collective love for the genre that encouraged us to pick up the sapeh and other traditional instruments. That said, we are also very aware that we’ve opened ourselves up to criticism because most traditional instruments have a lot of pantang larang (taboos).
“We were, at one time, criticised for playing the sapeh because we are not Orang Ulu; they felt our music was inauthentic. It’s like saying that if you’re not an Indian, you can’t play the sitar. But we are trying to break such stereotypes in making our kind of music,” Allister explains.
Sada Borneo gained prominence regionally when they appeared in the first season of Asia's Got Talent.
The band is currently hard at work putting together their debut album, which is scheduled for release just in time for the Gawai Kaamatan celebrations next year. Allister provides a brief snippet about the soon-to-be titled album: “Some of the songs in there are very relaxing, but there are a couple that move people to dance as well – kind of like a tribal music dance party.”
Their upcoming single Kowolunon, or “Sacrifice” in the Dusun language, is contemplative and wistful in tone. Bob, who composed the melody, explains that “it’s about the sacrifices one makes today for a better future.” And this hits especially close to home for band member Yong who recently lost his father.
“With my siblings working overseas, my mother is all alone at home. She has stopped driving for 20 years now and whenever a problem crops up, she’s quite helpless in asking for help since my relatives all stay so far away. But we siblings are doing our best in taking turns to care for her, and this has unfortunately resulted in my sometimes having to pull out of activities lined up for the band,” says Yong.
Even with the commercial success Sada Borneo has enjoyed, making a splash in the local mainstream music scene is still tough business. “The opportunity to showcase our music locally is quite limited. If we were to venture into mainstream festivals like Good Vibes, it’ll be difficult to convince organisers to include a band like ours that is musically very different from most local bands. But I see it slowly getting better though,” says Allister, adding that there are obviously better opportunities for the band to expand their music in East Malaysia, “if only because our kind of music is more acceptable to the local communities there, especially among the young. But then again, basing ourselves in East Malaysia can get us only so far as musicians.”
So why not KL? “We would much rather enjoy the laid-back lifestyle of Penang, preferring instead to drive to KL for events and interviews; this way we’re exposed to West Malaysian influences, and at the same time, our days don’t get as hectic as they would in KL.
“It’s OK to build our fan base slowly. We don’t have to get immediate mainstream coverage; we had some commercial success during our stint in AGT. For now, we are actively touring the university circuit around Malaysia, tapping into the young adult fan base since they are the age group we’re targeting to make traditional music more appealing to the younger generations.”
And a sure way of doing this is through collaborations. Sada Borneo recently partnered with the School of the Arts and Dewan Budaya USM to introduce performing arts and English to Rohingya refugee children for their performance in Jungle Book The Musical last month, which aims to give these children the opportunity to communicate their challenges and hardships through song.
“The arts have helped Sada Borneo by bringing people and creative minds together, and also by boosting our confidence. We believe that with arts education, we can help boost the confidence of Rohingya refugee kids by teaching them how to play music,” says Allister.
Catch Sada Borneo's performance on October 19 at Dewan Tuanku Syed Putra, USM. Visit www.dewanbudaya.usm.my