The Sundatang Revivalist

In December 2023, Tuni Sundatang held an online competition with a chance to win a Sundatang. I’ve been wanting to learn to play one and hoped to make and own one, so I joined, and to my surprise and delight, I won (thanks to 40+ friends who helped)!

Fast forward to one fine Sunday morning in January 2024. The weather was great, enough cloud cover that it wasn’t too hot, but not too dark or gloomy with enough indirect sunlight bringing life and energy to the beautiful village of Kg Kilimu in Ranau. I had come to visit McFeddy Simon (aka Gindung aka Guru), the maker of the Sundatang, to collect the recently completed one from the competition, and to chat with him to learn more. I enjoy learning and love asking questions, and Gindung, who is a natural storyteller and generous to share, humoured me and took the time to sit down and answer all my questions. Thus the conversation was rich in information, anecdotes, and fascinating trivia. Here’s a summary of some of the things we talked about.

The Kampung

Kg Kilimu does gotong-royong every 2 weeks. Since they won pertandingan kampung tercantik of their region, they are now on the panel of judges. 

The Revivalist

Gindung is a Dusun Liwan from Ranau. A researcher, boat-lute revivalist, maker, musician, and artist (with the collective, Pangrok Sulap), he began making Sundatangs in 2018, and also plays the instrument with Tuni Sundatang, a traditional contemporary/ethno-fusion six piece band. As he puts it personally, he is on a mission to revive their cultural heritage.

  • Earliest memories of Sundatang

Gindung first saw a Sundatang around 10-ish years old, and thought it was a Sape because he had seen a Sape before on TV.

When he listened to old recordings on vinyl, he found that there was an increase of recordings in the 60s.

  • Why Sundatang?

Sharing his experience of rarely seeing the instrument in the local Tamus around Sabah, and when one rare occasion he saw it and asked about it, he realised few older folk and no younger people know about the Sundatang, which showed how close it is to going extinct. On one of his trip with Light Up Borneo to install hydroelectric in pedalaman Sabah, he recalls seeing the young people looking down on the Sundatang because it had less strings and was not fun to play, preferring the guitar which, combined with his trips to Sarawak and seeing how the Sape there is even recognised internationally, he felt challenged as a Dusun Liwan to make it, and gave him the determination to keep this tradition and culture alive, to try and stoke local interest amongst the youth and to make it famous again.

  • Visiting the Sundatang in the British Museum

The over a hundred year-old Sundatang is falling apart and maybe 70% broken already. It could not be played as it is covered in chemicals used to preserve it. They offered to let him take it back to Sabah, but he felt if he did it might not survive, so he took all the measurements for his records, but left it there.

(Credits: Catama Borneo | Borneo Boat Lute Revival | Sundatang in the British Museum)

The Instrument

  • Bahagian, materials, how it’s made

The instrument is made from one solid piece of wood. When he was learning how to make it, he discussed with Adam Kitingan as well as Roger Wang, and found that (a specific kayu) is best, and Gindung chooses to only get it from trees from individual person’s lands if they are willing to have the tree chopped, as opposed to the wood from lumber factories.

The strings he uses fishing line, as it is rust-resistant. Traditionally they used to use a part of the tree for the strings, and players would keep extra strings on hand while playing because they would break often.

As for the frets, he shared how in Ranau, the frets are usually smaller/closer, made of bamboo or rattan, and Ranau is a highland region, whereas in Kudat, which is a lowland region, the frets are usually higher and made of coconut shells and beeswax. The natural joke was that the highlands use low frets and the lowlands use high frets. This affects the fingering, as high frets would have fingering on the frets themselves, while low frets would see fingering be on the strings in between the frets.

  • Design

It has a “head”, a “neck”, “tail”, and “nose”. Different from Sape which is more broadly shaped. He also references existing carving designs from different regions, and paints on Bornean patterns. The regional differences are unique enough that he can tell where it’s from just from the design, for example the Papar region uses pakis designs.

  • Got names?

He just names it according to the region style it is made from, so Sundatang Tuaran, Sundatang Papar, etc.

  • Cara maintenance, do and don’ts

Keep it in a case, clean it with cloth, inspect often because need to be on the look out for insects.

  • Case for travelling

Usually check-in during flights. He’s still trying to find someone local who will make Sundatang cases, right now only in Sarawak that he knows of. He might learn to make cases himself.

  • Previously made more strings, why currently prefer two?

Four strings was part of the strategy to modernise the instrument. He realised that after playing for a while people like to return to traditional. He noticed that when he switched back to two strings, the traditional technique of playing was more apparent and came more naturally.

He mentioned that, he feels like one should learn and become good at the traditional technique before trying to modernise it.

  • What playing style is unique to Sundatang?
  • What’s the signature sound?
  • What’s the difference with Sape?

(Proceeds to play and demonstrate on the Sundatang) 

  • Left finger

Normally index finger sliding around as the base melodic note, and 3rd and 4th fingers for notations. Fingering goes between the frets.

  • Right finger

Thumb plays the drone string (2nd string), index and third finger plays the 1st string. Traditionally some players use their 4th and 5th fingers to play the 1st string, but he isn’t used to that style.

  • Pick/Plectrum

Yes there are some people who uses pick, can be seen being played here.

  • ⁠Tuning

Usually G, E

  • Notation

He’s thought about it, as he wants to be able to teach more comprehensively regarding the Sundatang, from the history to the construction to the playing of it. For the notation he’s probably gonna leave it to one of his band mates who has a music teaching background.

  • Tips for practicing

Just keep playing and trying. He shared about how when he first started, he would play until he fell asleep with the instrument still with him in bed. Listen to existing songs, traditional and modern, and experiment. He also encouraged going on own journey if one wants to, to find the old folk and learn what they have to teach, and offered to provide the contacts if interested.

The Music

  • Have you seen Sundatang played by Bobolian during a ritual? How was it like?

Gindung has seen Bobolians but never seen them playing the Sundatang, though he’s heard it mentioned before that they do so. He then goes on to share that the Bobolian culture has pretty much died out, with the exception of one or two places. Anectodal sharing of his kampung about how the ritual sacrifices became smaller and smaller until finally it stopped, and the year it stopped, for the only time in history, the river flooded so badly to the point that someone drowned. Since then, it has never flooded again. 

He muses that a lot of tradition started dying out when religion came in. However from what he knows of the traditional beliefs, they’re also similar to religion! There is also a belief of something similar to Adam and Eve, coming from the earth, with the added figure of a chicken-like god that dug them up and brought them to life. They also believe in 7 layers of heaven, with the first one being Aki Nabalu where their souls go after death on earth.

  • What are the songs by Sundatang usually about?

Interestingly enough, he shared that on his travels around Sabah while researching about the Sundatang, there is one specific song that every region knows. The title in some places are different, but other than that it is the same, and there’s a specific line of lyrics that is the same. When he asks, almost every region claims it originated from their own.

  • In what occasion is it being played? When is it played solo/duo/in a band?

Traditionally, the Sundatang was played as a duo, on the occasion when a man was interested in a woman. To “test” their jodoh, they would have to play the Sundatang together, and see whether their playing matched.

The Performance

  • How do you know you’re ready to showcase the Sundatang to the world?

He didn’t! It just happened. The band was born during the MCO. He shares about how one day he was invited to perform at a festival. He said yes, and realised he hadn’t had any songs ready to perform, nor a band to perform with. So within about a month, things fell into place and the right people came along, Tuni Sundatang was formed, and 4 songs were written. Gindung also shared the funny story about how their band roles actually reshuffled in the process of preparation, where partway through practising and preparing, they ended up having to switch roles of which instruments they played. His bandmates are also experienced in culture. Some almost gave up music. And one is a lecturer in UMS.

  • What does the make up mean?

Gindung’s makeup for performances is a personal form of protest against the dying of the culture. At the same time it does provide added appeal or interest.

  • What are the challenges performing live?

For himself, the biggest challenge was actually fear/nervousness. But he found that once he starts playing on stage, he’s okay. Until today he still feels nervous before performing, less so than before, but it’s still there.

“My biggest obstacle was always myself”, he shared how the Gindung of old, over 5 years ago, was one who was scared of speaking up, of being judged. He used to look at his peers and think they’re all so much more educated, and they have their clear idealisms, and if he were to speak up without a strong foundation he would be condemned. However, through this whole process of finding his passion for the Sundatang, as well as learning about the traditions and values that come from his own culture, which includes bravery, he grew in self-confidence and security. The various successes along the way gave him the confidence that he can make it, and now he recognizes that interacting with peers, even if they have different idealisms, it’s a discussion and exchanging of thoughts and values, and there’s no need to fear being condemned.

  • What to take note during performance (feedback/humming) etc.?

There’s a grounding wire, if it hums, it’ll be the 1st string so just attach to that, but for 2-string Sundatang rarely expect any feedback/humming.

The Honour

  • What should we do to make sure we honour the tradition and culture of the instrument?

From his perspective, he says not to worry about any “pantang” first, just try and do and learn first. He also notes that while yes he believes in trying to preserve and remember culture and tradition, some of these are actually obstacles and prevent progress, for example Alena Murang- traditionally women are not allowed to play the Sape, but because this tradition was broken, new sounds and new innovation came out of it.

Questions from IG Story

  • Is there an electric version? – @fimmy

The ones he makes are all electric, uses a pickup

  • What’s the most meaningful Sundatang you’ve made and why? – @yeeshienized

The very first one. It was a moment he didn’t expect to see happen, as initially the process seemed so daunting. He’d never used a hammer and chisel before, grinding and sanding wood to make the shapes, everything was new.

Getting Started

Like any other new musical instruments, there’s some setting up to do.

It was a challenge balancing the tension and tune of the fishing line, the screwdriver is your best friend! There was also a constant buzz on one of it. After playing it intensively for two days, the line snapped. That’s when I realised, I didn’t know where to get steel fishing lines, I’ve only seen nylon ones. Out of desperation, I switched to guitar strings, and the buzz disappeared, overall sounding much better. But tu lah, after two weeks, it began to rust.

Then, I wanted to try and play while standing, and realised I forgot to ask Gindung how to install a strap onto it. Once again, out of desperation, I tried making one.

It was an interesting journey getting to know an instrument that had just began to revive. There are just enough resources on YouTube, and lots of space to explore, thanks to all the hard work done by the revivalists. I’m truly grateful and honoured to be living in this era, and given the opportunity to learn about its rich culture and heritage.

Thanks for reading!

Here’s my attempt on playing the Sundatang for the first time. Much to learn (˶‾᷄ ⁻̫ ‾᷅˵)

Tune 1: Natalup by Tuni Sundatang
Tune 2: Suang Rusod by Tuni Sundatang

Grateful to:

Borneo Boat Lute Revival

Tuni Sundatang

Sundatang Society