Timang (pengap), pelian, and sabak: Iban leka main singing styles.

Timang (pengap), pelian, and sabak: Iban leka main singing styles.

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Strong lines of communication between the seen and the unseen worlds are established through the singing of specific ritual poetic texts in the Iban society of Sarawak. The lemambang (bard) singing the poetry called timang or pengap, the manang (shaman) chanting the ritual poetry called pelian, and the tukang sabak (soul guide) singing the sabak poetry for a funeral are all part of a matrix of specialized singers who perform extraordinary texts for extraordinary purposes in Iban culture. These genres of sung ritual poetry, in particular, are often referred to as leka main, a repertory of sung ritual poetry to accomplish specific purposes. (2) Timang or pengap chants, performed for high ritual festivals (Masing, 1997), invoke the spirit world to join those in the community engaged in a celebratory event such as the gawai. The manang sings pelian poetical texts (Sather, 2001) in order to heal an afflicted person or group of people, while the soul guide sings a sabak dirge (Sutlive, forthcoming) to ensure that the soul of the deceased finds its appropriate place in the hereafter.

The power inherent in the words expressed by each of these specialist performers is unquestionable, and the means (or vehicle) with which the words are expressed by each specialist helps to make those texts highly efficacious. The vehicle for the actual aural expression of the words is the human singing voice, which is of the utmost importance in the performances by these specialist practitioners. The performance of each type of leka main projects a unique singing style (patah nyawa) that is particular and differs from one type to another. This study begins to describe and document the musical style in the singing of these three types of ritual poetry. Through aural investigation, musical transcription and determination of the musical characteristics of each type, a comparative view of these singing styles reveals distinct musical vocabularies for each of these specialists and, in the end, a distinct musical definition of each. in addition, determining the ideal sound characteristics that are appropriate in Iban culture for the singing of the timang (pengap), or the sabak dirge, or the pelian healing chant will give some insight into the way the connection is made from the seen world to the unseen pantheon of spirits and places, which has a profound effect on the performer and on those for whom the ritual chants are performed.

The Singer Specialists

Lemambang. The master practitioner/singer of leka timang (or leka pengap) is the lemambang or bard (bards around the world sing poetic verse and are usually itinerant). In Iban culture, most bards are male. They learn their art in an oral tradition within an apprenticeship system. Today this singer of leka timang (or pengap) conducts the rituals of the gawai (religious ceremonies with feasting and festivity, Sutlive, V. and J. 1994:79), and he also leads public invocations. The ritual poetic narratives that are sung or chanted by the lemambang are called timang in the Upper Rejang and Batang Ai areas (Masing, 1997), and in Saribas, Krian and Skrang they are called pengap (Sandin, 1977). In the Saribas, the term ‘timang’ denotes special invocations and praise songs to honor sacred objects or special people (Sandin, 1977: 6).

The master practitioners of timang usually perform in a troupe (called bala), and each bala has a principal bard known as the tuai lemambang. He performs with a second bard, the saut lemambang or penyaut. (3) In the Baleh River region this assistant is referred to as the orang nimbal or ‘answering bard,’ who is usually a full-fledged lemambang (Masing, 1977) and who sings an answer (or response) to the principal lemambang. As the lemambang sings the ritual poetry, he accompanies his singing with a percussive pattern that he plays with a stamping wood or bamboo pole (Photo 1).


The troupe also includes a small chorus of male singers, who are junior or apprentice lemambang, called pengelembung in Saribas (Sandin 1977). In the Baleh River region this chorus is the orang nyagu (persons who support) and comprises 2 singers who are apprentice lemambang (Masing 1997), while in the Saribas area the chorus may consist of 3, 5 or 6 singers, and in other areas the number varies (Sather 1977 and 2001). In his work on the Timang Gawai Amat in the Baleh River region, Masing (1997) notes that in the mid-1990s only 3 performers usually sang the timang ritual poetry, that is, a lemambang and a 2-man chorus, indicative of the general decline in the number of lemambang in the late 20th century onward.

Tukang Sabak. The master practitioner/singer of sabak poetic verse is the tukang sabak or lemambang sabak, who is the spirit guide for the soul of a deceased person. The tukang sabak is most always a woman who sings ritual poetic verse throughout the night before the burial. She sits near the body of the deceased person who is placed in an enclosed area on the ruai (public gallery) of the longhouse. This enclosed area is made of temporarily erected walls of pua’ kumbu’ cloth, and the tukang sabak sits inside this enclosed area next to the body. Usually she holds a small piece of cloth in her hand (to sometimes cover part of her face), and she braces her foot against a piece of metal such as an adze, knife, or other object (this serves as a soul-strengthener, or kering semengat). (4)

The tukang sabak sings alone, without any accompaniment (Photo 2). She sings a long poem of lamentation–the sabak (from nyabak, ‘to weep, cry, lament’), (5) through which her soul journeys out among the already departed spirits to guide the soul of the deceased person to its proper place in the unseen world. The poem relates details about all the departed spirits (antu sebayan) who arrive from the other world to accompany the soul of the deceased to its resting place. In addition, the deceased person’s apartment (bilik) in the longhouse is described, as are the landmarks and experiences during his/her lifetime in the seen world. The poem proceeds in the form of paired stanzas (or sometimes couplets) of text, in which the details about his/her home environment, events, objects and daily activities are recounted in considerable detail, so much so, that the content is usually extremely emotional and often heart-wrenching for the immediate family and friends to hear. The sabak ritual poetry is sung all night long, ending just before dawn when the body is taken to the cemetery for burial.


Manang. The master practitioner/singer of leka pelian is a manang or shaman, who sings ritual poetry for healing purposes. He conducts his ceremonies using a poetic narrative referred to as leka pelian. Most manang are men, but women may also be manang or shamans.

The leka pelian is a poetic text that is always sung. The words tell about the journey of the shaman’s soul to various parts of the unseen world to retrieve a lost or captive soul, usually that of the sick person for whom the ritual is carried out. By relating the events and communicating with various elements in the unseen world, the manang is able to reveal the causes of an illness or possible psychological problems that trouble a patient.

The pelian sung poetic narrative has a specific structure that takes shape in a series of sections or stanzas of variable length (genteran or enteran), and the stanzas themselves are structured by a strict pattern of accented end-rhymes that are carefully followed by the manang (see further, Sather, Seeds of Play, Words of Power, 2001:162ff). Musically, each sung stanza concludes with a pattern of specific melodic figures as well as a distinct pause of several seconds duration signifying the end of each stanza throughout the chant. To begin a new stanza, the manang repeats all or part of the final line of text from the preceding stanza using a standard opening melodic motive, and then proceeds with new text and melody, in effect connecting one stanza to the next in a continuous chain of thoughts, ideas and melodies as his soul travels to the far edge of the world to find the lost or errant soul of his patient. Poetic and verbal skills are very important in the performance of leka pelian because these qualities increase the effectiveness of the ritual, and they project the manang as a good ritual healer in his community (Sather, 2001:3).

In contrast to the performance of the timang, the manang himself performs the leka pelian. Only in very few instances do more than one manang sing as a group, for example, during the rite of installation and for the Gawai Betawai as noted by Sather (2001). Although the shaman uses physical objects to carry out his ritual, he does not use a musical instrument to accompany his singing and chanting. He either sits on the floor or on a barkcloth swing as he begins to sing, and when he reaches the main part of his narrative, he often walks while singing (Photo 3).


The genres of leka main discussed in this study exist in a folk tradition in which oral transmission and learning is the norm. Within the lengthy process of learning by rote or imitation, careful attention is paid to detail in passing down knowledge from master practitioner to student about all aspects of the ritual event or ceremony, including the appropriate material items and bodily movements necessary to carry out the ceremony, the composition of poetic texts and the rules that govern their structure, and the composition of melodies needed to convey the poetic texts during the ceremony. The texts, within the same genre of ritual narrative poetry, are different in various degrees from one performance to another, depending upon the circumstances for the ritual. The composition of melodic motives and phrases within the same type of leka main are also varied and different in each performance. While variation is typically characteristic of the music from one given genre to another, the vocal style and the overall musical soundscape of the given type of ritual narrative is constant, with little change occurring over very long periods of time. All three singers of narrative poetry noted here are master practitioners in their respective communities, and each one may be thought of as a poet-singer-composer, for the composition of the poetic text and the melody, as well as the performance of it, happen at one and the same moment in time when the given ritual narrative is being performed. The following discussion focuses on the musical style that distinguishes each of these leka main genres.

The Musical Style

In the existing literature on Iban ritual poetry, the vocalizations of the singers/master practitioners have been called “song” or “chant,” with “chant” being the most frequently used term, whether it be pelian, sabak or timang. The term “chant,” in its very basic meaning, is “to sing” or “to utter with a melodious voice.” (6) In the context of this paper, the term “chant” is understood as a vocal musical piece with lines of text structured in couplets or stanzas and with other structural parameters, sung in free or indeterminant musical rhythm with reciting tones on which an indefinite number of syllables or words may occur. Additionally, melodic motives (or formulas) of various kinds are incorporated in the textual lines/melodic phrases, and a specific melodic motive comprising a closing cadence for each stanza in the chant. In effect, the melodic phrases (the longer melodic units) are generated by the use of the reciting tones along with short melodic motives or formulas.

In an oral tradition, the singer of narratives chooses from a repertory of motives or formulas to create full melodic phrases with which to sing the poetic text (Lord, 1973:12ff). The singer chooses certain melodic motives from the repertory of motives that he knows, and combines them in various ways. Some melodic motives are appropriate for the beginning of a textual line, while others are appropriate for the middle or the end of a line, a verse or a complete chant. In addition to the main melodic motives, other motives serve to connect musical ideas and lines of text, and yet other motives serve to ornament or decorate the musical lines. Hence, in addition to the use of reciting tones, the main musical building blocks for a given chant, as discussed in this paper, are the “main” melodic motives that surround the reciting tone, and the special “ornamenting” motives (often in the form of melismas–a single syllable of text sung on several pitches) that enhance the overall melodic line.

Other musical elements to consider in examining the musical style of the chant are the tonal vocabulary and the scale patterns used to generate the melodic motives, and the interval structure (or distance from one pitch to another) within the motives resulting in various types of melodic motion that reveal the characteristic flow of the musical lines in a given stanza or entire chant. Also important are the contour (or shape) of the melodic phrases, the rhythm in the motives and phrases, and the kind of vocal production and the technical singing style (whether syllabic, melismatic, responsorial, and so on). These elements will be used in this analysis to define the vocal as well as the overall musical style, and, wherever possible, to point out relationships between certain aspects of melody and the meaning of the text found in the genres of Iban sung ritual poetry discussed in this brief study.

The Timang (Pengap) (7)

The Timang Nempalai Kasai is one of the last episodes from the timang gawai amat, which is a chant for a ritual of high significance, one of the four main categories of Baleh Iban timang–the others being timang beintu intu (for man’s welfare and life), timang tuah (for fortune), and timang benih (for padi seed) (Masing, Vol. 2, 1997). James Masing tells us, further, that the timang is both an invocation and a description of “a journey to the world of the gods, and the gods’ subsequent adventures while coming to the ritual feast in the world of humans” (Masing, Vol. 2, 1997:55). The content of the timang noted in this paper takes form as an allegory with a basis in hill padi farming, and the final episode is the planting of cotton, or nempalai kasai.

As noted earlier, a lemambang (bard) performs the timang. In past times there was a head lemambang (the tuai lemambang), an assistant (the saut lemambang) and a small chorus of apprentice lemambang. Today, however, because of the decline in the number of bards in the Baleh region, Masing (1997) notes that in the mid-1990s only 3 performers chanted the timang, that is, a lemambang and a 2-man chorus. In the recording noted in this paper, from which a lengthy portion of the timang Nempalai Kasai was transcribed, only one lemambang sang each stanza (this may have been a special situation in order to make the recording, or perhaps it was simply that another lemambang was not available at the time).

When performing the timang or pengap, the lemambang holds a tungkat penimang, (a wooden or bamboo stamping pole, and James Masing (1997) notes that sometimes aluminum pipes have also been used). The pole is about 2-3 cm in diameter (about 1 inch) and slightly over 1.5 m (5 feet) long. It is often engraved with geometric designs, and the feathers of a cock or other bird decorate the top along with a few small bells. The tungkat is held vertically by the lemambang and struck on the floor in a regular rhythm to accompany his chanting of the timang. In addition to the percussive sound of the pole, the bells also jingle when the base end of the pole is struck on the floor (see Photo 1 above).

In past times, the performances by these singers in the Baleh region featured a head (or lead) lemambang who would sing the first stanza (the genteran) and then a 2-man chorus would respond to him by singing the last few words of the first stanza followed by a refrain passage (Masing 1997). Immediately following, the assistant lemambang would sing a second stanza (timbal or ‘answer’ to the head lemambang), and this would then be followed by the refrain sung by the chorus. Alternating solo with a responding chorus is the format for responsorial (or call-and-response) style, and it continues to the end of the timang.

In the Saribas a slightly different performance format is found, in which the head lemambang sings the genteran (first stanza) and is then answered by the assistant lemambang (the second stanza as an answer or response to the first). Then these two stanzas by the two solo singers are followed by a refrain passage by the chorus (Sandin 1977). This format is also responsorial style, but the arrangement of the respondents is slightly different than described above in the Baleh region. In any case, the main task of the singers is to call or invoke the gods to attend the ritual. Part of a transcribed performance of the Timang Nempalai Kasai is shown in Example l, recorded in 1995 in the Upper Rejang River region, and found in the collection of the Tun Jugah Foundation.

The basic vocal production in the performance of this timang is consistently loud and firm, and there are very few special or unusual vocal techniques used by the lemambang. The singing style is highly syllabic with predominantly one note sung on each syllable of text, as is evident in Example 1. The tonal vocabulary of the timang in the musical transcription consists of five tones (or pitches) forming a pentatonic scale. This 5-tone scale serves as the tonal basis for the creation of all the melodic motives throughout the chant, and the first scale tone functions as the pitch center as well as the main reciting tone and the final tone of each stanza in the chant.

In this timang, the repeated reciting tone is predominant and is contrasted only by an occasional leap upward, occasionally at the interval of a 3rd (that is, two tones that are 3 notes apart), or more frequently by an upward leap at the interval of a 5th (two tones that are 5 notes apart, see the oval marked notes in Ex. 1, lines 1-5). The widest melodic range in this chant is the interval of a 5th, which is usually sung at the outset of a stanza, or occasionally in the middle to change the reciting tone (see Ex. 1, line 4). The melodic motion in the textual phrases tends to be mainly undulating or flat with the repetition of the same pitch in long passages of chanting. A contrasting disjunct motion by leaps happens often within a given stanza (as in Ex.1, line 2), while the leap upward of a 5th occurs mainly at the beginning of the stanza as noted earlier. Because of the many vocal leaps, there is not a feeling of smooth, lyrical flow in the melodic line, but rather, we hear long, undulating (or flat) passages of reciting tones followed by leaps to other reciting tones.

The use of melodic motives is minimal in many of the stanzas of this rendition of Timang Nempalai Kasai, although sometimes connecting or linking motives serve to change from one reciting tone to another within the same stanza. An example of a connecting motive is seen in the use of a descending vocal glide from one pitch to another (Ex. 1, line 3). Other “ornamenting” motives that enhance a given melodic line are usually quite short in duration and consist mainly of short melismas (more than one note sung to a syllable or word of text, see Ex. 1, lines 2 and 4). No special musical cadences or ending motives are heard in this rendition of the chant.

The overall melodic contour is “descending,” in which a given stanza begins with a leap to the highest note of the scale and gradually descends through several notes to the lowest note (Ex. 1, line 3). The descent tends to be “terraced,” focusing on successive passages of reciting tones that start high and end low (seen also in Ex. 1, line 3).

In the timang (or pengap) the stamping pole (tungkat) is used to accompany the chanting by the lemambang throughout the entire sung ritual event (shown in Ex. 1, lines 1-5). In this chant, the lemambang stamps the base end of the tungkat on the floor on each main downbeat of the sung part. The stamping is very strict and steady, and since the tungkat is stamped with equal stress on each beat, a specific musical meter is difficult to determine (although other rhythmic parts might suggest duple or quadruple meter–repeated rhythmic units of 2- or 4-beats in length). A more important feature of the rhythm is heard within the sung lines of text–where the singer frequently uses a note of short duration followed immediately by a note of long duration. This rhythm is, at least in part, derived from the language used, and is manifest as a 2-syllable unit with a “short-long” time pattern (Ex. 1, line 1 and other subsequent lines). This rhythm may be described as a “2-beat stress unit” with a pattern of weak stress (or short duration) followed by strong stress (or long duration), that is, a “weak-strong” stress pattern. The strong stress, in effect, becomes the main downbeat in the music, and the tungkat is stamped on each of these main downbeats (this stress pattern is transcribed in the music notation as a “dotted” rhythm–a note of short time-value followed immediately by a dotted note of long time-value). Overall, the lemambang uses a highly syllabic, little-ornamented singing style. The musical phrases tend to be rather straight-forwardly dramatic as the lemambang communicates with the spirit world.


The Sabak (8)

A solo singer, with no instrumental accompaniment, performs the sabak or funeral chant. The singer, called the tukang sabak, sits next to the body of the deceased, sometimes on a stool and sometimes with a small cloth in one hand (see Photo 2 above). As noted earlier, both the deceased and the tukang sabak are enclosed by “walls” created from suspended panels of fine cloth that encompass the deceased and the singer. The tukang sabak sings about the journey her soul makes to accompany the soul of the deceased to its place in the unseen world.

In contrast to the singing style of the lemambang, the tukang sabak sings in a rather soft voice. The situation of her chanting is very intimate as she sits next to the deceased body in an enclosed area. In general, her vocal production is soft and steady and is broken by passages of extended vocal glides that can be likened to wailing. Furthermore, a unique trait of the tukang sabak transcribed here is the use of vocalized sobs, oftentimes performed at the end of a stanza, which not only expresses intense grief but also gives the singer time to pause momentarily before beginning the next stanza. In effect, the long series of sobs separates one stanza from another (Ex. 2, lines 2 and 4). To render moments of extreme emotion in the chant, the singer enhances the melodic line with vocal glides sung through several pitches (descending from high to low) followed by a number of sobs (Ex. 2, end of line I through mid-point of line 2). In this passage, immediately prior to the long vocal glide, the singer mentions the deceased using the prestigious title, “Tan Sri,” by which he was known in his lifetime, and she strongly laments the fact that he left her (“his daughter Sani, to go live in the city” (Sutlive, forthcoming), using the long vocal glide as if she were wailing (see Ex. 2, lines 1-2: “… rari ari … anak (glottal stop) iya (short-long stress) Sani (long descending vocal glide) … di-au di negeri … (many sobs). With these concluding remarks in the couplet/ stanza, the tukang sabak ends on the main reciting tone of the chant, which is then followed by a deep intake of breath and several poignant sobs. As the singer proceeds to recount the life and work of the deceased in this and subsequent stanzas, her skill and artistry is evident and striking throughout this very long lament.


The singing of the sabak is mainly syllabic (one note to one syllable of text). However, short melismatic motives (several notes sung to one syllable of text) serve to ornament the melodic lines (Ex. 2, end of line 3), and when the melismas are interspersed with passages of glides, the result is an intense wailing effect. Occasionally, the tukang sabak interjects a kind of heightened speech in which only approximate tones can be determined in order to proceed quickly through lines of text (Ex. 2, lines 6-7).

The chanting of the sabak in the present example is performed in a scale structure of seven distinct tones from which two similar pentatonic scales are derived. The opening melody of the transcribed section of the chant (“An Evil Wind Arrives,” Sutlive, forthcoming) is based on a specific 5-tone scale, and at the ninth stanza of this section of the chant the singer lowers all original scale tones by about one semitone (half-step) to form a new 5-tone scale at a slightly lower pitch level (the semitone). It is always the first scale tone (of either of these two scales) that functions as the pitch center of the chant, as well as the main reciting tone and the final tone of each stanza.

The repetition of the reciting tone is often bounded (in the melodic line before and after it) by other notes that proceed in stepwise succession (using the small intervals of whole and half steps) that give the individual melodic lines fluidity and a lyrical quality. The smooth flow of the melody is also a result of the liberal use of vocal glides through two or more notes, so that even within the rather narrow vocal range of this chant (the interval of a fifth) the lyrical effect is maintained. Although some couplets are sung using many vocal glides and sobs along with some melismas, which render a highly emotional effect upon those close friends and relatives hearing the chant, in other couplets the singer relies on a more straightforward, highly syllabic singing style, which not only contrasts with the “ornamented” melodies, but also allows the singer to convey, more quickly and directly, additional details about the life and circumstances of the deceased. In these syllabic, non-ornamented melodic couplets (Ex. 2, lines 5-6) we hear flat or undulating melodic contours, sometimes spoken text (as noted above), and a mixture of evenly stressed rhythmic passages alternating with a short-long rhythmic stress pattern in the sung lines of text, the same kind of short-long stress unit that was seen in the singing of the timang.

The typical melodic motive to begin a couplet or stanza of text is a vocal glide up to the starting note (Ex. 2, end of lines 2, 4), and then a repetition of that high starting note in various rhythmic configurations. (9) Overall, a moderate number of melodic motives are used within a line and these include the occasional triplet figure (Ex. 2, line 3) and a few short melismas of one or two beats in duration (Ex. 2, line 3). The typical ending of the stanzas is characterized by the repetition of the first and lowest scale tone (the pitch center of the chant) in various rhythms, however, the most frequently used ending rhythm is a short-long stress pattern as seen in Example 2, end of line 3 on the syllables ‘ring-gang’. The final note of the couplet is invariably followed by the intake of breath and several sobs (Example 2, lines 3-4). The melodic contours in the lines of the sabak are generally undulating or descending (Ex. 2, line 5) in smooth, fluid passages of melody and text, as the tukang sabak spins out the details of the life of the deceased, and her journey to accompany his or her soul to the final resting place in the unseen world.

The Pelian (10)

The pelian transcribed and discussed here is the section known as Anchau Bidai (spread a working mat), and is one of the first, if not the first, pelian the manang performs when he begins a healing session, which can easily last all night (Sather, 2001). This is an opening rite and an opening chant that sets the stage, so to speak, for the coming ceremony and its accompanying sung poetry. This pelian was recorded by Clifford Sather in 1991 in the Saribas region.

The manang (shaman) is a solo vocalist with no instrumental accompaniment. He sits on the floor or on a swing in the early part of the chant, and also walks about during the subsequent part of his chant. He sings a complex poetic text that tells of a journey his soul makes to search for an errant or lost soul at the far edge of the world in order to heal the sick person (or persons) at hand. The poetic text is cast in stanzas of variable length, with the repetition of the final phrase of text at the end of each stanza used to begin the next stanza.

The vocal production by the manang features a moderate to soft voice, always with a firm and steady quality. The especially unique features of his vocal style (patah nyawa) are the use of glides from one note to another, as well as the extensive use of a shaking technique with the vocal chords to produce slight gradations of pitch on certain sustained tones within a given melodic line (the term “tremolo” is used for this technique in the musical transcription seen in Example 3). This tremolo may occur on any scale tone in the melodic line and generally creates a sense of great tension, when required in the text. Overall, the singing is a combination of syllabic (one tone on a single syllable of text) and melismatic styles (several tones sung on a single syllable of text), with a substantial degree of melismatic singing especially in the early part of the chant.

The melodic motives and phrases result in a tonal vocabulary of ten distinct tones, from which a core of four tones comprise a tetratonic (4-tone) scale. The first and second scale tones are the principal reciting tones in this chant. The 4-tone scale changes later in the chant to a 5-tone scale with the addition of one note a whole step above the highest note of the original scale. Several stanzas into the chant, the entire pitch level rises by a semitone to form a new 4-tone scale, and later on the pitch level reverts back to the original scale structure. The primary reciting tones in the various sections of this chant ascend and descend by semitone and whole tone, and even though the vocal range is very narrow, the manang creates tension at the various points in the chant by the rising tonal framework.

Like the sabak singing style discussed above, the conjunct (or stepwise) melodic motion in each line of text creates a smooth and flowing melodic line. The total melodic range is limited to the interval of a 6th (6 notes apart from the lowest to the highest note), which is rather narrow, but by comparison with the other types of chant discussed here, this is the widest melodic range used by a ritual singer.


The motives used to generate the melodic lines are numerous and varied in this very long pelian chant. They include special opening motives, a variety of short motivic figures used within a melodic line, and ornamenting motives that feature melismas and special vocal techniques. To begin a stanza, the typical opening motive consists of a short 2- or 3-note figure that ascends by whole step from the first scale tone to the note above it, which is repeated a number of times (Ex. 3, beginning of lines 1 and 5). This short opening motive is found at the beginning of most stanzas, and even though there is some variation in the rhythm or duration of the repeated notes, this opening melody might be thought of as a “standard” melodic opener for the manang. The text at the beginning of a new stanza is usually the final line of text from the preceding stanza, however, the melodic line from the preceding stanza is not necessarily carried over to the newly begun stanza. Nevertheless, the repetition of text itself provides the continuity from one stanza to the next. As the manang continues singing about the numerous aspects of his journey, the main melodic motives used within the lines of text and melody (as seen in Example 3) may incorporate short melismas (line 6), short trills (line 3, alternation of two tones) or triplet figures (lines 1 and 5-7). The melisma (several notes sung to a single syllable or word of text), and also the vocal technique notated as a “tremolo,” may occur at any point within a melodic line depending upon the text that is sung and the intent of creating poignancy or stress. As noted above, the tremolo on a sustained tone is a slight wavering of the pitch that intensifies the musical sound, and may be used by the manang to make the meaning of a particular passage ring with special significance, as at the beginning of Example 3, lines 2-3 (“… guntur (short melisma) nuan mabu (tremolo)…. mabak gerugu (tremolo) … o-o (trill) … o-o (downward release of final pitch). In this instance, the richly ornamented melodic line underpins the opening text “… rumble, rumble … the crash of nearby thunder” … “the boulders tearing loose” (Sather 2001: 201,691). Although not shown in Example 3, the vocal glide is sometimes incorporated into the melodic line, usually in a descending contour to a final reciting tone in the music, and grace notes (Ex. 3, lines 4-5) sometimes occur before pitches of long duration to keep the melodic line in motion.

In any given stanza of the pelian, the melodic contour may be slightly ascending, descending, a combination of these, or undulating (as in Ex. 3, line 5). Finally, the end of a stanza is typically signified by the repeated main reciting tone (the lowest scale tone) and with a deliberate downward, slightly explosive release of the final pitch as seen in Ex. 3, lines 4, 5 and 6.

Rhythmically, the pelian does not have a particular musical meter. The meter is basically free, however, the internal rhythm at the word and syllable level is much like that of the timang. The predominance of a short syllable followed by a long syllable (the short-long stress) corresponds musically to a weak stress followed by a strong stress in a 2-beat pattern that is repeated in various ways throughout the chant. In contrast, the sabak is distinguished by many passages of evenly stressed syllables, with only a few passages of the uneven short-long stress pattern.


A summary and comparison of the musical features of the three leka main genres discussed above is given in Table l: Comparison of the Musical Stylistic Features in the Performance of Leka Main Genres. Assuming that each of the examples of leka main discussed here are typical, then the major musical characteristics of the vocal style and, indeed, the overall musical style of each chant is evident. Some commonalities may be noted among the three genres. The stability of the scale tones is consistent throughout all of the recorded chants discussed in this paper. None of the performers has a musical instrument to give a pitch or tone reference. It is only his or her voice and ear that brings each performer to a given tonal level and that particular level is maintained, with great consistency, throughout each of the respective chants noted and transcribed. The texture is monophonic, in which a single melodic line is sung by a solo singer or, in the case of the timang chorus part, the same melodic line is sung by two or more singers in unison. In any case, only a single melodic line is heard at any given time in the singing of these genres of ritual poetry. The formal structure of the music itself is generated by the way the melodic motives (or formulae) are combined to produce a given melodic line, which, in turn, is determined by the text. At the time the singer/ritual specialist is composing and simultaneously performing the lines of text and melodic lines, some repetition of motives occurs. However, the configuration of the motives is different in each line of melody and text as well as in each stanza (with the exception of the repetition of certain lines of text as noted above in the pelian). Hence, the musical form may be described as progressive (or throughout composed) in all three kinds of chant studied here. The voice is the primary sound vehicle in all three genres of leka main. The vocal dynamic (or volume) in the timang is moderate to loud and mainly unchanging throughout the chant, while the tukang sabak vocal dynamic is also unchanging, but is always soft, perhaps because she performs in a very intimate setting with the body of the deceased present. In contrast, the pelian chanting sees a variable dynamic that is changing throughout the chant, sometimes moderate and at other times soft.

Other musical features, noted in the foregoing discussion of the three genres of chant, are different from one genre to another, and these features give a distinct sound quality and character to each respective type of leka main. The characteristics of the vocal style (the patah nyawa) are unique in each of the three kinds of chant discussed here. The lemambang tends to sing in a very straightforward way with a very firm voice and little melodic ornamentation throughout. His singing style is highly syllabic (a single syllable or word of text is sung on a single note), and there is little divergence from this style of singing. The timang chant is unique in its use of responsorial (or call and response) singing when there are two lemambang or when a chorus performs along with the head and assistant lemambang.

The tukang sabak, on the other hand, sings entirely alone and with a rather soft but tense solo voice. Some tukang sabak (including the example studied in this paper) sing melodic lines that are punctuated by a sequence of sobs, occurring especially near or at the end of a stanza or couplet. While some melismatic passages are heard (many notes sung to a single syllable or word of text), the sabak singing style is still mainly syllabic. A unique feature heard in this singer’s vocal production, and that of others as well, is an extreme use of the vocal glide from one pitch to another, which is very effective in creating a wailing (and sometimes a moaning) sound. This wailing may occur within the textual/melodic line or at the end of a line, and the wail, along with the sobs and the meaning projected in the sung words, generates high emotion, grief and anxiety for the singer and the listener alike.

In contrast to the predominantly syllabic singing of the lemambang and tukang sabak, the manang’s singing style is characterized by a mixture of syllabic and melismatic singing. In some sections of the pelian chant there is a great deal of melismatic singing, but even more important are the special vocal techniques employed by the singer. The many melismas and other ornamenting motives heard in the chant contrast sharply with a substantial use of the glottal stop in the sung text. The glottal stop is inherent in the language and is manifested musically by very short stops (or rests), and then continuation of the vocal sound. A rather special vocal technique peculiar to the manang is a shaking (or tremolo) of the voice on sustained tones. This shaking sometimes changes the pitch slightly, but most often does not and can be likened to a trembling that creates much tension in the music. Finally, the manang distinguishes his vocal style by frequently using a downward, almost explosive, release of a pitch, especially at the end of a given line or stanza. In the case of the manang transcribed in this study, this technique is consistently used to end a stanza and the melodic line.

In all the genres discussed here, the scales used are 3-, 4-, or 5-tone scales and the vocal range is generally quite narrow. The melodic motion in the timang tends to proceed in small leaps or jumps (disjunct motion) from one reciting tone to another in descending contours and in rather “terrace-shaped” phrases. In contrast, the tukang sabak’s melodic lines are smoother because of the predominance of stepwise (or conjunct) movement from note to note, along with the use of the descending vocal glide technique noted earlier. The manang sings extremely smooth and fluid melodies with movement mainly by half steps and whole steps (conjunct motion). The melodic range is only a 6th, but it is the widest melodic range of the three types of chant discussed here. In the pelian, the melodic contours are ascending, descending and a combination of these two types.

The rhythm in the melodic lines of the three kinds of chant is dependent upon the rhythm inherent in the language of the poetry. An overall musical meter is not discernible in any of the genres noted in this study. Typically heard, however, is a 2-beat stress pattern of a weak stress (or a note of short duration) followed by a strong stress (a note of long duration), which overall contributes to an end-accented, 2-beat rhythmic pattern in the musical lines. In his work on the timang, Masing (1997) notes that lemambang search for 2-syllable words for use in their chants. The weak-strong stress pattern is used most prolifically in the timang, while the sabak chant features long passages of evenly stressed rhythmic patterns. The pelian chanted by the manang uses a mixture of weak-strong stress patterns and evenly-stressed patterns, depending upon the text that is sung at any given time and the degree of stress and poignancy the manang wishes to place on his sung text.

The lemambang uses the fewest of actual motives, and his chanting is characterized mainly by leaping upward to a given reciting tone, and in some instances, gliding downward from one reciting tone to another. The tukang sabak uses more motives than the lemambang, and these are usually the vocal glide and short melismas. The melodic lines in the sabak have a great tendency to begin on a high tone and proceed to a low tone, usually spanning the interval of a fifth. The manang’s chant is filled with melodic motives, including a standard opening melodic motive, various ornamenting motives, and a closing pattern or formula that is characterized by the downward, explosive release of the last pitch at the end of the given textual/melodic line, and especially at the end of a stanza. The melodic lines are thick with ornamenting motives in the form of long and short melismas (many notes per syllable or word) or embellishment by use of trills and the tremolo on sustained notes.

Summary. These details of the singing style and melodic passages begin to distinguish the three kinds of chant involving ritual poetry. We see that the lemambang is very direct, communicating with the spirit world by using predominantly a moveable reciting tone in a descending and terraced contour or pattern, very few melodic motives, a simple vocal technique and the predominance of a weak-strong stress pattern in the melodic line, along with the regular stamping of the tungkat on each main beat in the musical line. Furthermore, when a small chorus is present, there is responsorial performance between the lemambang and the chorus.

In contrast, the tukang sabak projects a highly emotional and grief-stricken state not only by the textual content relating the events and circumstances to accompany the soul of the deceased to its place in the unseen world, but also by the use of the wail-like vocal glides from note to note in cascading lines of melody. The chant is made even more sorrowful by the use of sobs that are interjected frequently within a melodic line and also at the end of a line, especially at the end of a stanza or couplet where many sobs often occur.

Finally, using a rather ornate and complex vocal style, the manang’s sung texts take his soul deep into the unseen world. The use of the tremolo, trills and melismas, and the highly fluid and intense melodies serve as a vehicle to tell us about the manang’s journey to the far edge of the world to search for and retrieve a wandering, lost soul in order to cure the patient at hand. Both the tukang sabak and the manang, in particular, present an intense and emotion-charged journey into the unseen world to communicate with invisible beings in order to accomplish their respective missions.

Ethnographers in the 20th-21st centuries have documented the cultural context of these vocal narratives in very rich description and analysis. The poetic texts of many healing, burial and celebratory rites have been transcribed, translated, described and analyzed, including the performance settings, verse structures, internal rhyme schemes, and the meaning of the texts. Focusing predominantly on the performative aspects of these genres, and especially the vocal style (thepatah nyawa), this discussion contributes yet another dimension to the body of writings on the leka main repertory.


Lord, Alfred 1973 The Singer of Tales. New York: Atheneum.

Masing, James Jemut 1997 The Coming of the Gods, An Iban Invocatory Chant (Timang Gawai Amat) of the Baleh River Region Sarawak. Canberra: The Australian National University, 2 volumes.

Matusky, Patricia 2004 The Iban Pantun–Poetry and Song Wacana Seni- Journal of Arts Discourse (Universiti Sains Malaysia), Jil./Vol. 3:61-85.

Robert Menua Saleh, ed. 1997 Pantun Iban. Kuching: The Tun Jugah Foundation.

1998 Pantun Iban II. Kuching, The Tun Jugah Foundation.

Sandin, Benedict 1974 The Iban Music. In: Mohd. Taib Osman, ed., Traditional Drama and Music of Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

1977 Gawai Burong: The Chants and Celebrations of the Iban Bird Festival. Penang: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.

1980 Iban Adat and Augury. Penang: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Sather, Clifford 1977 Introduction. In: Benedict Sandin, Gawai Burong, pp. vii-xvi.

2001 Seeds of Play, Words of Power, An Ethnographic Study of Iban Shamanic Chants. Kuching: The Tun Jugah Foundation and the Borneo Research Council.

Sutlive, Vinson Forthcoming The Iban Sabak.

Sutlive, Vinson and Joanne, eds. 1994 Handy Reference Dictionary of Iban and English. Kuching: The Tun Jugah Foundation.

(1) A somewhat condensed version of this paper was delivered at the Borneo Research Council Conference, July, 2006, in Kuching, Sarawak.

(2) The sung oral literature of the Iban also includes entertainment songs, courtship songs (pelandai), secular stories (renong and sugi), repartee called jawang, pantun poetry (Matusky, 2004:61-85), ensera legends and taku songs sung by women to encourage warriors.

(3) From saut, ‘to answer.’

(4) Sather, Seeds of Play Words of Power, An Ethnographic Study of Iban Shamanic Chants. Kuching, The Tun Jugah Foundation, 2001.

(5) Sutlive, Vinson and Joanne, eds., Handy Reference Dictionary of Iban and English. Kuching, The Tun Jugah Foundation, 1994.

(6) The term “chant” is derived from the Latin cantare, meaning “to sing’ or ‘to utter with a melodious voice’ (Webster’s Universities Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, 1940). Furthermore, the term “chant” is described as song, or it is noted as a short musical piece generally with a reciting tone. In contrast, the term “song” is more general, and may be noted as a short piece for solo voice in a simple style in which the melody enhances a poetic text. In a folk tradition a song usually develops anonymously in a given community and exists in an oral tradition (Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd edition revised, 1969).

(7) The comments and analysis of the music in the timang noted here are based on observations taken from my transcription of the Timang Nempalai Kasai. This timang, in recorded and transliterated form, is in the collection of the Tun Jugah Foundation, recorded in March 1995, and is from the Upper Rejang River area. Additional sources of information about the timang in general are works by James Masing (1997), Benedict Sandin (1977, 1980) and Clifford Sather (2001).

(8) The sabak transcribed here was recorded on July 8, 1981 and sung by Minda anak Janting (the soul guide or tukang sabak). This recording is in the Tun Jugah Foundation collection.

(9) The technique of the glide sung through several tones that produces a wailing effect is considered to be a melodic motive in this discussion.

(10) The pelian transcribed and analyzed here is from the collection of Clifford Sather. It is known as Anchau Bidai (spread a working mat) and is one of the first pelian the manang performs when he begins a healing session, which may last all night. It was recorded in 1991 in the Saribas region (Ulu Paku).

Table 1. Comparison of the Musical Stylistic Features
in the performance of leka main genres

Stylistic Feature Timang Sabak

Texture Monophonic texture Monophonic texture
(group of performers) (solo singer)

Dynamics Moderate/Unchanging Soft/Unchanging

Form Progressive Progressive

Performance * Group of performers * Single performer
Format (lemambang, assistant (tukang sabak).
lemambang, chorus) * Sits next to
* Walks up and down deceased in a
the ruai and stamps temporary, enclosed
pole while singing area
* Responsorial style * Solo

Singing Style * Syllabic (mainly a * Mainly syllabic
single note to each * Some melismatic
syllable of text) singing

Vocal production * Firm, moderate voice, * Soft voice, tense,
& special relaxed sob, vocal glide
techniques (wailing), many
sobs after final
word at end of a
stanza or couplet,
spoken passages

Scale Pentatonic (5-tone) Pentatonic

Melodic intervals/ * Predominant interval: * Predominant
Range the unison (repetition interval: the unison
of same pitch), Whole (repetition of same
tones, Thirds pitch), Whole tones

* Narrow range -5th * Narrow range -5th

Melodic motion Disjunct motion by Conjunct motion by
small leaps whole tones

Melodic contour * Flat, undulating, * Mainly descending

Melodic ornaments * Vocal glide * Vocal glide, sobs,
short melisma

Melodic motives Opening motive: leap Opening motive:
to high note Glide up to starting
Ornamenting motives: Ornamenting
short melismas motives: short
melisma, triplet
Closing motive: Closing motive:
repetition of final note repetition of final
note, followed by

Rhythm * Musical meter * Musical meter:
indeterminant; free
* Weak-strong (or * Equal-stress
short-long) stress patterns
pattern throughout the * Occasional short
chant long (weak-strong)
stress pattern,
Triplet figures

Stylistic Feature Pelian

Texture Monophonic texture
(solo singer)

Dynamics Moderate/Some

Form Progressive

Performance * Single performer
Format (manang).
* Sits on the floor or
on a swing, in some
parts walks while
* Solo

Singing Style * Mixture of syllabic
and melismatic
* Substantial use of
melismatic style.

Vocal production * Firm, moderate
& special voice, tense.
techniques tremolo (shaking of
pitch), vocal glide,
downward release of
pitch, glottal stop

Scale Pentatonic,
Tetratonic, Tritonic

Melodic intervals/ * Predominant
Range interval: the unison
(repetition of same
pitch), Whole tones,
half tones,
* Narrow range -6th

Melodic motion Conjunct motion by
whole and half tones

Melodic contour * Ascending and
* Combination

Melodic ornaments * Vocal glide, trill,
tremulo or shaking
of pitch, downward
release of pitch,

Melodic motives Opening motive:
ascending 3-note
motives: melisma,
tremulo, trill, vocal
Closing motive:
repeated note w/
downward release
of pitch

Rhythm * Musical meter:
* Short-long stress

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