In the mid 1990s I traveled throughout the Malaysian state of Sarawak in northern Borneo recording traditional music for what became the CD Sawaku, on Pan Records.
I went to Long San, a Kenyah longhouse up the Baram River in eastern Sarawak to attend the first traditional naming ceremony to take place in many years. I was hoping I might hear and be able to record some traditional music there.
I had arrived a couple of days early as a guest of the Wan Ullok family and was left to my own devices as the family became very busy with preparations. I asked around the longhouse for anyone knowing about traditional music and someone mentioned that a good place to look was at the next longhouse up the river. I heard of a longboat going up river so I hitched a ride. Arriving at the longhouse I was told that there were no traditional musicians left, so I caught the boat back to Long San. That was when a young man with a traditional haircut asked me what I was doing, and when I explained my search he said that he played sape (the traditional boat lute) and would be happy to play for me once we got back to Long San. We had a great conversation on the way down the river, but arrived too late to visit him, so I went over the next day.
This was the first time I heard Mathew Ngau Jau play the sape and the first time I had ever heard anyone sing with it. I was quite familiar with the sape as I had recorded Tusau Padan the most well know sape player in Borneo many years earlier, and Mathew knew the traditional repertoire well. However his passion was in his arrangements of traditional songs with the sape, and new pieces he had written within traditional styles. These were quite innovative and yet seemed natural extensions to the tradition.
Over the next couple of days Mathew and I became friends and he was very helpful in arranging for one of the elder women of the longhouse to sing and play a bamboo zither for me to record. I found out that he actually lived close to Kuching the capitol city of Sarawak, where I was staying. He was a full time teacher, but was obviously very connected to his culture. Very few men retained the traditional hairstyle as Mathew did, and those that did were either working in the tourist industry or were elders in longhouses far upriver. At that time having a traditional hairstyle could be result in ridicule or even harassment, and yet Mathew wore it with pride.
After a few days with Mathew I was very impressed with his dedication to his culture and music. After arriving back in Kuching I met with him a few more times and became even more impressed. I asked him if he was interested in performing more and possibly going on a couple of tours, and he said yes. I then talked about him to the Sarawak Tourist Board as I knew that Uchau Bilong, who they had been sending overseas, and whom I took to Marseilles, was getting to an age where travel was no longer easy. I put in a very strong recommendation for Mathew at the Tourist Board. Mathew also put effort into this radical lifestyle change, and although the wheels of government work slowly, eventually they hired Mathew as their representative musician and started to take him around the world on tourist promotions. This enabled Mathew to leave his school teaching and become a fulltime artist.
Mathew began to flourish. He started to build and paint sapes regularly, then revived that art of making and decorated traditional bark clothing. After that he revived traditional rock sculpture. Now Mathew has become the grand master holding the culture as Tusau and Uchau did before him. He has made a substantial contribution to his culture as well as educating the modern world of its value. His likeness is the logo for the Rainforest World Music Festival.
If you go to Sarawak, he has a B&B at his house and you will be treated to great music, great hospitality, great stories, and to meet a living legend. Mathew named as National Heritage