Project Ranih Documents Kelabit Folksongs
Review by Lily Jamaludin

There is so much loss of language in this small country of ours. I look at myself and my peers, and so many of us have lost a language between our generation and the one before us. It could be Hokkien, or Kristang, or Malayalam, lost to the country’s dominant languages. Sometimes even the dominant languages such as Bahasa Malaysia or Mandarin are replaced in favour of English.

According to a report by online resource on world languages Ethnologue, of the 136 languages in use in Malaysia, over 80% are considered endangered.

It is in this climate of loss that Project Ranih was conceived by cousins and heritage musicians Alena Murang and Joshua Maran to protect the Kelabit language by archiving its folksongs for children.

“Everyone was passing away unexpectedly, and I thought we’re running out of time to keep these things,” says Joshua, discussing where the idea to start the project came from.

Spoken amongst the Kelabit ethnic group of Sarawak, Kelabit is considered “threatened” by Ethnologue and has a user population of over 4,000. According to Ethnologue, a threatened language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users.

Kelabit communities were originally farmers and headhunters native to the Ulu Baram river headwaters of Borneo. Alena and Joshua are the first generation of Kelabit to be born and raised outside the rainforest.

Amongst the Kelabit, songs are often passed down from generation to generation. Because of this oral tradition, songs sometimes vary across families.

“The songs stuck (with us) for a long, long time,” says Josh, sharing his experience of hearing Kelabit folksongs as a child.

“Part of why we want to do this project is that as our generation become parents, probably close to none of them would be singing those songs to their kids,” says Alena.

Now, the next Kelabit generation – and indeed anybody in the world – can listen to the songs listed in the Folksongs Archive Library. The archive is brightly-designed, easy to use, and child-friendly – a testament to the work of Malaysia Design Archive, one of Project Ranih’s partners.

Right now, there are four recorded songs in the archive, listed alongside the original Kelabit and translated English lyrics. They were sung by Joshua’s mother, Na’em Tebpen @ Ramie Bulan, and her friend, Sinah Laah Aren @ Garnette Jalla Ridu.

There’s something intimate about being able to listen to lullabies and folksongs. Often slow, rhythmic and comforting, they might hold inside them messages, stories, and fears that one generation wants to pass down to the next.

Sometimes these stories are bright and uplifting – like Piu’ Piu’ ALung Alung, a song cheering on a daughter as she catches fish for her family.

Sometimes, lullabies are darker – like Leluen Kuh Ba’o Buda, where a mother monkey sings to her baby, warning her of the dangers of a poacher. At the end of the lullaby, the baby monkey is killed by the poacher.

“There are other songs we haven’t put up that are a bit dark,” says Alena, noting a likeness to the dark nature of the original Brothers Grimm fairytales.

It’s been hard to get funding for Project Ranih locally, and the website received funding from the Foundation of Endangered Languages, a UK-based charity. It’s strange, in a way, that in a country so mired with the loss of languages, that there is so little funding to preserve them.

Still, viewers can support the project through donation.

As for their dreams for the project, the duo hope that more and more people end up speaking Kelabit, and that the language is used increasingly in music, television, and media.

“When the amount of views on a song that we put up in Kelabit is greater than the number of Kelabit speakers – that’s what keeps us going,” she says.

Project Ranih’s partners include Kanid Studio, Pepper Jam Productions, Momentum Studio Sdn. Bhd, Malaysia Design Archive, and the Foundation of Endangered Languages. Mathew J contributed animations.

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Lily Jamaludin is a writer with the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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