instrument gallery logo
Sape - boat lute from Sarawak
Modern sape made by Uchau Bilong - Kuching
Sape, sampet, sampeh, sapeh

The sape is a traditional lute of many of the Orang Ulu or "upriver people", who live in the longhouses that line the rivers of Central Borneo. Sapes are carved from a single bole of wood, with many modern instruments reaching over a metre in length.

Initially the sape was a fairly limited instrument with two strings and only three frets. Its use was restricted to a form of ritualistic music to induce trance. In the last century, the sape gradually became a social instrument to accompany dances or as a form of entertainment. Today, three, four or five-string instruments are used, with a range of more than three octaves.

Technically, the sape is a relatively simple instrument, with one string carrying the melody and the accompanying strings as rhythmic drones. In practice, the music is quite complex, with many ornamentations and thematic variations. There are two common modes, one for the men's longhouse dance and the other for the woman's longhouse dance. There also is a third rarely used mode. Sape music is usually inspired by dreams and there are over 35 traditional pieces with many variations. The overall repertoire is slowly increasing.

Sapes are still being made in Borneo, and modern innovations like electric sapes are common.


Area: Sarawak and Kalimantan, Borneo
Country: Malaysia / Indonesia
Region: Asia
Type: boat lute
Collection: Randy Raine-Reusch
Groups: Randy Raine-Reusch
Sape - boat lute from Kalimantan
Older sape from Kalimantan
©  R. Raine-Reusch, May 2002