Music Instruments in Sabah
Sabah's Musical Heritage and Future

by Herman, 2009

 The Flying Dusun Blog!


Introduction | Gongs | Kulintangan | Gendang | Togunggak | Tongkungon
Sundatang | Bungkau | Sompoton | Suling | Turali | Bas or Sol | References


The musical heritage of Sabah is a fantastic collection of rhythms and sounds, movements and colours. With over 30 different ethnic entities this is only natural, more so since Sabahans simply love music and song. There is hardly any ceremony that would not require the accompaniment of music, whereby the instrument of choice in Borneo is the gong. Gong ensembles are still de rigueur at Kadazan and Dusun weddings, just as are, nowadays, the modern percussion instruments and synthesisers of a contemporary band. And of course a full karaoke set –Sabahans not only love music but most of them are great singers, too.

The ubiquitous gongs have been with the people of Borneo for times immemorial, though they are most probably not indigenous. There is a series of truly local instruments, produced and played often for personal entertainment. These instruments, often aerophones made from bamboo, have come with the forefathers of the Austronesian settlers in Borneo. One finds them in varied form, shape and tune throughout island South-East Asia, Melanesia and in the Pacific.

But the locals have never failed to adopt new music instruments. Various traders, rulers and colonisers have brought with them new instruments to Borneo’s shores, and they were soon adopted. The first might well have been the still so popular and mystical gongs, which probably came with early Chinese traders. The Brunei Empire, during its zenith from the 15th to the 17th centuries, produced masterfully crafted gongs that are still sought-after heirloom that can fetch enormous prices to-day. Spanish and Portuguese traders brought violas and castagnettes with them; and in more recent times guitars, pianos, synthesizers and percussion bands have been adopted, and no Kadazan home seems nowadays to be complete without a powerful karaoke set… all of which have influenced and keep on developing music and songs in Sabah.

Most ethnic groups in Sabah have their distinct tunes and rhythms for various ceremonies. Men and women play alongside with each other, but numbers and combinations of instruments and dancers vary, as well as certain taboos connected to different instruments – especially the gong. Dusun from the upper Moyog River might be shocked to hear the Kadazan of the lower Moyog play the gong upon the demise of a person. They use the gongs for festive celebrations only – death and mourning is not a time to play any instrument. On the other hand, the Kadazan might not understand that the gong, such an all-important instrument in the communication with the spiritual world, should be absent during a funeral. As a rule and to be on the safe side when you are visiting a local home, never step or sit on gongs, and don’t touch or play them if not invited to do so.

Unfortunately, there has not been any system for noting Sabah’s music. Together with other customary and traditional arts music has been passed on orally. Traditional music skills and melodies, together with the skills of producing indigenous instruments are now fast disappearing in favour of modern instruments – a tendency that can be observed all over the world. Some efforts are made to maintain native music and the Harvest Festival or Pesta Ka’amatan is a good place to start looking for traditional performances. One instrument, however, that does not seem to be sidetracked, is again the omnipresent gong.



The most common instrument by far throughout Borneo, and wide parts of
Asia, is the gong. The Kadazan call a gong ensemble, which consists of 6 gongs in the Penampang area, sompogogungan. The ensemble is completed with a gandang (a drum, see below). A set of 7 to 9 kettle gongs or kulintangan completes the full ensemble, faintly resembling an Indonesian gamelan collection.
To the Kadazan, the gong (tagung) is very important, and each gong in the ensemble has its own name. Starting from the highest pitched gong, usually suspended on the right side of the row of players, they are called:

1 Saasalakan
2 Naananangon
3 Hahambatan
4 Kuukulimpoon
5 Tootoongon
6 Tatavag

The mallet to beat the gongs is called tutuntung.



The kulintangan is an idiophone, compromising of six to nine brass kettle gongs of different pitches arranged on a low wooden frame, whereby the gongs rest on strings of rattan. It must be presumed that the instrument was first introduced to west Sabah by the ruling Bruneis, some four hundred years ago. Now it is part of the traditional ensemble of the Bajau and some Kadazandusun people. It is usually played on festive occasions, such as weddings and religious ceremonies, and often it is accompanied by the bigger gongs. The player sits on the floor in front of the gongs and beats them with two small wooden mallets, and the various tunes can be very fast, in contrary to the larger gongs that are usually played at rather sedate rhythms.



Gendang or gandang are found throughout Sabah. These membranophones are also called native drums, and may be single-headed such as the karatung from Tambunan and the Rungus tontog, or double-headed like the gandang from Penampang or those of the Lotud in Tamparuli and the Tindal, and Bajau of Kota Belud. The drum body is made from a hollowed out log. The membrane is made of either goatskin or cowhide, which is affixed to the body of the drum by a rattan hoop, and tightly stretched. Tuning pegs maybe inserted in the rattan. These can be moved to tighten or loosen the skin.

Drums are played in combination with other instruments and are particularly important in the gong and kulintangan ensembles. As expected, their function is to accentuate the main rhythm, often providing the beat for dancers. The drum-beater is some kind of conductor of the ensemble: he starts with an opening rhythm, which is taken up by the gong-beaters and he also announces the end of the play with a particular beat.



The togunggak is a bamboo idiophone and may have been the forerunner of the gong. While it is now rarely played amongst the Kadazan or Dusun, where it is known as togunggu or togunggak respectively, the Murut still use it frequently. In Murut, the instrument is known as tagunggak – and that all major ethnic entities here have about the same name for the instrument is certainly significant. A togunggak set consists of six to seven pieces, each made from a bamboo section of a different diameter and height to give it its respective sound and pitch. The togunggak is played to the same rhythm as the gongs.



The tongkungon or tongkongan is technically a chordophone, a tube zither made entirely of one large section of poring bamboo. Often, one node at one end is perforated, while the other is left intact; a slit is cut on the entire length of the bamboo section, and to either side strips of the skin of the bamboo are carefully undercut to make the cords. Generally there are four to eight stings, but skilful players who make their own tongkungon might opt for up to 15 strings. Small pieces of cane or wood are placed under the cords at each end to alter their length and thus their pitch. The number and names of the strings, as well as the sound interval between their pitches correspond to the names of the gongs in the ensembles of their respective communities. In Tambunan the tongkungon has three strings to the right of the linapak (slit), and four to the right. The names of the strings are:

Left Side   Right Side
Kuribadon   Tongoongon
Tagung tohison linapak Kutoukutowon
Tagung tohombou   Tawag

Tongkungan music is soft and melodious. The instrument is played for personal entertainment and relaxation, though I have observed people dancing to it, too, when there were no gongs available.

There are many myths surrounding this instrument and its origin, and many other stories. In Tambunan, the tongkungon is considered male, and often young men played it during weddings. Young ladies would, if they took a fancy in the young player, take out their sundatang (of female gender), and reply to the song of the man.

The instrument is popular not only among the Kadazandusun, but also amongst other ethnic entities in Sabah, and throughout Borneo. A very similar version of the tongkungon is produced and played by the ethnic entities of the southern Philippines.



Another chordophone of the Kadazandusun communities in Sabah is the sundatang, a strummed lute made from nangka (jackfruit) wood. It has two, or sometimes three strings. Traditionally the strings were made from the giman plant. They are tuned by twisting pegs at the top of the instrument. Its music, soft and mystical, copies the melodies and rhythms of various dances. In Tambunan it was sometimes used to accompany the sedate sundatang magarang dance. It is often played as a solo instrument for personal entertainment, and many old instruments have become cherished heirloom, handed down from father to son.

Some of the instruments have obtained a reputation of magical powers, as legends and myths surround them.



The bungkau is a lamellophone, one of the oldest instruments in the world – it is know the world over as Jew’s harp. Here it is made from the outer skin of palm fronds of the genus Caryota, locally known as polod. A skilful hand is needed to fashion a good one, the best are being obtained from Tambunan, Ranau and Keningau areas. The instrument is held to the player’s lips, his half-open mouth providing the body of resonance. The strip of wood in the centre of the bungkau is made to vibrate by rhythmically striking the long end with the thumb, while the player inhales and exhales, thus magnifying the melodic sound of the fine strip. A limited number of notes can be obtained by varying the shape of mouth and the position of the tongue. When not in use, the bungkau is usually encased in an attached bamboo cylinder to keep it clean and free from damage.

Elderly people will tell you how they used to play the bungkau in the evening, near the house of their beloved when they were still bachelors, and when young girls were still jealously guarded by their parents. The sound of the bungkau would not arise anybody’s suspicion, but the young lady knew and would appear discreetly at the window, or on the porch of her home.

The bungkau was also played as a pastime when fishing.



The sompoton is an aerophone, and maybe the most fascinating of all the Sabahan native musical instruments. It is constructed from a dried gourd and eight bamboo pipes arranged in a double-layered raft. A small lamella of polod palm (like a tiny bungkau) is inserted in the side of each sounding pipe near its base. The pipes are fitted into a hole on one side of the gourd and sealed with bees wax. The lamellae lie inside the gourd and provide the sound of the completed instrument. The pipes are bound with thin strands of rattan, whereby one of the pipes has no sound; it is merely there to balance the bundle. By blowing and sucking the gourd's mouth, the player can produce a soft-sweet harmonious and continuous sound, not unlike the bagpipe. The sompoton can be played as a solo instrument for personal entertainment or in groups to accompany dancing. It is popular among the Kadazandusun, but variations of the sompoton can be found almost everywhere in Borneo, and other parts of South-East Asia.

A popular, albeit naughty Kadazan sundait (word play) goes as follows: what is this: if you bite on its dick, the vulva will laugh – answer: a sompoton...



The suling is an aerophone: an end-blow flute made from a bamboo section. It has five or six holes and is played for individual pleasure. The sweet notes of this instrument were usually heard at night after the villagers had returned from the fields – nowadays one more often hears karaoke… It is played by all the ethnic groups of Sabah.



Another aerophone is the turali, a flute made from a long piece of bamboo, open at both ends. It has a thumb-hole in the centre of the back and three finger holes in the front. What makes the turali unique is that it is held to the nostrils and played through the nose, earning it the name of nose-flute.

The turali produces a soft thin and melancholic sound suggestive of wind sighing in the trees of the jungle. It can be played for personal entertainment and its tunes can imitate various chants. However, among the central Tambunan and Penampang Kadazandusun the turali expresses personal grief when someone has just died. The melodies indicate whether a father, a mother or a child has died. As not to upset any spirits it is not played except in the case of someone’s death, and its sound, now languid, now loud and piercing suggests crying. Few Kadazan are apt at playing it nowadays, but it can be heard daily on Kadazan radio stations prior to the announcement of obituaries, a very touching cultural admission


Bas or Sol

The bas or sol is a resonated bamboo horn played as part of the Rurum Lun Suling ensemble of the Lundayeh people. This pipe band contains 23 aerophones: Nine side-blown flutes named suling, played by women, and 14 bas made in five sizes, played by men. The bas is said to have developed from a nose flute during the 1930's and 1940's, and was taught in Indonesian schools. The Rurum Lun Suling used to play solely the tunes of Christian songs, but now popular songs are also rendered, with the bas parts providing harmony below the suling melodies. This music is a significant form of recent Lundayeh cultural expression – but then again, when the Lun Dayeh embraced their new religion it forbade for a certain time in bulk all traditional and thus ‘pagan’ attributes, and some substitute had to be found. You simply cannot stop Sabahans from expressing themselves in music and song!



The playing of three 'tavag' simultaneously is a Rungus 'speciality'


  • An Introduction to the Traditional Musical Instruments of Sabah, Department of Sabah Museum and State Archives, Kota Kinabalu
  • Personal research

Top image: dragon studded heirloom gong, personal collection of Nichlos Duanis



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