By Gini Gorlinski


Kendau kancet, or “dancing songs,” originated among the Kenyah peoples of Kalimantan, Indonesia (Indonesian Borneo), in the mid-twentieth century. From there, the tradition spread to surrounding Kenyah and non-Kenyah communities in Kalimantan as well as to related peoples across the border in Sarawak, Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo). By the twenty-first century, a performance of kendau kancet had become standard fare as part of village festivities and as a fixture of multiethnic urban functions aimed at celebrating the people and cultures of Borneo’s interior regions. Surprisingly, the kendau kancet repertoire has not been heartily welcomed into the music-ethnographic literature. This article intends not only to provide some exposure to the genre but also to contemplate the different ways in which the tradition is perceived and has been used—or disregarded—by various segments of society. A triptych of scenes featuring kendau kancet in different settings sets the stage for the analysis.

The Triptych

Act 1: Rural Indonesia

The Setting
Long Segar, a village on the Telen River, in the Mahakam River basin, about two hundred miles into the interior of East Kalimantan, Indonesia (Indonesian Borneo).1 Population, approximately one thousand, mostly Kenyah (Dayak)2 of the Uma’3 Jalan subgroup. October 1986.

The Scene

Kendau kancet performers
Figure 2. Kenyah Uma’ Jalan women circling in single file while performing kendau kancet. The woman with the microphone is the soloist. Long Segar, Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan), Indonesia, on October 11, 1986

People begin to congregate after dinner on the large, open veranda of a single-family home built in a style reminiscent of a traditional Kenyah longhouse (fig. 1). I can see they are giddy in anticipation of an all-night celebration of the local wedding of three couples earlier that afternoon. Some of the guests seat themselves on a bench that runs along the inner edge of the veranda. Others just sit nearby on the floor. Yet others do not sit at all but gravitate toward the center of the veranda, where they begin to circle, single file, in a counterclockwise direction (fig. 2). Surrounded by the cacophony of conversation, the laughing and crying of small children, the howling of dogs, and the chirping of invisible crickets, the circlers progress in synchrony, alternating swishing steps with floor-shaking stomps. A woman begins to sing, her melody rising from the circle like a wisp of smoke emerging from an imminent fire. The entire veranda then bursts into song, as both the circle dancers and the onlookers chorally complete her verse and segue into the refrain, splitting into parts as they do so. The woman starts another verse, and again, the group finishes it and repeats the refrain (audio 1).

Excerpt from a series of kendau kancet performed by Kenyah Uma’ Jalan residents of Long Segar, Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan), Indonesia, on October 11, 1986. A text transcription would be too broken to be meaningful due to the stomping, the moving of the singers, and the distance of the soloist from the microphone.)

At this point there is a pause in the singing, but the circle continues to move, propelled by the rhythm of the swishing and stomping of the dancers’ feet. The cacophony on the sidelines resumes until a different singer—this time, a man—begins another verse. Once again, the crowd chimes in, completing the verse and singing the refrain. This pattern persists as more and more people take a seat on the veranda or join the circle. When the congregation becomes quite large, the circle disperses, clearing a place in the center of the veranda for a series of solo and choreographed group dances to come. The evening has just begun.

Act II. Urban Malaysia

The Setting
The lobby level of the Aurora Hotel in the coastal city of Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo). March 1992.

The Scene
The typically quiet hotel lobby is enlivened by the strains of choral singing that emanate from an adjacent auditorium, the door to which has been left ajar. I peer inside the auditorium and spot a women’s chorus clustered against the back wall, following the direction of a woman at the front of the group. The chorus sings a Kenyah song, for the most part in unison but occasionally breaking into parts. When the women complete the refrain rather tentatively, the leader gestures for the singing to stop, and a short, animated conversation ensues. When the talking subsides, the leader offers some coaching, then begins to sing a solo verse. On cue, the chorus joins her, completing her verse and then repeating the Kenyah refrain they had just rehearsed.

The woman who directs the group is not Kenyah. Rather, she is Kayan, a related but distinct ethnic group that speaks a language that is mutually unintelligible with Kenyah. The chorus consists of members of the multiethnic women’s section of the Orang Ulu National Association (OUNA, “Upriver People” National Association), an organization that has provided a downriver voice for the culture and concerns of the more distant upriver communities—the Orang Ulu—since the mid-1960s.4

Act III. Western Academia

The Setting
A small apartment in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the United States. An evening in late 1995.

The Scene
With papers and exams spread across the floor, I am consumed with end-of-semester grading. The phone rings, providing a welcome interruption. When I press the receiver to my ear, I am delighted to hear the voice of an old friend and colleague in ethnomusicology. My friend explains that he has just returned from a visit to Indonesian Borneo with some music recordings. He hopes to release some of them on a CD. Knowing that I had spent several years in the region working with Kenyah and neighboring peoples, he asks if I might be able to answer a question about one of the musical practices he had witnessed there. He proceeds to describe choral singing, a Kenyah tradition I had seen and heard on numerous occasions in both rural and urban settings in Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo. Often sung in parts, choral singing is performed by both men and women, typically while participating in a steadily paced line or circle dance. When he finishes his account, my friend asks, “So, is this stuff real?”

Values and Valuations: What Makes or Breaks an “Authentic” Tradition

Nearly three decades have passed since I first witnessed the melodic Kenyah choral singing known as kendau kancet (dance songs) in Long Segar, and during that time the tradition has become ever more prominent—if not a cultural emblem—for quite a few distinct but related ethnic groups living in Indonesian as well as in Malaysian Borneo. The songs can be heard at virtually any major festivity involving these peoples, and in the twenty-first century, they arguably constitute one of the most widely known and performed indigenous vocal repertoires of the region.

These songs are perceived—and indeed, function—differently in different settings with different actors. In some contexts, kendau kancet are highly valued; in others they are of questionable legitimacy. As I reflect on the shifting status of this repertoire over time and space, I continually return to the idea of authenticity and its significance in the shaping and re-shaping of musical practices, music scholarship, and ultimately, musical self.

My aim in this essay is twofold. First, I would like to provide some exposure to an important tradition that remains virtually absent from the music-ethnographic literature. Second, I would like to contemplate the shifting status of kendau kancet from the angle of authenticity. Following a brief sketch of the Kenyah and their traditional homeland and lifestyle, I will outline the history of kendau kancet, from the origins of the tradition in Indonesian Borneo through its subsequent spread across the border to Sarawak, Malaysia. I will then offer an overview of the structure and style of the songs, highlighting the features that distinguish them from other Kenyah vocal repertoire. Finally, I will offer a few thoughts on the notion of authenticity and then return to the triptych, looking behind each scene to reveal some of the ways in which authenticity and perception of self have operated in village, diasporic, and academic settings.

The Kenyah and the Kendau Kancet Tradition

Map of Borneo
Fig. 3. Borneo

The Kenyah consist of more than forty named subgroups,5most of which trace their roots to the mountainous region spanning the border between northeastern Kalimantan, Indonesia, and southeastern Sarawak, Malaysia (fig. 3). In Kalimantan, Kenyah villages are concentrated in the upper reaches of the Kayan River system, notably along the Pujungan, Iwan, and Bahau rivers, as well as along the Kayan River itself (fig. 4). In Sarawak, Kenyah settlements are located primarily in the upper Baram and Balui basins. Most of the subgroups speak their own dialect of Kenyah language.

Historically, a typical Kenyah village consisted of one or more longhouses, each of which contained multiple apartments, all connected at the front by a common veranda (fig. 5). The villagers were essentially subsistence farmers, in that the bulk of their principal crop—rice—was intended for their own consumption. They supplemented their diet through hunting, fishing, and collecting or cultivating fruits and vegetables. Significantly, they also exchanged material and cultural goods with neighboring Kenyah and non-Kenyah villages within their own river system as well as across watersheds, regardless of political borders. For those who continue to live in the more remote upriver regions, this lifestyle remains generally the same.

Since the mid-twentieth century, however, a large-scale movement of Kenyah from the remote upriver regions toward downriver cities or administrative centers has occurred. This movement has been propelled by many factors, including government-sponsored, or sometimes government-imposed, resettlement programs (in both Indonesia and Malaysia), as well as a need for more accessible education, medical facilities, job opportunities for the educated youth, and public services.6 In Indonesia, longhouses were routinely abandoned as part of the government resettlement schemes. Single-family homes were built in their place, with a central village hall (Indonesian: balai desa) replacing the common veranda as the main community gathering place (fig. 6 and fig. 7). The Malaysian government, however, has taken a different approach, not only offering prizes for model longhouses but also rebuilding longhouses in resettled communities.

The Advent of Kendau Kancet

The tradition of Kenyah melodic choral singing performed in the context of a dance event goes by many local names in both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo. This is not surprising, considering the diversity of Kenyah dialects. Among the Kenyah Uma’ Jalan, who introduced me to the tradition, these songs are known as kendau kancet,or “dance songs.” Another common term, especially in Malaysia, is belian dadu’ (“long-[dance] songs”), which, like kendau kancet, refers to the context of the songs’ performance. Other well-known labels include badi tiang (loosely, “it is so, friend”) and lan ‘i’ (loosely, “truly, it is”), both of which allude to idiomatic linguisitic expressions that recur across much of the repertoire. Throughout my analysis, I will use Kenyah Uma’ Jalan terminology unless otherwise noted.

When asked about the origins of kendau kancet, most Kenyah will simply say that the repertoire came from the “great ones [people] of the past” (dia’ lata’ cena’a), which is a typical description of any practice that is perceived as traditional—as the way that things have always been from time immemorial. For most Kenyah, then, kendau kancet have no known origin. The songs are simply a part of traditional Kenyah culture.

In the early twenty-first century only the oldest Kenyah told a different story, one that not only acknowledged kendau kancet as a relatively recent addition to the Kenyah vocal tradition but also identified a particular era, area, and people as the source of the repertoire. The songs, they explained, emerged in the 1940s, in the upper reaches of the Kayan River and its tributaries, in what is now North Kalimantan, Indonesia. Elderly Kenyah Uma’ Jalan, who lived in that region prior to the mid-1950s, recalled learning kendau kancet from the Kenyah Lepo’ Tau, their neighbors in the headwaters of the Kayan River. It was from Long Nawang, the Uma’ Jalan explained, that kendau kancet spread to surrounding Kenyah communities.

Similar stories come from across the border, in Sarawak, Malaysia. A Lepo’ Tau grandmother from Long Moh, in the upper Baram basin, reminisced about her first encounter with kendau kancet (Sarawak Lepo’ Tau dialect: belian dadu’), when Lepo’ Tau from Indonesia came to visit her village.

Our breasts had not yet emerged . . . people led us in song. We did not join them. After all, we were small. Then another group [of travelers] came—when we were living at Long Karing [circa 1945–46; on the Moh River, slightly upstream from present-day Long Moh]. We were a bit bigger. Our breasts had emerged. We did not go [dancing] with them, but other people did join. Singing. What sorts of songs were they? Long-dance songs [belian dadu’]. The visitors from Long Nawang led us singing in the longhouse, before people solo danced. Long-dance songs. . . . The guests taught people to sing.

Meanwhile, a Kenyah Lepo’ Nggau grandfather, also from Long Moh, traced his first experience with the songs to about 1946 or 1947, when he and some friends traveled to the Pujungan River in Kalimantan. There, they heard the songs performed by the Kenyah Uma’ Lung.

Considering the regular traffic within and across the watersheds, it is possible that kendau kancet could have stemmed from either the Kayan or the Pujungan River, or from both areas. However, it is worth noting that the Uma’ Lung dialect is quite distinct from that of the Lepo’ Tau, and the distinctive refrains of kendau kancetif not also the verses to some degree—are sung in Lepo’ Tau or a closely related dialect, regardless of which community sings them.7 It seems likely, then, that the Uma’ Lung also adopted the repertoire from the Lepo’ Tau of the upper Kayan River but just somewhat earlier than their neighbors in Long Moh. In any event, the songs became more strongly established in Sarawak, when a school was built in Long Moh in 1949.8 Former students who attended the school during its early years remembered singing the songs at the request of the teacher, who found them quite attractive.

By the 1950s kendau kancet had spread well into Malaysian Borneo. In the predominantly Kenyah Long Tikan village of Long San, downstream from Long Moh on the Baram River, Reverend A. D. Galvin and Stephen Wan Ulok observed that “an evening’s entertainment is incomplete without a number of these songs” (Galvin and Wan Ulok 1955:289). In a somewhat later publication, Galvin described the repertoire as “a very different new sort of song [that] has come over into the Baram from Kalimantan in Indonesia” (Galvin 1962:501). He commented further that the songs have been “readily adopted by the Kenyahs and related groups. . . . Some of these later style songs are most attractive; the words are simple, the tune catchy, and often there is a two-voice harmony.” (Compare the performances in audio 2 and audio 3.)

Excerpt from the song, “Liléng,” sung in parts by Kenyah Lepo’ Tau women Awing Jalong, Kirau Tanyit, Sulau Ngau, Ulau Lupa, and Dawai Lenjau. Long Moh, Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia, on February 3, 1993.

“Liléng” “Liléng”

(Loose translation)
Kempi ketai niko’ la’a kulung lan punai,
kulung punai silun tawan.
Where will you go next, truly keeping a green pigeon,
keeping a green pigeon, magical melody.

Lilé- lilé- lilé- lilé- lilé- Uyau Along, liléng, oi lan.


Circ- circ- circ- circ- circ- Uyau Along, cicle, it is true.

Nyahé, nyahé’ iko’ anak kining tengé’,
kining tengé’ [unclear] ba’an.
Be well, be well you, child, kining tengé’,
kining tengé’ [unclear] ba’an.(Note: This rhyme contains several “song words,” the lexical meaning of which is elusive, if not absent.)

Thi kendau kancet, often called “Lan ‘I'” after the distinctive recurring phrase in the lyrics, is most commonly sung in parts. Here, it is performed by members of the predominately Kenyah Lepo’ Tau community of Long Moh, Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia. February 25, 1993.

“Lan ‘I’” “Lan ‘I’”

(Loose translation)
Alem ini telu anak lan pemung,
pemung lan jahi.
Tonight, we, child, truly together,
truly together socialize.
Pemung jahi idai na lan,
pemung jahi tawai [unclear] uyan
Together socialize, it’s true,
together socialize, making [unclear] memories.
[unclear] [unclear]
Pemung lan jahi, delan,
delan ‘i’, delan na ‘i’.
Together, truly socializing, truly,
truly, it’s true.

By the mid-1970s, the songs and the associated line dance had been reported in many Kenyah villages of Sarawak as well as in an array of other, linguistically distinct Kenyah-related communities, including the Sebop, Seping, Punan, Berawan, and Kayan9 of the Baram and Balui basins (Seeler 1975:32).10 Some three decades later, the tradition still maintained a strong foothold in these communities (video 1). Meanwhile, back in Kalimantan, kendau kancet similarly spread to other villages in the region. By the early twenty-first century, women in a non-Kenyah, Lun Dayeh village on the Kerayan River near the border with Sarawak could be seen on YouTube performing a common kendau kancet, with verses in Indonesian language (read from a sheet of paper) alternating with the distinctive lan ‘i’ refrain.

Excerpts from a kendau kancet performance in conjunction with the celebration of a village-wide child-naming ritual (ngalang anak) in the predominantly Kenyah Lepo’ Tau village of Long Moh, Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia, on June 7, 1992. The performance takes place on the veranda of one of the longhouses in the village

An Anomalous Tradition

Kendau kancet are usually sung in first-person plural (“we”) and typically address the occasion for performance—in this case, a dance event. The formulaic rhymes of the songs11 often metaphorically allude to possible romantic relations between the young men and women in the crowd, as exemplified by reference to “keeping” (as one would a pet) the “green pigeon” in the second gray verse of the text transcription of the kendau kancet “Liléng” below. (The second and third verses correspond to the performance heard in audio 2. Another version of the song is heard in the first minute of video 2.)

Excerpts from a kendau kancet performance at a dinner hosted by the Orang Ulu National Association (OUNA) in Miri, Sarawak, on July 28, 2001. The participants are an ethnically mixed group of Upriver People.



(Excerpt from a version led by Dawai Lenjau, Long Moh, Sarawak, Malaysia, on February 3, 1993)

(Loose translation)
Ini kenai na pat uban miling mubai,
miling mubai kusun lasan.
Here we all come, circling, turning,
circling, turning on the clearing [dance floor].
Refrain: Lilé- lilé- lilé- lilé- lilé- Uyau Along, liléng, oi lan. Refrain: Circ- circ- circ- circ- circ- Uyau Along,
cicle, it is true.
Kempi ketai niko’ la’a kulung lan punai,
kulung punai silun tawan.
Where will you go next, truly keeping a green pigeon,
keeping a green pigeon, magical melody.
Refrain Refrain
Nyahé, nyahé’ iko’ anak kining tengé’,
kining tengé’ [unclear] ba’an.
Be well, be well you, child, kining tengé’,
kining tengé’ [unclear] ba’an.(Note: This rhyme contains several “song words,” the lexical meaning of which is elusive, if not absent.)
Refrain Refrain
Menjat jita tepat panak batung usa,
batung usa iung inan.
Seldom we family see each other in person,
in person, body, tree trunk.
Refrain Refrain
Petat pasi tepat anak kirip suwi,
kirip suwi nengang lian.
We break up, separate, child, fan of bird feathers [dance paraphernalia worn on hands],
fan of hornbill bird feathers.
Refrain Refrain
Kempi ketai niko’ la’a uyan tiwai,
uyan tiwai asat suran.
Where will you go next making a swinging,
making a swinging stride.
Refrain Refrain


While other types of recreational Kenyah songs are textually similar to kendau kancet in that they draw from the same pool of formulaic rhymes, a notable difference is that non-kendau kancet are sung predominantly in first-person singular (“I”). Moreover, the songs are often clearly directed toward a specific individual, who remains unnamed but whose identity is clear from the context of the performance as well as from the content of the lyrics. All of these elements are present in the following excerpt from the suket, a type of rice-wine song.



(Excerpt from a rendition by Ngau Aring, Long Mekaba, Sarawak, Malaysia, on September 10, 1992)

(Loose translation)
Ndé—adui tene ui nini anak lan awang diman. Ndé—adui ui [oh!] truly, child, this moonlit night.
Si’au pe kenai iko’ na uyan tiwai lan asat suran. A pity, you come making a swinging stride.
Kenai ala’ ini dahu tira’ lan ti petapan. Come to get words, talk, speech.
Biu’ tebelum ko’ sapau jahum lan sengau ujan. Your hopes are great, roof of leaves, shelter from rain.
Na kenai ala’ tuyau amé’ da se-na-barau lan tiling tawan. Come to get our sound, truly hoarse, magical cicada.
Laki ja’at le aké’ numpung na pet lan bulan luan. I am a dreadful man [i.e., a commoner] atop the true end of the longhouse.
Na’un ké’ malai lini kuman mimpai lan tituk uyan. I am not used to eating mimpai, truly, making memories. [“I’m not used to doing this.”]

(Note: Mimpai is a “song word,” the lexical meaning of which is unclear, if not absent.)

Ina dahu aké’ lan pubat banan. Those are my words, unwinding speech.

The second line of the suket excerpt contains the same formulaic rhyme as the last verse in the transcription of “Liléng.” In lines six through eight, the soloist refers to himself in first person, and in lines three through five, he refers to the reason for, or context of, the performance: my own coming to study and record Kenyah songs.

Textual matters aside, kendau kancet are stylistically distinct from other traditional Kenyah vocal repertoires. The first and most salient difference lies in the character of the choral component. Like the bulk of Kenyah songs, kendau kancet consist of alternating solo and choral passages. Recalling the descriptions from the opening triptych, the soloist in kendau kancet, in most cases a woman, begins a verse, then is joined by the chorus to complete the verse and sing the refrain. The chorus sings mostly in unison with the soloist, but often it also breaks into parts, usually at the third or fifth verse, depending on the contour of the main melody. In other traditional Kenyah vocal performance traditions, however, the chorus operates in quite a different capacity. It is non-melodic, a monotone that essentially acts as an intermittent drone—an anchor for the melody of the soloist.

Also extraordinary in kendau kancet is the extent to which the chorus overlaps with the soloist. In most other Kenyah songs, the chorus joins the soloist only on the final one or two words of each line of rhyme, whereas in kendau kancet, the chorus usually joins the leader for at least half of an entire verse, and it also sings the refrain. Ultimately, the effect of kendau kancet is one of a choral performance guided by a soloist, in contrast to most other traditional Kenyah songs, which are solo performances punctuated by a chorus.

My use of the word “verse” in the context of discussing kendau kancet is quite intentional here, because unlike other Kenyah songs forms, kendau kancet are fundamentally strophic. The words and length of a given verse are fixed, with no room for spontaneous repetition, elaboration, or other creative adjustment. Moreover, kendau kancet are more clearly metric and evenly pulsed than other Kenyah forms, perhaps in part because they are performed while circle dancing. In summary, kendau kancet are more regular in every respect than their counterparts in other Kenyah traditional repertoires.

Last, but by no means least, most kendau kancet melodies use an anhemitonic-pentatonic scale of the M2-M2-m3-M2-m3 (e.g., c-d-e-g-a-c) type. Use of hemitones is rare. In other types of Kenyah singing, by contrast, hemitones and even smaller intervals are common.

Divine Inspiration?

What might have led to the emergence of a new style of Kenyah vocal music in the mid-twentieth century? The inspiration, I speculate, was Christian congregational singing. No Kenyah with whom I spoke, however, ever suggested the connection, and when I asked, only some acknowledged that it could even be a possibility. For most Kenyah, church singing is in a completely different conceptual category than traditional Kenyah singing, which is where kendau kancet is placed. Consequently, any connection between the two practices, if perceived at all, would not be viewed as significant and would in no way jeopardize the status of kendau kancetas traditional Kenyah vocal repertoire.

The growth and spread of Christianity among the Kalimantan Kenyah was concurrent with the birth of kendau kancet. Indeed, the Kenyah were among the primary foci of the Protestant, US-based Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), and the Pujungan River was the first Kenyah area proselytized by the group in the early 1930s (Rudes 1965:35). By 1936 the entire village of Long Sa’an (Kenyah Uma’ Lung) had converted, and others soon followed. Indeed, the Kenyah Lepo’ Nggau grandfather from Sarawak who traveled to the Pujungan River in the mid-1940s recalled that those villages where he heard kendau kancet were already “praying” (i.e., had converted to Christianity). The CMA did not limit its activity to the Pujungan River. The organization simultaneously proselytized in the surrounding areas. By 1940 a substantial Protestant population had also been established in Long Nawang (Conley 1976:301).

Music played a central role in the ministry of the CMA. As described by CMA missionary William Conley,

Hymn singing is a more important aspect of Kenyah worship than would be true for most Alliance churches in the United States. . . . They [the Kenyah] are, I should add, quite talented musically and can be trained to sing in excellent four-part harmony (Conley 1976:333).

When I asked various villagers whether they perceived the style of kendau kancet to be related to church singing, the thought had not occurred to most of them. After all, these songs had not been learned in church, nor were they performed as part of religious activities. In typical Kenyah fashion, these songs had been learned from other Kenyah in the context of recreational interaction.

Some Thoughts on the Notion of Authenticity
Like most others working in the fields of art, music, and literature, I think of the term authenticity as denoting a value, or “a species of the genus credibility . . . that comes from having the appropriate relationship to an original source” (Rudinow 1994:129). The “original source,” as David Lowenthal has emphasized, can embrace the notions of “original objects and materials . . . original contexts, or . . . original aims” (Lowenthal 1992:186). I would add to this list “original processes” of production or acquisition. These various elements of the original source are prioritized differently by different people—either as a group or as individuals—when it comes to assessing an object’s authenticity. What happens, for instance, when musical materials (e.g., a repertoire or style of performance) are recontextualized to a different end in contemporary society, perhaps because the original performance context no longer exists? Conversely, what if the context and aim of the music remain essentially the same, but the sonic and structural elements of the music have taken on a new character? What if the music is learned from notation or from a recording, when it was previously transmitted through oral tradition? In any of these cases, can the tradition still be considered authentic, or have the changes ruptured the appropriate connection to the original source? Of course, it depends on whom you ask and how that person—or community—prioritizes the various components of the source.

Theoretically, the truly authentic is an unmarked category, in that it never raises a concern over authenticity. It is inherently credible in the minds of those who know or practice the tradition. There is no perceived disconnection from the source. The authentic is what is—what is real, what has been internalized, naturalized, to the point that its credibility is unquestioned. Only when a change is perceived to have broken the appropriate connection to the source does authenticity become an issue. A flight then ensues from what is, and a quest is undertaken to restore that connection. Once it is understood to have been restored, the resulting product or practice is consciously marked as authentic, in contrast to the unmarked product or practice that prompted the flight in the first place.

Yet if we think of the authentic as the unmarked category, would not such a quest for authenticity be futile? Wouldn’t any label of “authentic” prompt the question, “If this needs to be marked as ‘authentic,’ then what else is going on?” The concept of authenticity is necessarily paradoxical in that it simultaneously embraces an escape from and a perceived return to what is inherent and unquestionable credibility. As expressed by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, we only become aware of authenticity when “we flee it,” and as further distilled by Jacob Golomb, “the presence of authenticity is discerned in its absence” (Golomb 1995:7) This idea of flight returns as we venture behind the scenes of the kendau kancet triptych.

The Triptych from the Back Side: Three Angles on Authenticity

Act I: The Village

In upriver Kenyah villages, both in Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo, the credibility of kendau kancet was never questioned, at least by those who performed this repertoire. The songs were, again, simply a continuation of the practice of “the great ones of the past.” No significant rupture was perceived with the original source, thus the repertoire was unmarked. It was authentic.

Behind the scenes, however, a notable portion of the village population, especially in Malaysia, did not perform kendau kancet. For them, the legitimacy and value of the repertoire were indeed matters of concern. For the most part, older members of the community, typically men, found these songs to be unworthy representatives of Kenyah tradition, and by extension, of themselves as Kenyah. Kendau kancet were not “real songs” (Sarawak Kenyah Lepo’ Tau: belian lan) because the “appropriate relationship to an original source” had been violated. In this instance, the critical elements of the “original source” lay in the linguistic character of the songs, the target of the performances, and the gender of the principal performers. The age of the repertoire, context of performance, style and structure of the musics, and process of transmission were non-issues.

Kendau kancet draws its verses primarily from the pool of formulaic rhyme (ipet) that forms the foundation of most major Kenyah vocal repertoires and is the wellspring of Kenyah lyrical creativity. Detractors of the kendau kancet tradition, however, perceived the songs’ language to be lacking in breadth, depth, and direction. In part this was due to the choral performance of the verses, which, as noted earlier, precluded any displays of individual linguistic virtuosity. Moreover, because the songs targeted the group, rather than the story or circumstance of a particular individual, kendau kancet were frequently labeled as “aimless songs” (Sarawak Kenyah Lepo’ Tau: belian bareng). Finally, a subset of the critics further held that any songs that were sung by or associated primarily with women, as were kendau kancet, were categorically “aimless,” and that made all the more reason to “flee” the repertoire.

Act II: The Diaspora

From the etymology of the word alone, it is clear that the concept of authenticity is thoroughly intertwined with the concept of self, and as philosophers, literary theorists, and ethnomusicologists, among others, have emphasized, authenticity is invoked as a means by which to identify that self. The centrality of music in this process of identification—most strikingly in the context of urban migrant or other diasporic communities—has been the focus of an increasing volume of scholarship since the late twentieth century. The cultivation of kendau kancet within mixed populations of Dayak peoples in downriver cities of Borneo offers yet another example of the leverage of music in the construction and assertion of identity.

As mentioned earlier, the group of practitioners of kendau kancet in Act II of the triptych was the women’s section of the Orang Ulu National Association, a multiethnic collection of women who trace their origins to various communities in the remote upriver regions of Sarawak. Established in 1966, the OUNA is a voluntary cultural association that “aims to promote, advance, and preserve the cultures of the Orang Ulu,” or Upriver People of Sarawak (Langub and Seling 1989:29). The women’s section of the organization, in particular, has been especially active in the promotion of Orang Ulu culture and traditions through their performances of song and dance, not only within Sarawak but also in peninsular Malaysia.

It is important to recognize here that the OUNA is essentially an organization of Upriver People who are no longer upriver. Branches of the association have been established in most of the major cities and towns of Sarawak, but not in those remote rural areas—the geographic “sources”—with which its members identify. The OUNA, like many such ethnic organizations, is founded on a diasporic population. In this diasporic climate, the members of the OUNA “flee” the homogenizing cultural forces of the majority populations of the downriver regions. The use of kendau kancet in the self-conscious expression of origin—of connection to the “source,” of authenticity—is interesting in that within the context of the OUNA, these Kenyah songs are no longer associated specifically with the Kenyah people. Rather, they serve as their own sort of homogenizing force in that they have become representative of a kind of pan-Orang Ulu identity.12 For example, at the close of a series of performances for the guests at the 2001 OUNA celebratory dinner in Miri, Sarawak, an invitation was issued to all members of the audience to join the line dance on stage and participate in the performance of the well-known “Léléng” (video 2).13

How is it that the OUNA selected Kenyah kendau kancet to represent authentic Orang Ulu tradition? Considering the diversity of the OUNA, many other musical traditions could have served the same purpose, as they, too, shared an “appropriate connection” to an upriver source. What made the kendau kancet connection more “appropriate” than the others? First, it is probably not insignificant that the founding fathers of the OUNA were themselves Kenyah and that the Kenyah are numerically the dominant Orang Ulu group in Sarawak, just ahead of the Kayan. Moreover, those Upriver People who had moved downriver since the mid-twentieth century generally came from the younger generation and likely already recognized the kendau kancet tradition as part of their musical heritage, whether or not they considered themselves Kenyah. On a practical level, the strophic structure of kendau kancet made the songs more accessible to a diverse assortment of Orang Ulu groups, just as “Frère Jacques,” for instance, has long been accessible to a diverse array of American students. In other words, kendau kancet were easy to learn, compared to other upriver repertoires (such as those cherished by the detractors of kendau kancet). Furthermore, the repertoire’s association with women likely made it more comfortable for the “culture bearers” of the OUNA—the women’s section—to perform. Finally, that kendau kancet were oriented toward the group rather than the individual made them all the more suitable for uniting a diverse diasporic community and defining a common Orang Ulu self.

Act III: The Academic Literature

Despite its prevalence in both upriver and downriver communities of Kenyah and related peoples in Borneo, kendau kancet song tradition has received remarkably little attention from the academic community since the early accounts of Galvin and Wan Ulok in the mid-twentieth century (Galvin and Wan Ulok 1955Galvin 1962). In the early 1970s American poet Carol Rubenstein produced a monumental two-volume compendium of text transcriptions, translations, and brief descriptions of the songs and chants of various peoples of Sarawak (Rubenstein 1973). In that work, she described an unnamed song type that was stylistically and functionally suggestive of kendau kancet. Unfortunately, Rubenstein did not go beyond the short description: not a single example of that type of song appears among the thirty-one items included in the Kenyah section of the volume. Joan Seeler provided a brief description of the songs as well as a valuable account of villages in Sarawak in which such songs were encountered (Seeler 1975). Her work, however, focused primarily on the dance component of the tradition.

In the late 1970s the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture (Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, DEPDIKBUD) issued an Ensiklopedi Musik dan Tari Daerah (Encyclopedia of Regional Music and Dance) for each of almost all of the country’s provinces at the time. In the volume devoted to East Kalimantan (Proyek Penelitian dan Pencatatan Kebudayaan Daerah 1978), most entries on Kenyah songs indeed address songs of the kendau kancet type, which is a further testament to the prevalence and prominence of the tradition. Each of the songs, however, is treated in isolation, in the absence of any discussion of their relationship as representatives of a particular genre.14 Kendau kancet continued to be overlooked through the 1980s, although they received very brief mention (under the label badi) in Patricia Matusky’s 1986 survey of the Upper Rejang River (lower Balui River region) in Sarawak (Matusky 1986). The songs were excluded, however, from Allen Maxwell’s otherwise extensive 1989 survey of Sarawakian oral traditions (Maxwell 1989).

Not until the 1990s did kendau kancet begin to receive any notable treatment in the academic literature. In a second survey of the music traditions of the Upper Rejang River, Matusky described songs performed in the context of the Kenyah Badeng (Kenyah-Badang) lekupa line dance that match kendau kancet in style and structure (Matusky 1990).15 In the mid-1990s I included an example of kendau kancet on the annotated CD The Kenyah of Kalimantan (Indonesia) (Gorlinski 1994), and I also dedicated a small section of my dissertation to the genre (Gorlinski 1995). Philip Yampolsky later released a recording of kendau kancet (called lan ‘i’ here) on the CD Kalimantan Dayak Ritual and Festival Music (Yampolsky 1998), and he provided several paragraphs of description and analysis in the liner notes. Although very short, the inclusion of a description of the Kenyah Badeng lekupa dance songs, with text and music transcription, in the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 4, Southeast Asia (1998), was especially significant because it gave the genre exposure in a major music reference work. The first substantial publication to focus to any significant degree on kendau kancethoweverwas Malaysian music educator Chong Pek Lin’s Folk Songs of Sarawak: Songs from the Kenyah Community (Chong 1998). More than half of the nearly two dozen songs in her collection are kendau kancet—or belian dadu’as Chong refers to the repertoire in her workFor each of the songs, she provides text transcription and translation, music notation, and notes on unique elements of the song’s structure or style, as well as teaching points for classroom use.

It is interesting that no specific mention is made of songs of the kendau kancet type in Patricia Matusky and Tan Sooi Beng’s landmark work The Music of Malaysia (Matusky and Beng 2004), even though the repertoire shows a unity of melodic structure, texture, language (in large measure), and performance practice across diverse communities of the interior of Sarawak to a degree unparalleled by the vocal genres that are highlighted as representative of the region. Despite its wave of recognition in the academic literature in the mid-to-late 1990s, it seems that the kendau kancet tradition may again be slipping below the academic radar. There are, of course, many reasons for this, perhaps the most significant of which is the ongoing shortage of music research in—and on—Borneo as a whole. Another possibility may be that those who have conducted research in the area have focused primarily on the traditions of the senior segment of the community, a group that may not even acknowledge kendau kancet as a legitimate part of the vocal music corpus. If that has indeed been the case, kendau kancet would not likely find a place of prominence in those researchers’ work. I can’t but wonder, however, if, aside from Chong (Chong 1998), there has also been a general tendency among academics not to take this repertoire seriously. Just like some senior Kenyah, the academic community may be disregarding the repertoire, albeit for different reasons. This leads me back to the notion of authenticity.

While the oldest members of the community discredited kendau kancet on the basis of a perceived detachment from the “original source” in terms of linguistic character, target audience, and the gender of the performer, outside researchers, I speculate, have hesitated to acknowledge the repertoire merely on account of the structure and style of the musical product. The verse-refrain format of kendau kancet, and especially the periodic breaking of the chorus into parts, can be perceived as being a little too suggestive of hymn singing, and with no stylistic precedent elsewhere in the vocal-music corpus, kendau kancet seem to be disconnected from the original source. With the “inauthenticity” alarm thus sounded, researchers have fled the repertoire, as the familiarity of its sound ultimately posed a challenge to their own musical identity, integrity, and sense of self.

The Closing Curtain

Using the opening triptych as a springboard, my intention in this essay has been, first, to call attention to kendau kancet, an important but yet insufficiently recognized musical genre born in North Kalimantan, Indonesia, and raised in both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo. Second, I have used this opportunity to contemplate the different ways in which the kendau kancet tradition has been viewed and used to different ends by different communities. Specifically, I have focused—and speculated—on the role of notions of authenticity in the valuation of the repertoire in various settings, ultimately as this valuation has related to perception of self.

At the outset of the essay, I accepted the definition of “authenticity” as exhibiting an “appropriate connection” to the “original source.” As analysis of the back side of the triptych has revealed, we must explore from all angles what constitutes not only the “appropriate connection” but also the “original source.” Which elements of the perceived source have the capacity to validate or invalidate the authenticity of a music tradition for a given community? The form or structure of the musical product? The geographical source of the tradition? The context, function, aim, or target of the performance? The personal characteristics of the performer? The process of creation or acquisition? As illustrated by the kendau kancet case, neither the critical elements nor the concept of the “original source” itself are stable from one setting to the next. Indeed, they shift as we move from the village, to multiethnic downriver diaspora, to the international academic literature.

As we continue our research on kendau kancet, a tradition now at least in its second generation of practice, we must similarly continue to question our sources, in every sense of the term, and strive to account for the variety that we inevitably will encounter. Moreover, whenever the flag of authenticity is waved, we must explore what is being fled, and what is the image of self that is projected through that flight. It is only through such a multiangled approach that we will be able to gain a full perspective on the past, present, and future of the kendau kancet tradition.