There is an article in The British North Borneo Herald from 1925 which describes a visit by some British officials to Kamabong [i.e., Kemabong] for a day of sports and a night of dancing.
Kamabong was in the southwestern part of British North Borneo, and was inhabited by a people known as the Murut.
When the Murut traditionally held celebrations, there were a couple of things that they would do. First of all, they would drink a kind of rice wine called “tapai” or “tajau.” This is a kind of drink that you find in other parts of Southeast Asia as well. Essentially what people do is to put rice and yeast in a ceramic jar and let it ferment. Once it has done so, they add water, and it is ready to drink, and it is drunk through long thin bamboo straws.
In addition to consuming tapai, the other thing that the Murut would traditionally do at a celebration would be to dance on a “lansaran” or “papan.” A lansaran or papan was a kind of dance floor that could move up and down several inches and which could hold 30 or 40 people at the same time.
There appear to have been at least a couple of different ways to build a lansaran/papan. One way was to place the floor on top of some bent saplings, as in the above image.
Another way was to build a floor that could bend down until it hit a supporting structure below it, as in the picture above.
These days about the only place where you can find a lansaran is at a place like the Mari Mari Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. There it is used to play a kind of game where people try to jump higher than others.
Apparently this game was also played in the past, but the lansaran was also used as a place to dance.
This is how such a dance was described in a 1952 article [M. C. Clarke, “The Murut Home, Part I,” Man 52 (1952): 17-18.]
“All members of the village—men, women and children—join in, and the floor may hold as many as 20 or 30 dancers at a time. Several pot-bellied children usually collect in the center of the floor. Around them is a circle of men linked by hands, with a second circle of women on the outside (strict separation of the sexes in this way is not always followed).
“By concerted downward pressure with their feet the dancers soon have the papan bouncing up and down on the sapling springs, and the dancing consists of everyone slowly making their way, step by step, round and round the papan in an anti-clockwise direction, each step being a pace sideways to the right and inwards, and then outwards a little, in rhythm with the movements of the floor.”
With all of the above information in mind, let’s take a look at how some British officials experienced a celebration with tapai and dancing on the lansaran in Kamabong in 1925:
“The sun has sunk below the frowning hills and all that sort of things. Dum-dom go the gongs and whack whack goes the springy dancing floor as it hits the bending poles. There are about thirty men in the middle of the 12’x12’ floor surrounded by a ring of Kaiams [I’m not sure what this means] holding hands; these in turn are surrounded by a ring of red white and black apparelled damsels all holding hands and facing inwards.
“The men are in the full Murut costume, chawat, feathers, beads and rudder sporran (I forget the official term.) The damsels are in smart black sarongs with a broad band of white beads round the hips and a strip of red cloth would round the breast. They have light colored tillets round their glossy black hair which is gracefully looped low on the left shoulder and tucked into the tillet.
“‘Do-ai-kan-di-lo-oo’ booms the song in sonorous base voices not unpleasingly mingled with the shriller voices of the damsels’ reply. With short side steps and slightly bending knees, the whole crowd sways slowly round and round. As the dance proceeds the floor is caused to spring up and down like a bobbing boat in a short choppy sea.
“We join in. . . I, but lately from the Tapai tajau, miss-kick and am shot clean through the roof—well nearly anyway. I embrace a loudly bawling Kaiam; the Kaiam bawls louder and embraces me.
“Bagat is tickling the damsels’ backs as they gracefully bob past with their dumpling like faces and shapely arms and shoulders. Salleh yelps with delight as he makes the dancers blink with an electric torchlight.
“A distinguished visitor is sucking tapai (and cheating) ear to ear with a merry little wench who doesn’t mind quaffing three tandas to his one; he wears a “dastar” and hornbill’s plume and reminds me of a musical comedy Balkan Prince.
“The Resident with beads of perspiration on his brow soberly sits discoursing with the Elders.
“Something pushes past my leg; I look down, it is a brave whose powers of locomotion have been temporarily retarded by the gentle tapai. He pushes his way with unerring directness to the bubbling bamboo in the tapai jar firmly lashed to a post.
“Through a slight crack in the din I hear Sir Harry Lauder exhorting the lads to cuddle the lassies,–from the gramophone, the inevitable ubiquitous gramophone.
“We stagger out into the open air, a cutting bitter blast when compared with the solid frowst of the house.
“The revelers are left,–in heaps three deep all around; yet as we tuck in our klambu, booming through the darkness comes the song. . .
Sir Harry Lauder was a Scottish entertainer who often sang about “lassies.” I’m not sure which song was on the gramophone at that time, but I would like to think that it was “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” (“gloaming” means “twilight”):
I’ve seen lots of bonnie lassies travellin’ far and wide,
But my heart is centred noo on bonnie Kate McBride;
And altho’ I’m no a chap that throws a word away,
I’m surprised mysel’ at times at a’ I’ve got to say–
Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde,
Roamin’ in the gloamin’ wi’ ma lassie by ma side,
When the sun has gone to rest, that’s the time that I like best,
O, it’s lovely roamin’ in the gloamin’!
What a scene this must have been—drunk revelers in a longhouse dancing on a lansaran while Sir Harry Lauder sang on the gramophone about cuddling lassies. . .
This makes me want to know more about what relations were really like between the British and the various indigenous peoples of Borneo. An account like this one makes this even seem innocent, but I’d be curious to know if there were other sides to the story.
Whatever the case may be, this was a fascinating world.
The full article can be found here: