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Sabahan Music 101: Traditional Musical Instruments

Published on 06 January 2018|
2 min read

by Stanley P, Carrybeans

Music plays a big part in many cultures of the world. For Sabah’s indigenous people, it’s no different. Local music, and its accompanying traditional musical instruments, have long played an important role in the development of local culture and heritage. From weddings to religious events, music has always been an integral part of Sabah’s indigenous people groups. Most ethnic groups have their own distinct sound and their own set of taboos with regard to the instruments.

For example, while Kadazan communities use gongs in funerals, other ethnic groups think of it as offensive as they only use it for festive and joyous occasions.

One thing all Sabahans can agree with, however, is that the traditional musical instruments definitely produce wonderful sounds and sweet melodies.

Listen to this cover of a popular Sabahan song using traditional instruments:

So, read on to know more about three of Sabah’s traditional musical instruments and how they sound!



Sompoton is definitely one of the most fascinating Sabahan instruments and one of Sabah’s most well-known among tourists and locals alike. Just look at the sompoton keychains and roundabout statue in Tambunan. People of Kadazan-Dusun and Murut ethnicity play this instrument during formal occasions as well as for personal entertainment.

To make a sompoton, eight bamboo pipes are arranged in a double layered raft. A dried gourd, which will act as the wind chamber, is attached to it before it is sealed using beeswax. The sompoton works similarly to a bagpipe; you can hear a soft and sweet sound when you blow through the mouthpiece on the gourd.



For many ethnic groups in Sabah, the gong plays a very important part in almost all social events. A set of gongs of different pitches is usually played together in a ceremony. However, the number of gongs used differs depending on the occasion.

A gong is usually made of galvanised iron, but many locals will tell you that a higher-quality gong should be made with brass. Unfortunately, gongs made of brass are very hard find these days So, if you manage to find one, prepare to empty your wallet as the prices get astronomically high!

Many ethnic groups regard gongs as a valuable family heirloom, even until today. They will give away gongs as part of a dowry, sogit (a fine), and play it during ceremonies.



The kulintangan is quite a special instrument since many regions in the Eastern Malay Archipelago have similar instruments in their cultures. Southern Philippines, Indonesia, East Malaysia, Brunei and Timor all share these instrument in different forms.

Kulintangan is played during religious ceremonies or any festive event, and it is usually a part of a bigger ensemble of gongs. Kulintangan is made up of six to nine brass kettle gongs arranged horizontally on a low wooden frame. The little gongs have different pitches, which can produce fast tunes when hit by two wooden mallets.

Unfortunately, traditional musical instruments are slowly losing their place among youths in favour of modern instruments. Efforts to keep the tradition alive definitely have not gone unnoticed, however.

We hope more people will appreciate the value of the instruments and the music because it would be a shame if Sabahans forget this part of our culture and heritage.

Do you know any other interesting traditional music instruments ? Tell us in the comment section below.

Ever wondered what your Sabahan friends actually meant when they said “boleh bah kalau kau”? You should read our guide on popular Sabahan phrases here

Featured Image Credit: Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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