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Penan Handicraft

The Penan were once a solely nomadic people, living in the depths of the jungle and moving from place to place.  Therefore, they carried little in the way of possessions.  What they did have was carried in elegant and beautiful woven rattan backpacks/baskets called keva.  These were the pride of Penan women, their creative expression and a representation of the Penan’s cultural bond with the forest.  Though most Penan are now semi-nomadic or settled in villages, the traditional weaving techniques are still practiced by Penan women, and passed down from mother to daughter.  The men still use keva when they go hunting or fishing, the women when they collect fern, tapioca and sago. Rattan mats still line the floors of Penan houses and rattan bracelets are still given as tokens of friendship and remembrance.

Thus, for the Penan, these items are not mere representations of their nomadic past, but are practical and necessary objects, used in daily life.  As always, inviting admiration and evoking spiritual meaning.

The handicraft is made from wild jungle rattan, stripped, smoothed and treated with the sap of a plant and buried overnight in mud for colouring.  Then, carefully woven into intricate and meaningful designs.

Visitors to the Picnic with the Penan community tourism project will be able to purchase some of these beautiful items from the Penan villages or at the Seka Development Centre in Miri.  Visitors may also choose to include a class in Penan weaving in their visit to the Penan villages. It is worth noting that souvenir shops in the towns also often sell woven baskets like these, but they are usually of greatly inferior quality.  This weaving is the traditional practice of the Penan, passed down from generation to generation and still used in their daily lives.


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Penan Music

As a nomadic tribe living independently in the forest, the Penan developed their own musical instruments, which are quite distinct from the instruments found elsewhere in Borneo.  They are, of course, made from forest materials and are light enough to carry and play while walking.

The men play the keringot, which is a nose flute.  Here is Issac making a keringot from bamboo.

This is a recording of the keringot, played by Maurice.  As you will hear, the sound is beautiful and ethereal.  One can imagine it echoing out into the jungle at night.

The women play a stringed instrument called the Pagang.  It is made of bamboo, with strips cut and raised from the bamboo to create strings.

The Penan ladies would play the Pagang as they walked through the forest.  The songs represented stories, myths and imitated animal sounds. It is said though, that if a man played the Pagang, he would be eaten by  wild animal.  Thus, the Pagang is played by Penan women only.  Here is a Penan elder playing;

I hope you enjoyed these recordings. Whilst staying with the Penan, you may like to listen to some Penan music, learn to play or even have your very own Pagang or Keringot made.  🙂


Filed under Cultural activities