The vanishing notes of the sompoton


George Albert Nuli making a sompoton at his home in Kampung Tempasuk 1, Kota Belud.

KOTA KINABALU: George Albert Nuli has been making sompotons, a traditional Kadazandusun Murut mouth organ, since leaving secondary school over 30 years ago.

George, who is of Dusun Tindal descent, is part of a rare group of people who make the wind instrument for a living.

For many years, his craft has sustained him and his family, but he worries about what will happen when he is no longer around.

He says the younger generation, including his own children, are not keen on learning how to make the iconic instrument, let alone turning it into a profession.

“Looking at the trend among the younger generation now, I worry about whether I can pass down this art to my children, or other young people.

“I don’t think all of them will take it up,” he adds, referring to his four children. “But I am hopeful that at least one of them will.”

George works from his home in Kampung Tempasuk 1, Kota Belud. He learnt his craft from his grandfather, who made sompotons as a hobby.

“My SPM results were not that good and I struggled to find a job. I didn’t actually think of making sompotons at first but I chose to do it as a profession because I saw there was a lot of demand for it.”

George sorts through bamboo shafts collected from a forest nearby to make a sompoton.

Over time, George perfected his skills, eventually coming up with his own 10, 12 and 16-pipe versions in addition to the traditional eight-pipe variety. They range in cost from RM50 to RM150.

The sompoton differs from the flute, as it is played by both inhaling and exhaling.

“Maybe some of the young people think that playing the sompoton is not cool because it’s seen as traditional and rural, but I beg to differ,” George says.

“Anyone can play the guitar or other modern instruments, but only a few can play the sompoton. That makes you stand out.”

There are two types of sompoton makers, he says: one makes real mouth organs while the other makes sompotons for ornamental purposes such as keychains or table-top decorations.

It takes him three to four days to complete one sompoton, longer if the process of collecting raw material – bamboo and dried gourd – is included.

“The secret to making good solid sompotons is picking the right bamboo shafts of a certain thickness, and the bark of a tree called polod – the reed – that is cut into small pieces to produce the sound.”

George shows the sompotons he makes, including a specially designed 16-pipe version.

His grandfather taught him that bamboo can only be collected when there is no moon in the sky, while the palm trees must face the direction of the sun.

“It is hard work, from the raw material selection to the process of making the sompoton.

“Maybe that’s also why the young are not interested. Nowadays, they want everything instantly, at the click of a button.”

Sompoton makers receive some assistance from the Sabah Tourism Board, but other than that, help from the authorities has been sorely lacking.

“Some schools play a role in encouraging students to play the instrument, but maybe other government agencies can also contribute so that the industry can grow,” says George.

“I’m sure there are other sompoton makers out there, but the fact that I don’t know any shows you the kind of industry networking we have, which is sad.”

For now, he does what he can to keep interest alive in the younger generation by teaching children how to play the sompoton.

He is also thinking about teaching others how to make the instrument “because if the craft is not continued, we might not see any sompotons in the future”.

Of course, the monetary returns in sompoton-making are nowhere near that of the corporate world. But for George, keeping tradition alive is of greater value.

“Although I’m not rich, my family and I are okay with what sompoton-making has given us.”

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