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Home » Kutai Sultan Palace (Mulawarman Museum) » Sampek: the melodious strings of the Dayak

Sampek: the melodious strings of the Dayak

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There is a proverb inscribed in the Dayak literature that says: ‘Tekuak Lawe’: “Sape’ benutah tulaang to’ awah” literally meaning that “the sounds of a Sampek can crush the bones of a wandering spirit”. This simply expresses the sheer mesmerizing attraction that radiates from the Sampek, the unique traditional musical instrument of the indigenous Dayak of East Kalimantan.


In the Dayak language, Sampek literally means “Plucking with fingers”, therefore, it is a string musical instrument that is played with the fingers – not unlike the classic guitar. The name of this unique instrument itself varies across several sub-groups of Dayaks.  Sampek or Sampe is a term used by the Dayak Kenyah, while the Dayak Bahau and Kanyaan call it : Sape. The Dayak Mondang recognize the instrument as Sempe, while the Dayak Tunjung and Banua call it kecapai –similar to kecapi, a string instrument found in West Java.


A Sampek is shaped like the traditional boat with a hollow stern –thus it is also known as a boat lute instrument. The front part is decorated with black and red plakat paint in traditional Borneo tribal patterns. Unlike a regular guitar, the neck and body are one, carved from a single tree trunk. If the tuning head of a Dambus of Bangka is carved in the form of a deer head, the Sampek’s tuning head is decorated with carving of the head of the Hornbill Bird. The Hornbill bird, known in the local language as ‘Temengan’ is an icon of the Dayak and is held sacred.


Sampek has 3 to 5 strings which can be tuned with round wooden pegs from both sides of the peghead. Each string is the same gauge and has its own small bamboo bridge, giving each a different string length. Originally strings were made from enau palm fibers, however, today regular steel strings are used. There are no standard tuning for Sampek nor a standard notes scale, the player relies completely on his own feelings in playing the instrument. This makes it special since the notes or chords coming out of Sampek are unique and solely driven by the unique expressions of the player.


Sampek is usually played at various celebrations and folk festivities such as at the rice harvest celebrations of Gawai Padai. Although it is mainly a solo instrument, it can also be played in an ensemble with two or more Sampeks. It can also be played to accompany a dance performance such as the Datun Julut Dance.


There is a legend among the Dayak that revolves around the creation of Sampek. It is said that once there was a boat carrying several persons that became shipwrecked by the river’s strong current. Only one survived the accident and he was stranded on an island in the middle of the river. In an almost unconscious state, the man softly heard beautiful melodic music. The sounds that came from the bottom of the river slowly grew ever clearer which finally restored him to full consciousness. The man suddenly realized that he was rescued by the ancestors and reached home safely. At his homecoming , the man  created the musical instrument that had rescued him when he was om the island. This is the instrument that is today known as the Sampek.

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Sampek:  the melodious strings of the Dayak

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