In Memory of Laura

I first met Laura W.R. Appell in 1986 when she and husband George and their daughters had just returned to Sabah after many years. Newly working in Sabah’s Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, I had arranged to meet them at the Sabah Museum together with one of their Rungus friends, a village headman whose name (from memory) was KK Marajun. We met at the indoor marble steps going up to the Museum’s exhibition gallery. My immediate impression of Laura and George was that they were open and friendly, with a sincere love for Sabah and especially the Rungus.


Over the years, I came to know Laura well. In addition to public lectures and family get-togethers during their 1986 trip (they were friends of a couple of my husband’s brothers, the eldest of whom was then Sabah’s Chief Minister), we met up during many of their subsequent visits to Sabah and at Borneo Research Council international conferences. We also kept in touch by mail and later email. Laura was an amazing person. She had first lived among the Rungus with George and their first baby daughter Laura, during fieldwork for George’s doctorate from 1959-1960 and 1961-1963. George always credited Laura for the success of their fieldwork, especially with uncovering the details of the Rungus belief system and the intricacies of the ritual language. This was because, as in most indigenous Sabahan societies, only certain gifted women were the priestesses of the traditional religion among the Rungus. As a married woman with a child, Laura naturally formed friendships with the bobolizan or priestesses who themselves were married women with children. From them she learned about Rungus cosmology, ritual systems and family life. Laura’s research on the rinait, the huge body of chanted ritual poetry memorised by the bobolizan, formed the basis of the Sabah Oral Literature Project that was later established by Appells and their Rungus cultural dictionary.


Laura and I shared many things in common—our love for Sabah and its indigenous peoples, a passion for true ethnographic research, our love for our families and children. Laura encouraged me in my research into Sabah’s music. It was Laura who first told me about how novice bobolizan used to play the turali noseflute to learn the rinait—being prohibited from reciting the verses outside the ritual context, they would play the softly sounding noseflute to help memorise the patterns of the poetry. At the time, I thought that the imitation of the sound of rinait chanting was merely a melodic device for Rungus turali performance, just as the Lotud imitate the tunes of secular songs with their turali for entertainment, or the Kadazan Dusun of Tambunan copy stylized mourning crying with their turahi to express melancholy when they remember deceased relatives years later. Laura’s explanation based on firsthand experience with the bobolizan, however, provided a different perspective on Rungus noseflute performance practice.


I miss Laura, her bright blue eyes, her infectious laugh and sense of humor, and her practical straightforward approach to life. She was totally unpretentious and genuine, a loving and devoted wife, mother and grandmother, and a true friend.


Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan, Ph.D., Professor of Ethnomusicology, and
Holder of the Kadazandusun Chair,
Universiti Malaysia Sabah




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