Set in the lush jungles of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, the annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) is one of the region’s most popular events, a three-day weekend of music and dance held every year in Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong. When I received a media invitation from its organizers, the Sarawak Tourism Board, I did not need to think twice, booked our ticket to Sarawak’s main town Kuching and got excited in anticipation of what I would experience.
The Sarawak RWMF, which started in 1998, has earned wide international acclaim for its cultural uniqueness thanks to wonderful live performances by world singers and bands, an international lineup of folk and world music groups that get involved in daily workshops and nightly concerts. It would be appropriated to say that RWMF is today one of Malaysia’s largest musical event for an enthusiastic audience that keeps coming back year after year.
WHO IS BEHIND
The Rainforest World Music Festival is the brainchild of the organizer, the Sarawak Tourism Board, which also runs the annual Borneo Jazz Festival in Miri, northern Sarawak. Since its humble beginnings in 1998, the festival has grown in popularity and into a world-class event – hence a more commercial one – with an audience that went from 400 people to 25,000 of last year, all gathering in Sarawak to experience some of the finest acts on the World Music circuit, as well as afternoon workshops and mini-concerts, a crafts market and a great variety of local foods to be tasted.
The venue of the Rainforest World Music Festival is the Sarawak Cultural Village, located in Damai, on the north coast, a 45-minutes-drive from Kuching town. The village grounds are set against the magnificent and majestic jungle-clad Mount Santubong, at its foothills, where you really feel part of the rainforest. Locals and regular festival-goers always hope for a bit of rain to bless the festival and make them feel more attached to nature.
The Rainforest World Music Festival brings together a mouth-watering feast of renowned world musicians from all continents on the planet, some coming from as far as Colombia, as well as indigenous musicians from the interior areas of Borneo. A showcase of musical talents performing musical genres spanning from traditional music, to world fusion and contemporary world music. The participating criteria emphasize the use of traditional acoustic world instruments, although electric accompaniment instruments are common.
The festival invited performers from Sarawak and other provinces of Malaysia, and especially indigenous musicians from the remote interior of Borneo. 21 bands in all, 13 international and eight from Malaysia, walked the boards on two main stages, alternating musical genres as the evenings developed and local and international talents performed to the clapping of the crowds.
Sarawakian groups opened each evening of concerts, and included: native performers Lan-E Tuyang were impressive with their native Borneo music, a blend of traditional tunes and sounds, played on the iconic Sape; Gema SLDN-SCV with their various different local percussion instruments such as drums, gongs and bamboo; Juk Wan Emang displayed his skills with the rare and dying nose flute of Sarawak in an acclaimed performance; Madeeh played centuries-old traditional Bidayuh root music on hand-made bamboo instruments and drums; the Sangyin Chinese Chamber Music Ensemble, showcasing the flavor of Malaysian folk music interwoven with Chinese traditional instruments; and finally Maya Green, with their legendary boat lute of Sarawak, the Sape, played majestically by Dato Medan Abdullah.
Malaysia was represented by the widely awarded and well-known Rhythm in Bronze, who enchanted the audience with their Gongs and Gamelans, traditional tunes mixed with contemporary compositions. The international line up comprised 13 bands amongst which Rafly Wa Saja from Indonesia, Iran’s Mohsen Sharifian & The Lian Band, Australia’s Nunukul Yuggera, Denmark’s Habadekuk, South Africa’s Dizu Plaatjies & The Ibuyambo Ensemble, Ukraine’s Spiritual Seasons, the USA’s Pine Leaf Boys, France’s Chet Nuneta, Colombia’s Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica, Croatia’s Kries, Ireland’s Kila and Palsandae from Korea. They played every single genre you can imagine, from medieval, Irish and Scandinavian folk tunes to aboriginal African and Australian vibes, to rock and blues and cumbia and more. All unique performances that graced this year’s wonderful Rainforest World Music Festival.
The Rainforest World Music Festival concerts took place on 2 different stages located next to each other near the Cultural Village lawn: the Jungle Stage and the Tree Stage. This set-up made it possible to seamlessly switch from one band to the next without any idle setup time. Video screens and speakers were positioned all over the village compound to ensure no-one missed any bands, so you could still excuse yourself for a while to enjoy food and drinks from the local stalls, or to head to the counter where the festival memorabilia, and CDs and DVDs from participating artists were for sale (no plastic bag was handed out though, in line with the environmentally-friendly characteristic of this festival and of Sarawak in general), as well as cultural and craft displays.
The concerts took place after dawn under a canopy of tree and the night sky, and lasted until 12:30 am. The festival is appropriately named as the rain was indeed experienced, though on a small scale. During the rainy minutes, the audience put their raincoats on and danced as in a trance rave in the relatively muddy part of the grounds.
Once the evening concerts were over, the action moved informally to the Damai Beach Resort grounds nearby for a few jam-sessions, chats and drinking sessions that grouped up musicians, members of media and some of the audience who stayed at the resort. In fact, one of the other features of this festival is that there are no restrictions in communicating with the performers, and the musicians themselves encourage conversation, especially at the afternoon workshops or during their idle time.
The 3-day program at the Rainforest World Music Festival started in daytime with mini-shows and workshop sessions where performers from various countries conducted gatherings related to their music and songs in three
different traditional houses within the Sarawak Cultural Village: Dewan Lagenda, Iban Longhouse and the Theatre. The members of the audience interested in getting to know more about how to play an instrument or sing a tune or dance a dance, enjoyed interactive sessions, ethno-musical lectures as well as dance workshops.
In a relaxed atmosphere and thanks to a more than flexible timetables for the workshops, we learned about traditional Aboriginal body rites, music and traditions of the Bidayuh people, different types of drum percussions and string instruments, the origin of the traditional gong, and many more sounds and music and traditions from around the world. It was a relaxed yet delightful and mind-filling experience. Artists are seen as human beings, walking through the site throughout the duration of the festival, and always willing to a chat with members of the audience.
WHAT ABOUT US
The Rainforest World Music Festival left in us a feeling of hope for reconciliations amongst all the world races. Not only did the festival attract plenty of musicians, but it also gathered audience of so many nationalities who flooded to Kuching from all over the world and who displayed different languages and skin colors and ways to dress and behave, all lulled by dazzling lights and spectacular sounds. It was such a fulfilled and wholesome festival experience that we do not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in… music and people! It was an unforgettable event for us and for every visitor, where to experience the warmth of ethnic music, the colors and variety of performers’ costumes and instruments, all transforming the place into a mystical festival for the ears and the eyes.
Thumbs-up for the organizers at Sarawak Tourist Board for the brilliant logistical skills that have ensured a relaxed atmosphere at the place and the good spirit among comfortable guests. Traffic and parking was not a problem thanks to several shuttle buses which departed hourly to/from all the major hotels in Kuching: Grand Magherita, Grand Continental, Riverside Majestic, Hilton, Harbour View, Merdeka Palace and more.
Crowd security was impeccable, with members of Police deployed throughout the festival grounds with sniffer dogs to detect any illicit ‘green substances’.
More than 80% of the audience came from outside Sarawak, and the Rainforest World Music Festival is such a draw that special tour packages for the event are on offer in Europe.
The Rainforest World Music Festival is a guarantee for enjoyment, for mixing and matching, and for a fun-packed visit to Kuching, Borneo, if you happen to be around towards the end of June. Dates for the 2014 event have been already set: 20-22 June 2014. Check it out and buy your tickets on www.rwmf.net
Whether you are new to Rainforest World Music Festival or a veteran, you will not regret it.