Personally, I appreciate traditions in an almost exaggerated way. The phrases, the actions, the events; in one word, a culture that characterises the roots of a people and which, in oral or written form, is handed down from generation to generation. I think it is important to know where we come from and to whom or to what we owe for being who we are today.
Sure enough, the world is shrinking, peoples are mingling with each other generating new cultures. These new cultures are the natural result of a mix of original cultures, and we are rapidly moving towards a world in which the new password is globalisation. This is a nice word, an end in itself, were it not for the fact that the meaning attributed to it almost universally does not appear as exclusive. On the contrary, it tends to exclude individual cultures to the advantage of a “non-culture” that must include everyone but that does not represent anyone.
We can clearly see this in the controversies surrounding the definition of World Music. This term was coined by the American ethnomusicologist Robert Edward “Bob” Brown to describe music influenced by traditional cultures. World Music has nowadays taken on an almost derogatory meaning for the use of it by the music industry and record labels of the Western world in the 1980s to describe non-English recordings. Multi-instrumentalist and music producer Brian Clark believes that this term classifies “most non-Western music into an outcast group destined to the fringes of music festivals and lonely corner music shops”.
Asia is the cradle of ancient civilisations, and in the specific case here in Sarawak, progress in its various forms cannot ignore the past. Today the Dayak people are called Iban, and though they have obviously modernised, they still adopt the principles of a past to which they have always been related. This can be seen in those Iban who still live by choice in the Longhouses, a kind of wooden one-storey “condominiums” often built on stilts. These longhouses give shelter to several families and were originally created with the aim of keeping groups united so to defend oneself from the frequent incursions of other tribes. It can also be seen in those original tattoos that almost every local has, and that reflect symbols of bygone times. Last but not least, it can definitely be seen in the evolution of local music which, while moving forward, always maintains a certain attention to what is produced by its fathers.
This is something we noticed straight away at the Rainforest World Music Festival, right from the usual meetings with the artists, where on more than one occasion the thin and not so invisible thread that inextricably binds various generations was remarked.
Pinanak Sentah are six kids with clean faces and reading glasses, something that denounces a lot of time spent on books. They are Malaysians, from Siburan, less than 50km from Kuching, and they are somehow making their musical dream come true. They are a family: brothers and cousins accompanied by their father/uncle, who is also a musician, but who is not active part of the group. Well, not physically at least. But in terms of idea, he is the inspirer model for his children and grandchildren that range from the 15 years of drummer Emmanuel to the 26 years of guitarist Akinson and keyboardist Rick. They play a mix of tribal and modern music accompanied by both traditional and modern instruments. They are able to switch, with the ease of consummate musicians, from a Sape to a bass and an electric guitar, and from wooden xylophones to drums.
We chatted with them off the stage, where they sported a certain confidence. The smile that lit up on their faces was not ostentatious or flaunted; it was genuine, spontaneous and typical of that age in which one looks at the world with confidence, aware that the world is in their hands.
Then you see them on stage and, assuming there is still room for a transformation, this transformation takes place there. Emmanuel skilfully strikes his instrument by sliding his sticks on the drums with the exuberance of his 15 years of age; Natalina, 17, who seemed almost intimidated by our questions during the press meeting, replaces her top-of-the-class student glasses with colourful beaded hair clips, immerses herself in a private world of her own, and produces harmonic sounds from her jatung utang, a kind of wooden xylophone, focusing seriously only on her instrument. She smiles little on stage: perhaps the large audience that listens in religious silence intimidates her. In the end, she is still little more than a child; nevertheless, she does not show it and she manages to deliver a feeling of mastery for each instrument that she plays. And only when at the end of each piece the silence is interrupted by thunderous applause, she lets herself go to a satisfied, not so imperceptible smile. What a beauty.
Then there is 20 years old Ethania, a little secluded in the background. She plays the bass with delicacy, elegance and confidence. In front of her stand the two front-men, who together represent the ideological synthesis of the group: Ethaniel, 22 years old, a neat haircut, traditional clothing and a Sape in his arms, instrument that he masters without hesitation; and the aforementioned Akinson on the electric guitar: a red ribbon in his hair and an attitude that is somewhat reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix. Pinanak Sentah are there, on stage, with their father/uncle who, after passing the baton of tradition to them, observes from behind the scenes this Malaysian musical fable that continues its path towards a future that does not give space to amnesia on the past.
These are second generations: groups that grew up with the tribal music of their fathers in the ears, together with rock, jazz and pop.
Wayan Balawan is a Balinese musician on the threshold of his fifties, and he is considered one of the fastest guitarists in World Music, to the point of being nicknamed the “guitarist with the magic finger” in Indonesian musical circles. Balawan grew up listening to rock music, and he talks to me about his passion for the Beatles and the Deep Purple, something we share. He also tells me how he went from gamelan – a kind of traditional Indonesian orchestra – through rock to jazz, which he studied at the Australian Institute of Music in Sidney. Balawan has always maintained a connection with the music of his fathers through the instruments his band employ.
At the Rainforest World Music Festival, Balawan played with the line-up he founded on his return from Australia, the Batuan Ethnic Fusion, which combine the Balinese style of gamelan with a form of fusion jazz. On stage, they gave life to a brilliant and exciting show.
These are just two of several examples of generational transitions that we witnessed during the festival. The mentality and the firm will of not wanting to see the extinction of the ancient arts of the folk people starts to spread also on an educational level in Sarawak. Persatuan Anak Seni Sape Kuching is an NGO that caters to children, teaching them how to play the Sape, the most traditional of traditional instruments, and after less than a year of activity they have already reached thirty registrations. This clearly suggests that tribal music will have its own continuity and future. And the best support we can give them is to attend to World Music festivals! Thanks again to Rainforest World Music Festival for the amazing experience. Not to be missed.