At times, it is a series of random happenings that toss us from the everyday life to a totally unusual situation. A thin thread that binds words together to form sentences, and sentences to form proposals. With a bit of imagination, the step from proposal to action is short. So today, without any notice, as if by magic, I find myself transported from sitting at my desk in Krabi to sitting in the balcony of a hotel room in Damai, nearby Kuching in the Malaysian Borneo. I am looking at the bay, eyes fixed on a flat lazy sea, enjoying a cup of coffee and the sunset. The excuse, or rather the reason, is the Rainforest World Music Festival. While browsing the internet we come across this musical festival considered to be among the top 25 in the world. A chat with Thomas, only a short exchange of words, then an email sent to the organisers and it’s a done deal: in a short while we receive two media accreditation as reporter and photographer… not even the time to think twice, as the fate has already made up its mind for us: are you ready? Let’s go.
Music and tradition
We feel great as soon as we get there; there is a great vibe in the area: volunteers who tend to their tasks, groups of musicians who arrive in dribs and drabs from different countries, reporters, photographers and organisers. The whole world of folk music seems to have gathered here in Sarawak, the land that since my childhood, thanks to the tales of Italian writer Salgari, has always aroused in me its supposed charm. Of course, there is no longer room for his Malaysian pirates or headhunters, there is only music, drums and art. Nevertheless, someone like Mathew Ngau Jau, an icon of the festival to the point of being depicted in the official posters of the event, maintains that haircut and the way to dress typical of the old local population. Its people are no longer called Dayak, a name that evokes at least heavy headaches, but Iban, which is not a bank code but a more politically correct name; Mathew does not chop off heads, the last to do so in his family were probably his father and his grandfather. Mathew is confined to filling heads with musical keys, with sounds and melodies that come out gracefully from his instrument, a kind of locally handcrafted guitar called ‘sape’. We wander aimlessly amongst various areas of the hotel, simply enjoying the surroundings, allowing ourselves to absorb the variety of people getting lazy under the sun, besides the pool or at the beach, sipping a drink, registering at the reception or gathering information at the Rainforest Festival desk. People of all races, coming from countries far and near, but all united by the same passion: music.
It is funny to think that, in a world where we tend to globalise, to flatten, to adapt to a particular and more anonymous idea, here at the Rainforest World Music Festival compound, a different situation occurs: the navel of the musical world are the local realities, the folk, the ethnic and the regional style that impose the strength of the artists’ identities to an international audience eager to absorbe them. An audience that, in the space of three days, will empathise each day in different musical traditions, making them their own. So, to cite the ‘Berlinese’ Kennedy, today here we are all Africans, then all Croats, and then a little bit Koreans, and tomorrow all Colombians. There will be no room for anti-Americanism when the Pine Leaf Boys will sing the songs of Louisiana accompanied by violins and accordions; the Iranian nuclear issue will surely be a lesser priority when Mohsen Sharifian & the Lian Band from Iran will perform on stage their songs and their traditional dances, explaining between one song and another that religion interpretation in their country does not allow them to represent their art in their own homes, hence they are able to hold, albeit with difficulty, only concerts abroad. They are almost touching these Iranian guys, for the genuine passion they feel towards their traditions and with which they expose their day to day hardships. It is true, nobody is a prophet in his own country…
A meaningful festival
We notice instead that other groups feel prophets both at home and abroad, and can afford the luxury of talking about less particularistic and more international issues. In Sarawak, it is clear that the priority matter is the rainforest, so mistreated in all parts of the world, but taken good care of by the local governments in this region. It is no coincidence that the first ceremony we took part in saw us planting young shrubs in an area of town that was mostly lacking, and it’s rather significant that words like forest, nature and protection find here their practical applications and a meaning that goes beyond the demagoguery. The authorities are quite strict in maintaining their natural assets, a local guide told us. To put it in a nutshell, you can generate revenue for all using the natural resources around us rather than exploiting them, squeezing them like lemons and then crying because we have lost them. And they can do it with a certain coherence and style if what we were told is true: that the Government, for instance, visit and compensate the victims of the attacks by a protected species: crocodiles.
Music from all over the world
Therefore, in a region where nature is considered our real mother, songs dedicated to the forest by Kries (Croatian), by Chet Nuneta (group of French origin but multi-ethnic both in its individuality and its music production) and by Dizu Plaatjies & Ibuyambo Ensemble (South Africans) is not out of place. Not to mention of course the music of the various groups of Sarawak, people for whom the earth resources have always been the only real wealth; they represent a Soundtrack both appropriate for the spectacular environment that surrounds us, and for the definite efforts made by those who administer the region, fortunately with some success.
All the rest is music, music and more music. Music that flies between east and west, musical keys generated by traditional and modern instruments that are combined together in a harmony between past and present. And who on Earth ever said that a ‘Diple’ (a kind of bagpipe used by the Croats) or an accordion cannot have an electric guitar, a bass or drums as accompaniment? Everything that is produced here is melody, keys, sounds, no matter where they come from.
The festival, taking place at the Sarawak Cultural Village, a 45 minutes drive from Kuching, is spread over three days. There, among the stalls selling typical Malaysian food, tattoo artists and souvenirs vendors, press conferences where the various bands take turn, interactive seminars where the audience assumes the role of protagonist, and the evening concerts. The afternoon seminars certainly aroused a great interest and a major turnout. After all, it cannot be otherwise since guitarists or drummers of each band are working together to present their tools, some well known and others that are mysterious objects created by some kind of indigenous muse, but when they start playing together, they become one with a communal harmony that makes listeners shudder.
In other workshops, artists give demonstrations of traditional dances, and the Australian Aborigines with their painted bodies are the masters of the genre: they launch themselves into brief but suggestive dances that recall the daily life in war and in peace. The group of South Africans is not less effective: they move on stage with the grace of gazelles, with an innate sense of rhythm, with the lithe and sensual movements of their women that match those of their males counterparts in an alliance of forms and gestures that leave you breathless, especially if accompanied by voices that penetrate the soul deeply.
Concerts, and more concerts
Finally, at night, the concerts are given plenty of attention; they take place without interruption and last for about five hours in total each night. The opening stage is entrusted to local musicians and to their songs, often prayers or gratitudes to the gods; to musical instruments that you would never have believed existed, like the nose flute; to their traditional costumes that take you back, for a short time, to a past era that continues to bring back memories. It is then the turn of foreign groups to gratify the public and to be gratified in turn with shots of enthusiasm, with emotional involvement, with lots of dancing. Each band obviously reflects the characteristics of its world through musical instruments, rhythms and the ability to manage the scene; all, without exception, give cause for elation to an audience eager to get exited, expressing themselves to the fullest and proving to be the first to have fun: like the Colombians, who have the rhythm, music and cumbia in their blood and it seems that they cannot do without it, or like the Danes, a real mini orchestra made up of strings, brass, keyboards, guitars and accordion singing and playing tunes that make you feel like you are living the atmosphere of a smoky pub in Copenhagen.
In my opinion, the most exciting moment, the peak of a festival that has offered tons of emotions, has to be the performance of the South African group, and the words of its leader as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, followed by the songs that they have dedicated to him. Behind me is an audience waving enthusiastically to the rhythm of drums, and in my mind surfaces the awareness that the African fever is like malaria, it periodically recurs…
The three days of music have flown past, taken away by the notes that have filled every leaf of the forest. The music is over and the people leave… Those musicians who have finished their show start to leave as early as the afternoon of the third day, and at the end of the last night the stage lights go off the and the curtains fall on the Rainforest World Music Festival. Calm descends on the Sarawak Cultural Village and on the hotel that has hosted us and the musicians. A silent goodbye that feels like a farewell. From the balcony of my room, I observe the same sight as the one I marvelled on the first day here, but now it is at night; I am struck by the silence, the absence of music. All of a sudden, a distant accordion, percussions… is it an illusion? No, it is a cumbia! Colombians have music in their blood and are there to finish it off in style; we join the last few people by the edge of the pool and embark once again in a journey of sounds and dances; after a little while, a Danish violin and an accordion join the fun until the wee hours of the morning, and the magical atmosphere of this Rainforest Festival is set to continue for the rest of the notes, changing a sad farewell into a goodbye: goodbye till Rainforest World Music Festival 2014.
For next year dates and line-up, browse www.rwmf.net