Awarded as one of the Top 25 music festivals in the world for 5 consecutive years (2010-2014) by Songlines, UK, the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) is one of the biggest musical events in Malaysia; and the biggest tourism draw to Sarawak. This festival celebrates traditional, folk, and fusion music from international and local bands and musicians; and introduces the audience to a musical genre not easily heard in mainstream music platforms.
Every year, the RWMF is held in the Sarawak Cultural Village; 40km west of Kuching and snuggled between the legendary Mount Santubong and the South China Sea. The 2 main stages are set against the backdrop of the rainforest; a unique and appropriate setting to listen to music that comes from and exalts the land, the people, and their culture. While the afternoon workshops are held in the traditional wooden stilt houses of the indigenous tribes of Sarawak. This setting creates an intimate atmosphere, reducing the chasm between the artists and the audience.
This year marks the 17th edition of the festival and it brought 16 international and 7 Malaysian performers.
They are: Blackheard’s Tea Party (England), Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (Italy), Dakhabrakha (Ukraine), Debademba (Burkina Faso/Mali/France), Ding Yi Music Companay (Singapore), Gordie Mackeeman &His Rhythm Boys (Canada), Horomona Hora (New Zealand), Jagwa Music (Tanzania), Kalakan (Spain), Karinthalakoottam (India), Lo Cor De La Plana (France), James Smith’s Mabon (Wales)
Ryuz (Japan), Stephen Micus (Germany), Son Yambu (Cuba), Talago Buni (Indonesia), Gema Seribu (Sarawak), Nading Rhapsody (Sarawak), Geng Wak Long (Malaysia), Yayasan Warisan Johore (Malaysia), Bisaya Gong Orchestra (Sarawak), Lan E Tuyang (Sarawak), 1Drum.org (Malaysia)
With such a diverse group of performers, it ensured that there was something for everyone to enjoy.
The afternoon workshops
The afternoon workshops are usually informative, educational and entertaining. In some workshops, audience were introduced to different music, instruments, and rhythm; while in others, audience were taught how to dance, such as the joget, the ngajat, the fiery tarantella of Italy, etc. The informal setting ensures that the audience could interact with the artists.
The first afternoon I went to the Plucked, Strummed & Struck workshop at the Iban longhouse; where guitars, sape, mandolin, banjo and other string instruments had an interesting jamming session. The instrument that looked out-of-place was the Yang Qin (a traditional Chinese string instrument), because while most string instruments are cradled in 2 hands, the Yang Qin rests on a stand with the player hitting the strings with 2 bamboo sticks. But the differences melted away when the musicians started playing one tune after another. Geographical distance was melted away and cultural differences had no room in the harmonious melody; no wonder it’s said that music is a universal language.
One of my favourite workshops was the one Horomona Hora (New Zealand) taught the audience how to do the Haka! It was quite hilarious seeing small size Asians and children trying to make scary Haka faces that are meant to intimidate. Everyone was having fun, and laughter rang out from the venue like magnet to attract more people. Soon the hall was packed to the brim. Horomona Hora was an excellent instructor; he went through the steps slowly while explaining their meaning. After about an hour of instructions and repetitions, some of us finally got it. So now we could do the Haka before any sport events to scare our opponents.
For 3 nights, audience were showered with beautiful music, and they responded in kind as they danced and clapped in tempo (or not). Saturday night saw the largest number of audience; the patch of green in front of the 2 stages was packed with people, and the immediate area in front of the stages was crammed with people dancing and jumping (for those who can’t dance). When the performance ended at one stage and the next performance started in the other stage, the throng of people would flock from one stage to the other like moths being drawn by light.
Each night I had one favourite performance, but one band stole my heart. I had never heard music from the Ukraine and when Dakhabrakha performed on the 2nd night, they shocked the audience with their fusion music of sound and soul. Dressed in their traditional costume with black woolen hats, the quartet entranced the audience with their strong haunting vocal and powerful beats. I was hooked and didn’t want it to end.
However, it was the opening night that I had the most unforgettable experience. I was sitting on the grass with some friends facing the darkened stages that melted into the silhouetted of the jungle. Suddenly the haunting music of the sape weaved through the hushed audience, and I had goose-bumps. The light came on and 2 sape players emerged plugging sound from the boat-shaped instrument; sound from deep in the jungle of Borneo. Somehow this hit a chord in me and I felt tears welling in my eyes. As I listened I was filled with an immense love for this land, my land. I had spent over a decade traveling in exotic lands in other parts of the world. But since returning home, I’ve begun to discover the beauty and wonder in my own backyard. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side; it’s all a matter of perspective.
The 3 days of going to workshops and watching the nightly performances had planted in me the seed of love for world music; be it traditional music where the sound is as old as the land and its people, or the fusion music born out of the old and the new. In today’s world of Hollywood pop and K pop, world music is a breath of fresh air; like mint after too much curry.
This was my first Rainforest World Music Festival. I’d put off attending it for so many years because of drunken tales from friends who made yearly pilgrimage to this event. But I’m grateful to Sarawak Tourism Board for inviting me to this year’s festival and let me experience it for myself. Most people do come for the music, and there’s nothing more special than sharing the love for music with like-minded people.
I really like that unlike most music festivals where the artists are treated like god, and whisked away after their performance, the RWMF allows the musicians to mingle with the fans, for photo-taking, autograph-signing, etc. It was really nice to see performers and audience chatting and laughing together.
Even though I’m not a fan of big music festival, I’m willing to make an exception for RWMF. So let’s make a date: I’ll see you next year, 7-8 August 2015!