Two decades of unique musical experiences in the heart of the jungle
If you’re reading this in your seat on a Malaysia Airlines flight, you may well be on your way to inspiring adventures and cultural experiences. But does your trip have a soundtrack to fit? As music festivals are a great centre-point to build any trip around, perhaps you are searching for a world-class festival destination this summer.
Tempted by Glastonbury in Somerset, England or Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival at Naeba Ski Resort? There are so many to choose from, but one can be easily added to the calendar. For a truly unique experience, pack your dancing shoes and hiking boots, and hop on a flight to Malaysian Borneo, where you can experience the local culture, in a single weekend, in a spectacular location surrounded by opportunities for exploration – the Rainforest World Music Festival.
The family-friendly Rainforest World Music Festival, which regularly appears on the top ten lists of ‘must-see’ events, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The venue is the Sarawak Cultural Village, a seven-hectare tourism showcase of the 28 ethnic groups that call the Malaysian state of Sarawak home. The ‘living museum’ concept serves as the ideal location for the festival, with workshops and performances taking place in buildings of traditional architecture, under the awe-inspiring backdrop of the mighty cliffs and towering rainforests of Mount Santubong, just outside Sarawak’s capital, Kuching.
The idea of the festival emerged from the lush jungle itself when the Canadian musician and instrument collector, Randy Raine-Reusch, travelled upriver in Sarawak to record disappearing traditional music. But what better way to save music from extinction than to put it on a stage for everyone to appreciate? Raine-Reusche got together with some friends in the region and began brainstorming the idea of a music festival in Sarawak. The Sarawak Tourism Board came onboard and the Rainforest World Music Festival was born.
In the two decades since, the world has come to the Borneo jungle, in a kaleidoscope of talent and musical styles, from other-worldly hunter gatherers, the Congo Pygmies N’DIMA, with their rustic bowed instruments and traditional dances; the Lewton Women’s Water Music from the tropical islands of Vanuatu, transforming the water of the village’s lake into percussion; the thundering Huun Huur Tu, stunning the audience with their Tuvan throat singing crossed with live electronic beats and metallic guitars. This is music without boundaries, and the crowd of discerning listeners – around 8,000 fill the venue to capacity each night – are tuned in for the unexpected at the Rainforest World Music Festival.
The goal of the festival is to present the most hard-to-find and least-known musical traditions, sometimes in their purest form, and other times in their most contemporary iterations. “I try to make sure they are all very different from one another,” explains the festival’s artistic director, Jun-Lin Yeoh, a classical pianist. She searches hard to find obscure bands, making the festival certain to show concert-goers something they have never seen before.
“My original curation of the festival was to juxtapose as many different musical styles from 360 degrees as possible, encouraging a powerful link of empathy and friendship,” says Yeoh. “Isn’t that what we all need so badly in the world right now?” She also credits the support from the Sarawak Tourism Board and the team behind the production.
Raine-Reusch, former artistic director, also highlighted this underlying vitality that creates such an enjoyable experience. “The RWMF and festivals like it provide an important environment where musicians and the audience find that all humans have things in common; our feelings, emotions, and needs are very similar. These commonalities are explored and supported by this kind of festival.”
With loads of surprises for the 20th anniversary, this year’s festival promises to deliver a musical tour de force. The globe is well covered in the line-up, including artists from China, the U.K., Belgium, Korea, Colombia, Palestine, Cape Verde, Sarawak and many more. Former member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons, has resurrected the tradition of African-American string bands of the 1920s and 30s, even going as far back as songs written in the late 1800s by black banjo player and songster, Gus Cannon, or ‘Banjo Joe’.
Contrast this old-time American music with the synth-driven London-based, Palestine-rooted 47Soul and their Arabic dance music called ‘Shamstep’, a merging of traditional and electronic music that has become the pulse of Arab youth. Bringing also to the stage the once-forbidden music of Cape Verde, the 78-years-young accordion player Bitori performs the music known as ‘Funaná’, a high-tempo infectious dance rhythm associated with wild parties. Leaving the warmth of Cape Verde, you’ll be taken to the steppes of Mongolia by way of Beijing with Hanggai, evoking the grasslands and nomadic life on horseback, mixing ancient music forms with a big helping of modern rock.
Taking you on toward sensory overload, there is also music from South Africa’s Kekele, the U.K.’s Spiro, Korea’s Pareaso, Hungary’s Romengo, Finland’s Okra Playground, Radio Cos from Spain, Calan and Huw Williams from Wales, Ba Cissoko from Guinea, Svara Samsara from Indonesia, Abavuki from South Africa, O Tahiti E, Lewis Pragasam’s Asia Beat Ambassadors, Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe, Didier Laloy & Kathy Adam from Belgium, Saing Waing Orchestra and Dance Troupe from Myanmar, and 1511 O Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca, and, finally, catch your breath, Colombia’s Cimarron. More than 20 acts, and that doesn’t even include the chance for you to learn the musical techniques, and often the dance moves as well, in the intimate daily workshops featuring artists from all these amazing groups.
Holding true to the festival’s guiding purpose – to bring to Sarawak, and music from Sarawak to a global audience – there will be plenty of music from the region. Lan E Tuyang features vocals, a nose flute and three ‘sapés’, a traditional lute of the upriver Orang Ulu ethnic group, while At Adau take the ‘sapé’ and create a more contemporary sound bringing in traditional drums, electric bass, guitar, congas and more. There is an arts and crafts bazaar, and the Sarawak Tourism Board is adding many new experiences, from indigenous cookery, children’s workshops and wellness programmes to intriguing presentations on the jungle’s biodiversity.
With two outdoor stages and an indoor theater stage, mini sessions throughout the festival grounds, late night jams and a beach nearby to cool off in the sea, the RWMF is a real jewel of Malaysia’s cultural crown. Above all, it’s a chance to come together and share in the one thing we can all agree on, no matter our background – the love of music.