I had the pleasure of attending the 2009 edition of the Rainforest World Music Festival which is held at Sarawak Cultural Village in the Malaysian section of the legendary island of Borneo. The venue for the festival is a living museum, located on the foothills of Mount Santubong, that replicates the heritage of the major tribal groups in Sarawak. It is located about a half an hour’s drive (35 km) from Sarawak’s capital, Kuching.
To travel to the festival, you can fly directly to Kuching from cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong (China) and Jakarta (Indonesia) although the majority of the international travelers arrive via Malaysia’s thriving capital, Kuala Lumpur. There are many options for lodging, including hotels, apartments, budget hotels and resorts. I stayed at the beautiful Santubong Kuching Resort, which is where the musicians, media, festival staff and many concert-goers stay at. It is located on the coast, overlooking the South China Sea, about a 10 minute drive from Sarawak Cultural Village, and next to the Damai Golf and Country Club, an 18 hole, par 72 course, designed by Arnold Palmer.
Having media and musicians stay at the same place is intentional and provides many opportunities to have breakfast and interview musicians. I really enjoyed the delicious Malaysian food and my morning discussions and interviews with several of the musicians.
The first day of the festival, July 10th, began with a press conference at Sarawak Cultural Village. A representative of AkashA, Zawose Family, Oudaden, Jeff & Vida, Dazkarieh and Moana & The Tribe provided a brief introduction about their music and background and, afterwards, the session was open for questions.
Aside from the evening concerts, one of the highlights of the festival are the musical workshops. They take place in the afternoons, from 2 to 5:15 pm at three locations throughout the Sarawak Cultural Village. The workshops are thematic and bring together musicians from various groups. The musicians introduce their musical instruments and later jam with all the other participants. You need to choose which workshop interests you the most because there are always three workshops happening simultaneously. On July 10th I ran around trying to catch bits of all 3 (later I opted to choose one and see the whole workshop, which is better in my opinion).
During the afternoon, between workshops, concert-goers can visit the Rainforest World Craft Bazaar, which includes a wide variety of batik clothing and fabrics, jewelry, musical instruments, and woven crafts from Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s a great place to buy gifts. There are also numerous places to sample the delicious local food.
This year, the festival introduced several innovations, including new stages and seating areas. The July 10th program started on the main stage with a large ensemble from Sabah (Sabah is the other Malaysian state located on the island of Borneo, east of Sarawak) named Kinabalu Merdu Sound. The group uses a large number of bamboo instruments that include percussion and mouth organs. There is also a vocalist and an electric rhythm section with electric bass and guitar. The electric instruments drowned out the sound of the bamboo instruments during part of the concert. Thankfully, I was able to see Kinabalu Merdu Sound at a July 12th workshop and their bamboo-based music is truly fascinating.
One of things that impressed me the most was how tightly the festival organizers managed the schedule of the performances. Right after the end of Kinabalu Merdu Sound’s concert, the second stage lit up and the next act was ready to play. The artists that appear on the smaller second stage usually provide a laid back atmosphere. The music of Sarawak was represented by Lan-e Tuyang, a group of three sape (a traditional boat-shaped lute from Sarawak) players plus a percussionist. Lan-e Tuyang intend to preserve the traditional form of sape playing at a time when many younger musicians are adopting electrified forms of the sape, emulating electric guitars.
Korean group Noreum Machi appeared next, on the main stage, with a colorful mix of fiery shamanistic drumming and reeds and visually attractive dance. Although the group’s music is deeply rooted in Korean traditions, Noreum Machi incorporates new elements.
Another mythical island in the area that has always attracted travelers is Bali (Indonesia). Sekaa Jaya Jenggala brought the magic of Bali with a mesmerizing performance that included bamboo gamelan and the always popular kecak (pronounced ketchak) monkey chant. Sekaa Jaya Jenggala’s music included various moods and passages that recalled the forests of Bali and the sounds of ponds, including the suara kodok (frog song).
The pioneering Saint Nicholas Orchestra of Poland was one of the highlights of that night. The group includes several excellent instrumentalists who provided a lively vision of the folk music from various regions of Poland. Next came the renowned Red Chamber ensemble, formed by top instrumentalists from China, who are now based in Canada. Their adventurous approach to music includes a mix of Chinese music with American bluegrass and Eastern European sounds. Because of the jet lag, I left early that night and was not able to attend the concert by French Gypsy-swing band Poum Tchack. Several media colleagues later told me that they enjoyed the performance, which included Django Reinhardt and Bessie Smith influences.