Tag Archives: Borneo

World music bands help urban audiences connect with nature: performer insights from the 20th Rainforest World Music Festival

The 20th Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) delivered a special four-day delight of preview showcases and evening performances. There were also interactive discussions between media and musicians each morning, followed by afternoon workshops and jam sessions.

The 2017 lineup of 22 international and 5 local groups included Abavuki (South Africa), Achanak (UK/India), Ba Cissoko (Guinea), Belem (Belgium), Bitori (Cape Verde), Calan (Wales), Cimarron (Colombia), Dom Flemons (US), Hanggai (China), Huw Williams (Wales), Kelele (South Africa), O Tahiti E (Tahiti), Okra Playground (Finland), Pareaso (Korea), Radio Cos (Spain), Romengo (Hungary), Saing Waing Orchestra (Myanmar), Spiro (UK), Svara Samsara (Indonesia), Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe (Taiwan), The Chipolatas (UK/Australia), and The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band (Thailand). The Malaysian lineup featured At Adau, Ilu Leto, Lan E Tuyang and Sekolah Seni Malaysia Sarawak from Sarawak, as well as Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca.

During media interactions over three days, and in separate interviews, members of these 27 bands described their connection with nature, local and diaspora influences, traditional instruments, industry careers, political messages, and music impacts.

See also my writeups on performer insights from earlier editions of RWMF: 2016 (‘Fusion without Confusion’), 2015 (‘Collective Vision’), 2014 (‘Heritage and Messages’) and 2013 (‘Cultural Preservation’). The commemorative book ‘Rainforest World Music Festival – 20 Years of Song and Rhythm in Sarawak’ was also released at RWMF. The book is edited by Gracie Geikie and Lah Wan Yee, and I am honored and delighted to have a chapter in it on the role of the media at the festival.

 

Rainforest World Music Festival press conference, day 1 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Connecting with nature

In cities, we are separated from rural life and the natural world. I hope that we can honor nature while living in the city, it’s our responsibility,” said Jon Hunt from UK-based Spiro.

Landscapes are an influence and inspiration in their music as well.

We are nature. We are part of our land. All our costumes are taken from nature,” said Marguerite Lai, founder of dance troupe O Tahiti E. For example, women wear red as the color of life.

We really appreciate nature. The jungle is our playground in Sarawak. Our music reflects our love for nature,” said Meldrick Anak Udos from Kuching band At Adau. The band is named after the root of the tree used to make the sape string instrument. “Nature is very personal for us,” he added.

Our music mimics the sound of wind blowing under coconut trees, farmers chasing cows, and bees humming around flowers,” said Nattapon Siangsukon of the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band from Thailand, whose music reflects the culture of the north-east. “One of our musicians grew his own tree for 10 years to make his instrument,” he explained.

Cimarron from Colombia features the rural music and dances of peasants. “Our instruments are made from local woods from the rainforest of South America. We mention local animals in our songs, such as crocodiles and regional birds. The sounds of milking of cows are also in our songs,” explained Carlos Rojas from Cimarron.

RWMF itself sends out strong messages about nature and conservation by conducting a mangrove tree-planting ceremony at Kuching Wetland National Park the day before the festival. “The tree-planting ceremony was one of the most memorable experiences,” said Monika Lakatos, singer from Hungarian gypsy band Romengo.

Local and diaspora connections

A number of artists showcased unique instruments from their regions, such as bamboo mouth organ khaen and two-string guitar (Thailand); cuatro, bandola, maracas and tambora (Colombia); Burmese harp (Myanmar); twin-pipe nose flute (Taiwan); and kantele (Finnish cordophone). Others performed dances and rhythms from their region, such as the clog dance (Wales) and funana (Cape Verde).

Some world music bands play traditional music without modification, while others adapt it to new surroundings and audiences. “We are an experimental world music band. We are neither fully traditional nor fully contemporary,” explained Meldrick Anak Udos from Kuching band At Adau. Their influences include the cultures of the Iban, Bedayu, and Orang Ulu tribes.

Some musicians said they make their own instruments as well. “I make my own sape. I can play better with an instrument I make myself,” explained Mathew Ngau from Sarawak’s Lan E Tuyang.

We learn traditional rhythms from villagers, and then adapt the music to our times,” said Gihon Siahaya, percussionist with Svara Samsara from Indonesia. “Our music is based on traditions but can’t be called traditional music,” he explained.

Our music is rooted in folk but we also add our own lyrics,” said Sami Kujala, bassist with Finnish electro-folk group Okra Playground.

Many diaspora populations in the West have kept alive their homeland music and fused it with their new base culture as well. “Previous generations of our communities came to the UK from northwest Punjab in the 1950s and 60s,” said Ninder Johal, tabla player of UK-based bhangra fusion band Achanak. “We combine Punjabi folk music with Western instrumentation, and have been performing for 20 years,” he said.

Rainforest World Music Festival press conference, day 2 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Political awareness, social change and diplomacy

Many of the bands also had messages about global dialogue and local social change. “It used to be taboo for females to play the sape,” said Alena Murang of the all-female six-member group Ilu Leto (‘We The Ladies’).

The group is breaking away from such traditions – but also keeping alive other traditions such as the chants of the tribes Iban, Kelabit and Kenyah (there are over 50 tribes in Sarawak). “We are from six different ethnic groups. Social media has helped us connect and collaborate,” explained Alena.

Countries and people need to talk to one another, not just make assumptions. Music festivals may be the last channel of diplomacy. They are going to become more important,” said Huw Williams from Wales.

The creative community needs to engage with the larger issues and challenges confronting our world – this includes visual artists, musicians, writers and more. “Musicians are in an industry which involves traveling around the world. It is our duty to inform others about what is happening where we travel and share these messages back home,” said Siyabulela Jiyani of Pan-African vocalists group Kelele.

Protest music exists in multiple styles. South African music is well-informed of the challenges of the time, and is not just about good times,” said Siyabulela from the Capetown-based group.

Many musicians also expressed support for unity in diversity, and found commonality among the various cultures represented. “We are people of the world. We are different but so similar,” said Marguerite Lai, founder of dance troupe O Tahiti E. She pointed to the similarities in some words in Malay and Polynesian languages.

I am a world citizen representing a larger cause,” added Don Flamins, songster and Grammy Award Winner from the US.

RWMF highlights

The performers agreed that one of the unique features of RWMF is the multiple opportunities for the bands to get to know one another and collaborate. “We made many good contacts and want our music from Guinea to go further around the world,” said kora virtuoso Ba Cissokho.

Extreme commitment of the audience to stay and enjoy the performances even during heavy rains adds to the joy,” said Monika Lakatos, vocalist with Hungarian gypsy band Romengo.

We don’t like rain during performances, except in the Rainforest,” joked Tristan Glover from music-humour trio Chipolatas.

The afternoon workshops and jam sessions are a major highlight of RWMF. “It was amazing to play together with people you have never met before. It was a magical experience for us to play with the Chinese horse fiddle player,” said Sami Kujala from Finland’s Okra Playground.

At first we were very nervous about the workshops. But after the first workshop we relaxed and did very well,” said Hwang Dong Yoon from South Korea’s Pareaso.

Rainforest World Music Festival press conference, day 3 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The lighter side

Many performers also shared humorous anecdotes from their concerts around the world. “Our funniest experience was being in an Italian village where no one spoke English! It’s a great experience for all of you to be in such a situation – have fun,” joked Jay Tilag, director of Sekolah Sani Sarawak from Malaysia.

Finnish audiences may appear expressionless but show their emotions through texts, joked Sami Kujala from Okra Playground. For musicians it is better to have feedback right away, so such reserved behavior can be a challenge!

Tristan Glover of The Chipolatas shared another unusual experience during a performance in a Middle Eastern country. Men and women were seated separately, and there was absolutely no applause during the event – but a huge crowd gathered outside later for autographs and selfies!

Festival impacts

Other than ‘feel good’ sentiments and global geography tours, world music festivals do have notable impacts as well. Many supporting anecdotes and trends were shared by the performers and organizers.

A visible local impact of RWMF is the rise of awareness and pride in local culture and instruments among youth in Sarawak, such as the sape,” said June-Lin Yeoh, RWMF artistic director. “Youth are seeing foreigners play their sape with pride – and getting recognition, fame, and money as well,” she explained. Now many youth are making their own sape and forming traditional and fusion bands.

Another impact of the festival is closer cooperation and collaboration between the musicians from different countries. In many other festivals, the musicians just “load in, play, load out, leave,” said Jun-Lin. But at RWMF they make friends with each other and with locals as well. Interestingly, this year there were bands from China as well as Taiwan!

The setting of the festival is also unique. “Jungle, mountain and sea – all three are here,” said Jun-Lin proudly. The festival also highlights some instruments which one may never see anywhere else even by world music standards.

World music festivals do help preserve and promote local cultures from around the planet, affirmed Betham William-Jones from Welsh group Calan. Ethnic music is not just something taught in school or described in official documents.

In Taiwan, the government did not allow some tribes to use their own language. “Now kids ask their parents about how to sing our melodies,” said Camake Valuaule from the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe, Taiwan. “Traditional music is forever. We sing forever,” he affirmed.

Traditional music need not sit in museums and archives, it can be made alive and contemporary,” said Alena Murang of Sarawak group Ilu Leto; RWMF gives such groups a chance to showcase their music to local as well as global audiences.

With music you can change someone’s life. Welsh music saved my life,” said Huw Williams from Wales. “I actually wanted a normal job with a regular check, but due to mass employment in my youth I was forced to become a musician,” said Huw Williams from Wales. “I have been reduced to travelling the world and singing songs,” he joked.

Ironically, some world music bands are more known outside their home country than within. “We need people like you,” said Andile Makubalo from South African band Kelele. Overseas audiences and international festival appearances also help keep alive local music traditions and cultures.

Airlines should also be playing music on board from world music festivals, given how many international passengers they carry, joked Kevin Nila Nangai, communications manager at RWMF.

headline photo: Achanak

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Artist Profiles: Lan-e Tuyang

Matthew Ngau Jau (Lan-e Tuyang) – Photo courtesy of Rainforest World Music Festival

Lan-e Tuyang (meaning among friends) was initially a duo from Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, consisting of Matthew Ngau Jau and his late uncle Uchau Bilung. Both musicians play the sape, a long indigenous Borneo lute carved from solid wood. They play music based on Kenyah (Orang Ulu) traditional music. The duo performed many international concerts as well as in Sarawak tourism promotional events in Europe, Australia and Asia.

In 2009, Uchau Bilung passed away and the group continued under the leadership of Matthew Ngau Jau. Lan-e Tuyang re-formed with a new format, featuring three sape players and one percussionist. They performed with this new lineup at the 2009 Rainforest World Music Festival.

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Fusion without confusion – how world music bands blend multiple influences

The 19th Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia), regarded as one of the Top 25 music festivals by Songlines magazine, was once again a three-day delight of afternoon workshops, evening performances and interactive discussion between media and musicians each morning.

See also my articles on the media meets at previous RWMF editions: How world music bands build collective vision, promote indigenous culture and yet adapt to changing times (2015), World music bands address the importance of heritage, messages and innovation (2014) and World music bands address their role in social change, cultural preservation and creativity (2013).

The 2016 lineup featured 17 international and 8 Malaysian groups. The overseas bands included Auli (Latvia), Broukar (Syria), Derek Gripper (South Africa), Dol Arastra Bengkulu (Indonesia), Dya Singh (Australia/Malaysia), Krar Collective (Ethiopia), Lan Dieu Viet (Vietnam), Naygayiw Gigi (Australia), Nukariik (Canada), Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band (Ghana), Shanren (China), Stelios Petrakis Quartet (Greece), Teada (Ireland), Vassvik (Norway), Violons Barbares (Bulgaria, Mongolia, France), and Vocal Sampling (Cuba).  The Malaysian lineup consisted of Alena Murang, Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, Mathew Ngau, Sape’ Sarawak, The Thunder Beats of Nanyang Wushu Drums, Unique Arts Academy, and 1Drum.

During media interactions over three days, and in separate interviews, members of these 25 bands described their careers, instruments, collaborations, socio-political contexts and musical messages – along with their sense of humor.

The ‘4Es’ – Entertainment, Empathy, Education, Empowerment

I asked the bands how they mix entertainment in their music along with serious messages that build empathy for social causes and educate audiences about different cultures.

In Inuit culture, throat singing is a form of entertainment as well as culture,” explained Kathy and Karin Kettler of Inuit duo Nukariik from Canada. “We are the indigenous Sami people. Our joik music comes from ritual activity. It is serious and fun at the same time,” agreed Torgeir Vassvik from northern Norway.

Shanren
Shanren

In our case, entertainment and message are wrapped in one. In the Yunnan region, music, dance and alcohol are integrated,” joked the members of folk-rock band Shanren from China. The region has 26 ethnic groups with very diverse cultures. “We play rock as well as world music. There is a risk of our local music dying out,” they said.

I want to be the voice of the poor people in my country and speak for them,” said Sambaton Dorvil, lead singer of Haitian voodoo band Chouk Bwa Libete.

Indonesian percussion troupe Dol Arastra Bengkulu said they play in rituals celebrating heroism, but also teach young people to play anywhere. Inter-ethnic group Violons Barbares described how they perform in festivals, concert halls, and clubs, as well as immigrant community centers and events in their new countries.

Our music is used in a documentary, and will also be in a game on AppleTV,” said the bagpipe and drum music group Auli from Latvia.

In addition to performances, sape player Alena Murang from Sarawak speaks at events such as TEDx KL, plays on TV, and conducts workshops in schools in Western Malaysia where the sape is not very well known as an indigenous instrument.

Our tradition is strong – and strict! I feel happiest when I get respect from my local tradition and the international community,” said Stelios Petrakis, founder of the Greek band Stelios Petrakis Quartet. “We get requests even at 5 in the morning after all-night performances,” he joked.

In some traditional music communities, creativity and deviation are not respected. I don’t see it as a compromise, I see it as a challenge and opportunity to create new music for new audiences,” Petrakis said.

When we do a capella, we have more freedom and variation,” said Vocal Sampling, a Latin music a capella group from Cuba.

An interesting category of world music artists consists of those who have immigrated to other countries, or are children of immigrants, or are of mixed parentage. Issues of tradition and creative freedom play out differently in their case.

We play collaborative music so we are free from the ‘jail’ of some strict traditions,” explained the members of Violons Barbares, a trio with musicians from Mongolia, Bulgaria and France.

Sikh hymn singer Dya Singh is of Indian origin and grew up in Malaysia – he now lives in Australia and performs along with a percussionist from Nepal. “We are truly global citizens,” said Dya Singh, and he showcased it brilliantly during a jam session where he blended a Sufi chant with Latin a capella beats.

Music and dance give us deep roots. A lot of younger generations are washing away the messages from culture,” cautioned his daughter Gimel, herself a performer at RWMF.

Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 2 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 2 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

Vision, mission

Many of the bands described their vision of the world and what kind of role they see in it. “The most important contribution of world music is to help address and solve problems,” said Dya Singh. This can also be part of the role of world music festivals. “The tree-planting ceremony in the mangrove wetlands at RWMF sends out a good message about the environment,” he added.

Musicians can help raise social awareness about anything happening anywhere in the world. Musicians have to be positive and help make the world a better place,” agreed Pat Thomas of Ghana.

The role of a musician is to keep out of politics – but have a strong say about issues like the environment. Corruption is more intricate, it has always been there, it can be hard for musicians to pick one party against another,” Dya Singh explained.

The world is a complex place for anyone to understand,” agreed Vassvik of Norway. “Music is what comes out when we don’t have more words to express or explain things; it goes deeper,” he said.

Missionaries used to ban throat singing in Canada (‘kill the Indian in the child’); we preserve it now and teach it,” said Kathy and Karin Kettler of Nukariik. “We will continue to promote Sabah tradition, the music will not stop!” said Band Girls LKNS from Malaysia.

I sometimes wonder how much fossil fuel we burn when we travel around the world playing at festivals!” joked guitarist Derek Gripper of South Africa, commenting on the environmental impact of travel.

Musicians have to first remind us of what it means to be human, find commonalities and celebrate diversity,” he said. “Even if music can’t ‘achieve’ anything, we can have fun!” he quipped.

For endangered cultures, even the act of performance is a statement, according to Naygayiw Gigi, the dance troupe from Queensland, Australia, who promote the clan cultures from the Torres Strait region.

The Rainforest World Music Festival has helped preserve and promote local culture also,” said Jun Lin, Artistic Director, RWMF. It has instilled pride in Sarawak instruments like sape and built connections to promote them overseas as well. Given the international turmoil, the festival has also increased awareness and empathy about refugees, eg. by inviting the band Broukar whose members are Syrian refugees.

Careers

An interesting and humorous discussion revolved around what the artists were doing before they embarked on their musical careers, and what part-time jobs some of them have to fund their musical interests.

I used to be a management consultant and wasn’t happy! I decided I had to get out of the rat race and do what I could do for my culture and what I was happy doing,” said Alena Murang of Sarawak.

I was a pharmacist – it was nice to help people but the magic was in music!” said kanun player Taoufik Mirkhan of Broukar from Syria. “I have a pharmacist certificate and hung it up on the wall to please my mother – now I go out and play music! I also teach music, which is very important for the next generation,” he added.

I have a day job in product engineering, but folk music is my love,” said lead member Mikus Čavarts of Auli from Latvia. “In some day jobs also you don’t make much money – so just do what you love and play music!” he advised.

I studied to be a lawyer, and then gave my diploma to my mother. But it’s easy now for me to read my contracts!” joked Stelios Petrakis. “I also made instruments, I had two lives! Then I decided to make my life more crazy and do only music,” he added.

Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 3 - Photo by Madanmohan Rao
Rainforest World Music Festival, press conference Day 3 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

Fusion without confusion

I also asked the bands how they are able to create fusion without confusion – or blend different elements and forms of music in their performances without losing coherence.

There always has been fusion and confusion in music, joked Derek Gripper. Over the years, traveling musicians have introduced new elements into traditional music, eg. jugalbandi from India in some of the kora music of Africa.

There are different types of fusion, based on form, instrument and performance. “We play traditional music on contemporary instruments as well,” said Band Girls LKNS from Malaysia.

We have collaborated with hip-hop artists and even rock stars,” said Temesgen Zelekeis from the Ethiopian band Krar Collective. “We do club gigs as well, not just traditional sets. Modern interpretation is not a restriction based on elements of culture,” he said.

Our group has brought in outside influences from disco, jazz and so on over the decades; this also helps reach larger audiences,” said Pat Thomas from Ghana.

Technology continues to accelerate the interaction between different types of music. “There has been a massive change in the music of the world over the last 100 years. Flows between music around the world have always been there – it’s much faster now,” said Derek Gripper.

Musicians need to keep diversity alive without becoming homogeneous,” he cautioned. For example, some kora players are tuning their instruments to the piano – that could lead to the loss of the kora’s individuality.

Festivals like RWMF are also important because musicians from one country can play with those of other countries thanks to the collaborative workshop format and media discussions. Unfortunately, many emerging economies do not have as many festivals with as much international exposure and mixing as in the case of Western festivals.

Some musicians expressed concern about youth in their countries being more influenced by rock, hip-hop and EDM than local traditions. “Every new generation wants new music also, take it like it is,” advised Pat Thomas.

This year I will focus on preserving our old traditions with young musicians,” said Mathew Ngau of Sarawak. Some old taboos are now being tackled as well; it used to be a taboo for women to play the sape, but now girls are playing it.

There were taboos on women playing didgeridoo also, but that should not be the case anymore,” added Dya Singh.

Traditional instruments and dances

The artists also described some of the traditional instruments they brought along – and even made themselves, in some cases. Matthew Ngau said he makes his own sape, and has developed knowledge of local wood types, some of which are rare now because of deforestation. String materials like creepers are sometimes substituted with steel. Stelios Petrakis from Crete also makes the instruments for his band.

We have modified some traditional instruments to make them easier for stage performances and travel,” said members of the group Shanren from China.

The krar is over a thousand years old as an instrument, and we have also modified it in electric style now,” said Temesgen Zelekeis of the Krar Collective.

Haitian band Chouk Bwa Libète uses drums from Benin and Congo. Other traditional instruments featured were the Sabah gong, thappu frame drum from India, Vietnamese dan bau monochord and trung bamboo xylophone, Middle Eastern kanun, and Bulgarian gaduka (three-string violin).

We brought along our throats!” joked the throat singers of Nukariik, a sentiment strongly echoed by Cuban a cappella band Vocal Sampling!

Respect the instrument and the craftsman,” said Dya Singh, strongly disapproving of breaking of instruments by some rock bands. “My flutist sleeps with his flutes if his wife is not around! My tabla player uses his blanket to keep the tabla warm on cold nights, rather than for himself. Smashing musical instruments is sacrilege. My father once slapped me in public because I stepped over an instrument,” he explained.

Traditional dances were also featured in some of the performances, such as joget (Malaysia) and dervish (Syria); the dancers of (Aus) wore dazzling costumes as well. Everyone asks our Dervish Dancer how he does not get dizzy even after 15 minutes of twirling!” joked Broukar.

The Mongolian throat-singing also surprises many new audiences, as well as the unusual combinations of three nationalities in the group Violons Barbares (Mongolia, Bulgaria, and France).

I interpret the ‘classical’ music of Africa, such as the kora stars,” said South African guitarist Derek Gripper, who has released a series of award-winning albums.

We are losing our culture rapidly, it is important to pass on our language, music and dance,” said Naygayiw Gigi. “Australia has two indigenous peoples: near the centre and near the coast. We need to explain this to Australians as well!” they joked.

Pat Thomas blends traditional instruments like the cowbell along with the trumpet in their highlife music. “We turn emotions around – ‘happy’ music about sadness, ‘sad’ music about happiness!” he joked.

Irish traditional folk music plays a huge part in our lives, particularly in rural areas. Freedom, fun and entertainment have been a part of our music – and recently in bars and pubs too,” said fiddler ace Oisín Mac Diarmada of Irish band Teada.

The meaning of success

I asked the bands how they defined ‘success’ for themselves as musicians, eg. in terms of more albums, concerts, money, or pursuit of an inner journey.

Success is keeping our music group together over many years, while also evolving and collaborating with others,” said Oisín Mac Diarmada Teada; their band has been together for 15 years.

Success is to keep playing!” said Abhisheg M. of Unique Arts Academy of Malaysia. Many musicians start playing at very young ages, when they may not have clear definitions of what success could be. “Music is for my inner peace; success is remaining happy, that is good enough,” Abhisheg added.

Fame and recognition are important for us because it inspires our next generation. It is success if our children appreciate our culture and dance – not just hip-hop,” said members of Naygayiw Gigi.

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