Set on the edge of the rainforest, at the foot of Mount Santubong, The Rainforest World Music Festival’s permanent home is in the Sarawak Cultural Village. With its central lake, abundant flora, landscaped walkways and replica buildings, it is perhaps one of the most breathtaking, picturesque festival settings in the world.
As a bonus this year, the festival teamed up with the Sarawak Crafts Fair enabling visitors to browse and buy traditional handicrafts from inland Borneo. Next year the organisers plan to add in a food festival too. Music, food, beads and baskets, what more could you want…
During the heat of the day, the workshops took place. In the evenings, the emphasis at the Rainforest World Music Festival moved from the workshops to the concert arena where performances alternated without breaks, between the main stage and the new smaller Tree Stage to the right. Set back into the trees above the audience with two tree trunks running up the middle. It was nicknamed the Drone stage due to the proliferation this year, of European bands with reed instruments and bagpipes. Huge video screens next to the main stage and dotted around the location ensured no one missed any of the visual excitement or the music.
Audiences gathered in anticipation on the grassy slopes in front of the main stage and just as Debu were about to take to the stage, to begin the weekend of evening concerts, the heavens opened. The wise and now smug, had already secured their prime viewing spot by either purchasing a VIP ticket for the sheltered stand to the right of the stage or by returning to the Dewan Lagenda, which overlooked the concert arena, conveniently providing both shelter and easy access to refreshments and the washrooms.
Local fishermen watch Mount Santubong and they know that if the clouds descend there will be no fishing for them. They know if the weather will change for the worse. Just like the fishermen, it pays to keep an eye on the mountain and to have the VIP purchasing power of 100 RM ( £22 or $34 USD) in your pocket. The rain was as intense as standing under the shower. If this were the UK, people would be leaving in droves demanding their money back. Not so here, in the rainforest you just kick off your flip flops and wade on in. The water and the mud was certainly no deterrent to having a good time. From the vantage point of the sound stage, at the back of the arena, the audience resembled a bowl of mud wrestlers.
Whilst there was temporary respite from the rain on Saturday night, sound engineers were still struggling to put right the damage caused to the sound rig on the tree Stage from Friday’s downpour and the humidity was creating havoc with artists struggling to keep their instruments in tune. Poor Braagas couldn’t be as bewitching as usual and were the worse affected, but the sound was pulled back in time for the audience to enjoy the remaining half of their set.
By Sunday afternoon the clouds had descended some distance down Mount Santubong and everyone knew the rain was going to be “big”. It was back on cue, just as the concerts were due to start. This time, with additional drama. Rolls of thunder gave an added dimension to the percussion coming over the speaker stacks. The stage, already flooded with multi-coloured lights, had extra illumination from above as sheet lightening simultaneously lit up the skies and surrounding tree tops, it was thrilling particularly when Pingasan’k were on stage with instruments made from this very rainforest.
If it were Saturday and had Farafina been on stage with their djembe and balafon ensemble, it would have been absolutely electrifying. Yet suddenly it all became serious, with an explosion on the sound stage followed by a short power cut in the middle of Yerboli’s set. “This is why they call it the rain forest” the MC reassured the bowl of mud wrestlers, who seemingly unphazed by the elements, had actually swelled in numbers. Similarly unphazed and taking events in their stride were the hired hands and volunteers. This time deployed to bring in new sound desk, carting it under tough polythene, through wet, mud and over a number of steps and concrete obstacles. This cured the problems that had plagued the Tree stage since Saturday.
Notable performances from the weekend, came from Pingasan’k, who, despite the large main stage, stayed true to themselves and “just played their music” as if they were back in the long house. Ensemble Shanbehzadeh delivered an organic and intuitive performance, responding to the audience, offering heartfelt music and resisting the temptation to keep checking if “everyone was alright out there”. Their closing number, a love song was just sublime. Carly Blain from the Monster Celidh Band deserves a mention for some thoroughly impressive fiddling and what a joy to see Farafina, a hard working touring band joined by griot singer Fatoumata Dembele who, thanks to photographer Hamid Bokhari, made it onto the front page of The New Strait Times.
Delightful discoveries came in the form of Minuit Guibolles from France celebrating their tenth anniversary at the festival, they wore their emotions on their sleeve and played out of their skins. Other highlights included Reelroad’s performance, whose dance workshop also went down a storm and Galandum Galundaina from Portugal, who after enjoying success in the European World Music charts, were now captivating the crowds around the other side of the world in Malaysia. Full marks to Paul Black from the band for keeping his hurdy gurdy in tune against all odds.
Whilst the new sound desk cured the problems that had plagued the Tree stage on Saturday night something strange soundwise was happening on the main stage, throughout the weekend. Whether it was the size of the stage or attempts to appease the audience but it seemed as if every drummer was lured into giving a solo rock drum break and at times there was more electric guitar than a Dire Straits or perish the thought, a Motorhead gig. Indeed, the sound engineer had quite a penchant for turning up the bass and drum channels, to the detriment of some of the artists. Novalima, being a case in point. Having spent 36 hours flying in from Peru and creating great press interest one could assume they weren’t cheap to put on as the headline Sunday night act. Such a shame therefore that the bass was way too loud in the mix and the subtleties of the interplay with the conga drums, the quijada ( donkey jaw bone) and the cajita (collection box), the backbone of their percussion and signature sound, all struggling to be heard.
At the festival launch, in front of the assembled musicians, civic dignitaries and international media, The Honorable Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak, Dr George Chan Hong Nam, gave an address in which he drew a parallel with the World Cup. He urged people to play to their best, to give the wow factor. “ I want the rainforest to respond to your music to get the rain to come” he declared. Indeed it did. As he hit the traditional Sarawak gong little did he know what was to come.
Muddy yet elated, festival revellers were showered with metal ticker tape as Sarawak’s auspiciously numbered, 13th Rainforest World Music Festival, drew to a conclusion.
In a spirited finale, MC Hendrick Foh, welcomed all twenty participating acts back onto the stage for the festival’s biggest jam session. Indonesian Sufi band Debu, Quebecois foot stompers De Temps Atan, Mirandan ethno music revivers Galandum Galundaina from Portugal, and funky afro – Colombian rockers Watussi received a slightly elevated level of applause as did the the two local bands, Pingasan’k and Bakih both from Sarawak. The latter featured multi award winning, sape player, Jerry Kamit, the subject of much interest at one of the festival’s earlier workshops.
The loudest applause however, was reserved for one of the corporate partners, Heineken who, judging by the piles of empty cans and plastic had won over the crowds not only with their European beer but with their free offering of trademark green, blow up batons.
Having commented on some of the sound issues and the rain none of this really seemed to matter in the magical setting of the rainforest. There was a great atmosphere of joy, of pride in Sarawak, some stunning performances and great new discoveries. The mud wrestlers were certainly having the time of their lives, even linking arms to create huge circle dances of 80 or more participants, all putting to use the steps that the Bisserov Sisters had taught them in the earlier workshops.
At the end of the three day festival, people left wet but thoroughly entertained. Smiling from ear to ear and skipping to the sounds of Sister Sledge’s “We are Family”, vowing to keep in contact with new as well as old friends and to return to the Rainforest next year.
Author: Jill Turner
Jill Turner contributes to Songlines Magazine, World Music Central and is on the fRoots critics albums of the year panel. Her radio show GondwanaSound broadcasts on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM to the fourth largest city in the UK and is carried on both Radio Groovalizacion and African Internet Radio.