The annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) is now in its 18th edition, and featured 24 bands from around the planet. Performing in the equatorial rainforest venue of the Sarawak Cultural Village – located between Mount Santubong and the South China Sea – the bands this year were from Georgia, Tunisia, Morocco, Mongolia, Maldives, Poland, Indonesia, Trinidad & Tobago, Spain, Australia, Reunion Island, Congo Brazzaville, Taiwan, Scotland, Mexico, Gambia, Ethiopia and Malaysia.
See also my coverage of earlier editions of RWMF (Collaboration, Creativity and Community) and interviews with the performers (eg. Rafly wa Saja). Before the Festival, six bands held preview concerts in city malls, including Mah Meri, Harubee, Kenwy Yang-Qin Ensemble and Sayu Ateng.
Harubee consists of 16 young men from the Maldives who worked the crowd into a percussive frenzy with their drumming, chants and dance. They played boduberu music which evolved from the 11th century and draws from African, Indian and Arabic influences.
Mah Meri is an indigenous group from the Orang Asli community in Malaysia’s Carey Island. The group showcased the animist influences in their dances, which featured a fearsome mask along with women in traditional mengkuang skirts.
The eight members of Sayu Ateng (‘welcome’ in the language of the Orang Ulu from Sarawak) performed a set of folk songs on a blend of traditional and contemporary instruments. The band is headed by vocalist Mohamad Faizal Jamil, and their guitarist Mohamad Kedari Abu Bakar – though blind – drew loud applause for his skills in playing the guitar over his head and with his teeth.
Kenwy Yang-Qin featured youthful musicians on the yangqin or the hammered dulcimer. The roots of the instrument can be traced to Persia, and the musicians showcased its bright tones and shimmering range. The group from Kuching performed a range of Chinese songs in their set.
Each day began with a media meet between journalists and musicians, followed by an afternoon of indoor workshops and performances; the outdoor acts were held on two stages set in the picturesque rainforest. Traditional ceremonies were also conducted by local cultural groups at the beginning of the stage performances to bless the Festival. Local musicians in the past have included artistes such as Mathew Ngau of Lan E Tuyang on the sape.
The four members of the Georgian folk ensemble Alaverdi showcased their impressive vocal harmonies and polyphonic melodies, along with string instruments and flute in an indoor set. Dressed with traditional military accessories, the performers’ message of protection and preservation of their culture shone through, particularly as a country which was under foreign domination for decades. The group also joked that many of their songs are about appreciation of wine, since Georgia is one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world.
Sangpuy and his band performed the aboriginal music of Taiwan, where there are 15 aboriginal groups. Their songs preserved oral traditions and showed the traditional respect of the aboriginal communities for nature, in particular the forces of the ocean and wind. The group effectively blended traditional instruments such as the nose flute with Western instruments like cello.
Balinese group Kobagi Kecak performed a creative set of ‘body percussion’ and chanting. Komunitas Badan Gila (Crazy Body Community), or Kobagi, has a repertoire which includes puppetry and kecak (monkey chant where seated performers sing ‘cak’ and move their hands in unison). The group wowed the audience with their Angga Suara Murti set, where the bodies themselves are used as percussive surfaces – shoulders, chest, thighs, necks and even bellies. The group performed once on the main stage – as well as right in the middle of the audience on Day Three.
They were followed by the Cajun band Le Blanc Bros Cajun Band, with members from New Zealand and Australia. The brothers Geoff and Andrew Le Blanc (who have Acadian roots) performed Cajun songs and dance music, sung in Creole. “Music festivals promote greater sharing and understanding. They also draw out the commonalities between music,” said Andrew Le Blanc in an earlier interview.
The energy ramped up with the next band, Bargou 08 from Tunisia, who showcased the traditional wtar string instrument and blended in electronic synthesizers as well. The singer Nidhal Yahyaoui performed tunes from the north west of Tunisia, a region isolated from the rest of the country by mountains near the Algerian border. The flutist played almost incessant trance like tunes, and Ramzi Maaroufi and Benjamin Chaval were outstanding as well on percussion.
The night performances wrapped up with a foot-stomping set by award-winning Scottish folk-fusion band Shooglenifty, playing at the festival for a record third time. The band celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and still retains four of its original members: Angus Grant on fiddle, Garry Finlayson on electric and acoustic banjo, Malcolm Crosbie on guitars, and James Mackintosh on percussion. Bassist Quee Macarthur has been with them for a decade, and they now have added a vocalist: Kaela Rowan. “It is now cool to play traditional music and carry a fiddle to school in Scotland,” the group proudly said in an earlier interview.
Two outstanding indoor performances kicked off Day Two of the festival. Moroccan oud maestro (‘Poet of the Oud’) Driss El Maloumi drew a standing ovation for the virtuosity and talent in his performance – on occasion even playing with the fingers only of his left hand. He has studied Arabic literature as well, and blends traditional and contemporary Arabic sound along with African and Andalusian influences. Driss has collaborated with a wide range of international artistes, and also composed film music. His albums include ‘L’Ame Dansée’ and ‘Makan.’ The call-and-response sessions between Driss and his two percussionists, Said El Maloumi and Lahoucine Baquir, drew loud rounds of applause. The percussionists sometimes played the darbuka on its side and not just the top, and on occasion even from the inside.
One of the most charismatic and witty performers was Enkh Jargal Dandarvaanchig (Epi) from Mongolia, who played a standing-room only set of traditional Mongolian vocal and string compositions. He studied at Music Conservatorium of Ulaanbaatar, and plays a range of instruments including the moorin hoor (horsehead fiddle). The music reflects the nomadic lifestyle in Mongolia, also captured in ‘Miracle Voice’ Epi’s vast vocal range from deep bass to shrill tunes. Epi also plays in other settings such as jazz and even hip-hop. His cheerful and humorous attitude made him a huge hit in the afternoon workshops as well.
Mah Meri, who played earlier in the preview sessions, kicked off the outdoor performances, this time with a full ensemble of performers on bamboo percussion instruments as well. They were followed by Son De Madera from southern Mexico, who got the audience up on their feet with their Son Jarocho set. The group has released seven albums, and dedicated their set to their recently-deceased bassist and to the memory of journalists assassinated by the Mexican government. The solos on requinto by Ramon Hernandez and jarana by Andres Vega were outstanding.
Kenwy Yang-Qing Ensemble (Malaysia), who also played in the previews, performed a longer set on the main stage, this time in traditional costumes. They were followed by the highly energetic danceable band, Kobo Town from Trinidad & Tobago. Founded by Trinidadian-Canadian songwriter Drew Gonsalves, Kobo Town is named after the historic neighborhood in Port-of-Spain where calypso was born. The songs also reflected the wit and audience interactivity of the music. Saxophonist Linsey Wellman said his grandmother was from Borneo, much to the delight of the local audience. “We love Malaysia. We are willing to marry for citizenship,” joked Gonsalves, to even louder applause.
Another band from the earlier previews, Harubee (Maldives), carried on the high energy levels of the evening with a trance-like drum and dance set, with some of the dancers taking off their shirts in the frenzy. They were followed by Culture Shot from Penang. The Malaysian group played ‘street music’ from Penang, on the erhu, lang tin tang, and rebana, along with gongs and cymbals. The set included old Hokkien songs and traditional tunes, evoking the rich culture of Penang, a state also renowned for its legendary street food and street art. The song ‘Rasa Sayang’ (loving feeling) drew loud audience interaction.
The final act of the night was Ukandanz, with members from Ethiopia and France. Unfortunately, the vocalist Asnake Guebreye could not make it for the performance, but the rest of the instrumentalists bravely carried on with a high-energy set of funk blended with rock. Lionel Martin (tenor sax), Damien Cluzel (guitar), Benoit Lecomte (bass) and Guilhem Meier (drums) performed right to the end of their set.
The indoor performances kicked off with a spectacular set by UK-based kora player Sona Jobarteh. She is the first female kora virtuoso to come from a West African Griot family, in The Gambia. Her cousin is the renowned Toumani Diabaté. Sona was tutored by her father Sanjally Jobarteh, and she dedicated songs in her set to her grandmother (‘Mama Muso’) and to the women of the world. Sona and her talented group showcased a range of music styles, blending African percussion with Western electric bass and guitar, with a number of call-and-response interactions between kora, jembe, calabash and guitar. Her vocals have been featured in the movie ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,’ and she also drew out the audience in a range of choruses in her set at the festival.
The outdoor performances kicked off with a colorful set by Ndima from Congo Brazzaville. The group showcased the pygmy culture from the village Kombola, with natural rites and ceremonial music featuring polyphonic vocals, percussion, yodeling, harp-zither and the amazing mbela instrument with sounds like that of a Jewish harp. In a unique creative contribution of the festival, Ndima were then joined on stage by Malaysian indigenous group Mah Meri, building a rare and unprecedented bridge between the two traditional cultures through the mists of time and barriers of geography.
Sayu Ateng (Malaysia) and Harubee (Maldives), who had played earlier in the previews, took the stage again. The dancers of Harubee tossed out what seemed like an endless supply of free T-shirts and Maldivian flags to the audience, much to their delight.
One of the highest-energy folk bands of the festival then performed: Basque group Korrontzi from Spain. The award-winning band featured Agus Barandiaran on the trikitixa accordion, who played with such passion and energy that curtains of sweat flew and even steamed off him. Influences from Scotland and Sicily showed in their songs, and the percussionist and dancers kept their audience on their feet for the entire set. “Up the hands,” Agus kept screaming, urging the audience to clap along with the dancers, who changed costumes a number of times in the set.
The night performances closed in fine style with the six-piece band Lindigo from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Olivier Araste, the charismatic and powerful lead singer, anchored a superb high-energy set of Maloya music, reflecting the chants and dances of their ancestors from Malagasy and African slaves. The group has also played at festivals like Sakifo (see my earlier coverage: Sakifo Music Festival 2013: A Celebration of Indian Ocean Music!). They played a range of African instruments as well, such as kora, kabosy (box-shaped wooden guitar), kayamb (square rattle), and other shakers. Some of the tracks had zouk and Afrobeat influences too.
All the bands from the three days of the festival came together on stage for the grand finale, and the audience cheered them on loudly as they took their final bow. The festivities carried on with a poolside jam at the musicians’ hotel, with samples of calypso, Scottish folk and Georgian vocals.
I also received a stack of CDs from the bands over the three days of the festival, which should keep me busy with reviews for the next couple of weeks.
We already look forward to the 19th edition of the Rainforest World Music Festival, in 2016!
Author: Madanmohan Rao
Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.