The acclaimed Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) will be back July 12-14, 2019 for its 22nd consecutive year. Announced as bigger than ever, organizers expect over 20,000 music fans from the region and beyond as well as visiting tourists. The event will take place at the scenic Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching (Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo), which is approximately 50 minutes away from the Kuching International Airport.
The impressive program this year includes well-known traditional and contemporary world music acts along with talented regional and local artists. The list includes Ana Alcaide (Spain), At Adau (Sarawak), Ballet Folclorico de Chile Bafochi (Rapa Nui /Easter Island, Chile), Darmas (Malaysia), Druk Folk Musician (Bhutan), Duplessy & The Violins of the World ft. Guo Gan (France, China, Sweden, Mongolia), Ha Noi Duo (Vietnam), Kemada (Sarawak), Kila (Ireland), Kila & Oki (Ireland, Japan), La Chiva Gantiva (Colombia), Macka B (United Kingdom / Jamaica), Mauravann (Mauritius), Mehdi Nassouli (Morocco), Oki (Japan), Olga Cerpa y Mestisay (Canary Islands, Spain), Otava Yo (Russia), Rajery (Madagascar), San Salvador (France), Sangtam Naga (Nagaland), Sedaa (Iran/Mongolia), Spirit Of The Hornbills (Kalimantan), Staak Bisomu (Sarawak), Suk Binie’ (Sarawak), Suku Menoa (Sarawak), Tabanka (Cape Verde), Talisk (Scotland), Trad Attack (Estonia), and Wai (New Zealand).
In additional to the concerts, the family-friendly RWMF 2019
includes day time percussion tutorials and music workshops that begin as early
as 11:00 am plus arts and crafts workshops, a wide-variety of food options, an
interactive gathering of the tribes showcasing the region’s indigenous cultures
and much more.
The Rainforest World Music Festival also promotes various environmentally-friendly and sustainable programs, emphasizing preservation. Through its Green initiatives, a no-plastic ruling, will be the festival’s fundamental awareness while banning entry of all plastic water bottles throughout the festival.
Sarawak will host other musical events in the next weeks, including the Rainforest Fringe, July 5 – 12, just one week before the RWMF 2019 and then followed with The Borneo Jazz Festival July 19 – 21, 2019.
All these captivating music events are organized by the Sarawak Tourism Board and endorsed by Tourism Malaysia.
For more information on the RWMF 2019 and pre-sale tickets, go to rwmf.net.
The annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) featured a special lineup of performances, workshops and cultural activities on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. The scenic Sarawak Cultural Village, located between Mount Santubong and the South China Sea, hosted the performances on two outdoor stages and one indoor theatre.
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 Ilu Leto, At Adau, Lan E Tuyang and Sekolah Seni Malaysia Sarawak from Sarawak, as well as Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca.
Before the festival, some of the bands held preview concerts in local pubs and cafes, such as the Culture Club in downtown Kuching. Two bands – Romengo (Hungarian gypsy group) and O Tahiti E (percussion-dance troupe from Haiti) – gave the audience a tantalising taste of what was to come during their workshops and performances in the coming days.
In keeping with its usual tradition, the Sarawak Tourism Board also had a tree-planting ceremony the day before the festival. Members of the media and some performers together planted about 200 mangrove saplings at the Kuching Wetland National Park.
The stage was also being set for the festival workshops to follow, on yoga, meditation, tai-chi and martial arts. The festival had a crafts bazaar and food court as other highlights, along with stalls on aromatherapy and environmental recycling.
The morning media meet each day was followed by an afternoon of indoor performances and jam sessions. The indoor theatre performances on Day One kicked off with Pareaso (South Korea), followed by Huw Williams (Wales) and Lan E Tuyang (Malaysia).
The four youthful musicians of Pareaso featured traditional music from Ulsan, Korea, with instruments such as daegeum, geomongo, saenghwang, janggu, and gayageum. Huw Williams showcased clog dancing along with trademark Welsh wit and humour while playing along on guitar. Lan E Tuyang featured three sape masters of Sarawak from the Kayan and Kenyah communities: Mathew Ngau Jau, Salomon Gau and Jimpau Balan. They also showcased the nose flute, along with traditional dance moves.
Each afternoon ended with an outdoor drum circle facilitated by Malaysia’s 1Drum, followed by night-time performances on two adjacent stages set in the picturesque rainforest. Traditional ceremonies to bless the festival were conducted by local cultural groups and musicians.
The six-member all-women band Ilu Leto from Sarawak, Malaysia kicked off the outdoor performances on Day One. The group, anchored by Alena Murang, keeps alive the traditional music of the Iban, Kelabit and Kenyah tribes while also challenging other customs (the sape is usually not played by women).
Okra Playground from Finland then delivered a hypnotic set of electro-folk. They featured ancient instruments like the kantele and bowed lyre (jouhikko), along with solid grooves by bassist Sami Kujala – a perfect foundation for the three female vocalists (Päivi Hirvonen, Maija Kauhanen, Essi Muikku). Their debut album, Turmio was released in 2015.
The adrenaline picked up with gypsy music by Romengo from Hungary, who played a rousing set of danceable numbers along with ballads (I also caught their performance last year at the Forde Festival 2016 in Norway). Vocalist Mónika Lakatos has won a range of awards including the Parallel Cultures award; she was joined on stage by singer Veronika Harcsa for soaring duets. The group’s first album is titled Kétháné, and the talented lineup includes Mihály “Mazsi” Rostás (guitars), Misi Kovács (violin), János “Guszti” Lakatos (oral bass, tin can), and Tibor Tibi Balogh (percussion).
The next group was pure percussive explosion: Svara Samsara from Indonesia. The quintet is inspired by the work of legendary Indonesian drummer Innisisri, and showcased a range of traditional instruments in contemporary styles. The high-energy poly-rhythms and call-and-response segments drew loud applause from the audience. The group is based in the Rumah Kahanan art space, and features instruments such as talempong, sarunai, taganing, hadrah, kancil, and kendang drums. Their first album was released last year.
Bhangra with a touch of bass and drums was featured by the UK-based band Achanak, whose members are of Punjabi origin. The group has released seven albums and has toured extensively.
An absolutely outstanding band on Day One was Abavuki from Capetown, South Africa. The group’s name means ‘Wake up, early birds!’ in the Xhosa language. South African rhythms blended with kwaito, samba and jazz, and the multi-instrumentalists wowed the audience with their prowess on a wide range of percussion (especially Mkhokheli Masala, Thulani Mtyi and Thando Sishuba).
Founded in 2001, the band showed their years of experience and expertise with a superb set of high-energy afro-beat music and dance, blending everything from marimba to a brass section. Their albums include Decade and African Rhythms.
The indoor performances on Day Two were kicked off by the Sang Waing Orchestra from Myanmar, playing a set of Burmese folk music. The musicians from Yangon and Mandalay performed on a range of traditional instruments, including saung (Burmese harp), clappers, cymbals, gongs, short drums and oboe.
Grammy Award-winner Dom Flemons featured a set of American roots, ragtime, blues, folk, and spirituals. The singer-songwriter and slam poet’s most recent album is Prospect Hill; Dom is also the co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band.
English folk band Spiro wrapped up the indoor performances. Violin, mandolin and electronic sounds mixed together with the lineup of Jane Harbour, Alex Vann (drums), Jon Hunt (guitar), and Jason Sparkes (accordion). Their albums include Pole Star, Lightbox and Kaleidophonica.
The talented young band At Adau from Kuching kicked off the outdoor performances, with an experimental blend of Sarawak sound with world music. They featured Borneo sounds of the sape and the perutong, along with congas and djembe. Their first album is titled Journey, with the lineup of Ezra Tekola (sape), Jackson Lian Ngau (zither, drums), Meldrick Bob Udos (cajon), Ju Hyun Lee (conga), Alfonso McKenzie (bass), Cerdic Riseng (guitar) and Luke Wrender David (sape, guitar).
The most beloved band of the festival took the stage next: O Tahiti E, a sizzling percussion and dance troupe from Tahiti, who had already wowed the audience through three afternoon workshop sessions. Founded in 1986 by choreographer Marguerite Lai, they showcased spectacular costumes and sensual dance moves. The youthful dancers roused up so much energy that the heavens opened up with thundershowers at the end of their set!
The rain would continue through the next performances, reducing the lawns to a mudbath, but the hardy festival-goers were well prepared. Spain’s Radio Cos entertained them with an energetic set of Galician music. The driving rhythms on pandeiro and tambourine kept the crowd on their feet, ably anchored by Xurxo Fernandes and Quique Peon. The musicians have been researching traditional music for over three decades, and the five-member band brought the pride alive for an audience half-way round the world.
The energy picked up several notches with the Inner Mongolia band Hanggai from China, with an unbelievable mix of traditional instruments and rock music. The folk-rock blend, anchored by throat singer Batubagen and vocalist Ilchi dressed in a full-length traditional coat, kept the audience engaged right through gusts of wind and rain. The band has also performed at Rosklide, Lowlands, Fuji Rock, Chicago World Music Festival, Sziget, and WOMAD.
An absolutely stellar set followed next, by Ba Cissoko and his band from Guinea. The son of the famous kora maestro M’Bady Kouyaté performed on guitar and kora, and sang in Malinke, Wolof, Pulaar and French. West African sound fused with salsa, funk and jazz, in a superb set by the five-member group. Their albums include Electric Griot Land, Djeli, Sabolan, Nimissa, and Séno.
Another amazing folk-rock band rounded up the performances of Day Two: the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band. They played instruments and rural tunes from northeast Thailand, blended with high-energy drums and power bass. Chris Menist, Kammao Perdtanon, Maft Sai, Phusana Treeburut, Piyanart Jotikasthira and Sawai Kaewsombat played a hypnotic set showcasing the khaen (multi-reed mouth organ) and phin (string instrument).
In terms of musical highlights, most festival attendees would later agree that this was one of the best nights at any world music festival ever. The crowd stayed on their feet through the rain and thunder – and there would be more come on Day Three!
The indoor performances on Day Three kicked off with the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe from Taiwan. They played the music of the Paiwan tribe from southern Taiwan. Anchored by Camake Valaule, they explained their culture and dances, and showcased instruments such as the twin-pipe nose flute.
Folk music from Belgium followed next, performed by Belem (Didier Laloy on accordion, Kathy Adam on classical cello). The indoor performances finished in fine style with the vocal harmonies of Africa, performed by Kelele from South Africa. Their members also form the band Abavuki, thus constituting an unusually creative combination and presentation of musical talent.
Their range of melodies and harmonies kept the audience spell-bound in a session of oral storytelling. Traditional instruments were also showcased, such as the mbira (finger piano), uhadi (bow instrument) and talking drum.
The outdoor performances were kicked off by the Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca, Malaysia. They presented a blend of Portuguese and Malaysian dance.
Thunderous rains picked up again as the youthful performers of Sekolah Seni Malaysia next took to the stage. They have performed the folk dances of Sarawak at festivals across Asia and Europe, and won awards in Bulgaria, Romania and Spain.
Welsh band Calan showcased foot tapping tunes and step dancing, with the five member band reinterpreting lively as well as haunting songs. Their debut album is titled Bling, and the band has played at the Cambridge Festival, Celtic Connections, Shrewsbury Folk Festival and Whitby Folk Festival.
The most sensational band of the evening was Cimarrón from Colombia. They performed the festive dance music of joropo, with soaring melodies and catchy rhythms of the Orinoco river region combining Andalusian, indigenous South American, and African roots.
Anchored by harpist Carlos Rojas Hernandez and vocalist-dancer Ana Veydó Ordóñez, the set blended bandola, cuatro, bass, and high-energy percussion. The ‘competitive jams’ between the youthful percussionists were hilarious and drew loud applause. The group has released a number of award-winning albums, including one aptly titled Orinoco.
Indonesian percussion band Svara Samsara took to the stage again for another set, followed by the closing act: Bitori from Cape Verde, playing funana music. This raw yet infectious dance music form was banned during the Portuguese rule, but is alive and thriving now. Anchored by lead accordionist Bitori (Victor Tavares) who is now almost 80 years old, the group performed an upbeat set with Creole vocals and unique instruments such as the ferrinho (iron scraper).
The five-hour performances, accompanied by five hours of rain, culminated in an unforgettable grand finale with most of the bands from the three days of the festival coming together on stage to take their final bow. The festivities carried on with a jam at the musicians’ hotel bar, and I departed the next morning with a stack of the bands’ CDs gathered over the three days of the festival.
We already look forward to the next Rainforest World Music Festival in 2018, with its unbeatable combination of legendary bands, emerging artistes, jam sessions, interactive workshops, media meets – and a bit of occasional rain! After all, what’s a festival in the rainforest without some rain?
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Mathew Ngau Jau is a proficient sape (Sarawakian lute) musician, who learned how to play the instrument during his childhood at Long Semiyang, Ulu Baram in Sarawak (Malaysia). After his school education, and having pursued a career in teaching, Ngau Jau came under the guidance of the late Tusau Padan, a master sape musician and artist.
Ngau Jau formed the traditional group Lan-e Tuyang (meaning among friends) together with his late uncle Uchau Bilung.
Since the death of Tusau Padan, Matthew has become the leading promoter of the art of sape music and also the art of painting Kenyah traditional motifs on bark. He is also an expert in the Orang-Ulu warrior dance and is a skilled blow-pipe exponent. Combining all these skills, Mathew is much sought after to promote the traditional arts of Sarawak.
With Lan-e Tuyang, Ngau Jau has performed at numerous venues throughout the globe as well as tourism promotions in Europe, Australia and Asia.
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.
The annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) is now in its 19th edition, and featured 25 bands from around the planet. The venue is the lush equatorial rainforest of the Sarawak Cultural Village – located between Mount Santubong and the South China Sea.
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), Chouk Bwa Libete (Haiti), 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.
Before the Festival, some of the bands held preview concerts in local pubs, cafes and the Kuching Festival Food Fair. One of the previews was rained out due to a torrential downpour, but I caught the next superb performance by percussion troupe Dol Arastra Bengkulu from Indonesia. They are influenced by the ‘percusi dol’ ritualistic traditions of Sumatra, celebrating acts of heroism.
The musicians carried the thunderous ‘gendang dol’ drums with them as they danced around the stage, occasionally even lying down on their backs while playing them. They alternately formed circles and rows, sometimes even playing on their neighbors’ drums.
The media meet was followed by an afternoon of indoor workshops and performances, starting off with Vietnam and Malaysia. The five members of Lan Dieu Viet are all music teachers at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Trương Thị Thu Hà played a dazzling solo on the beautiful trung (bamboo xylophone), and Cồ Huy Hùng (moon lute) and Nguyễn Hoàng Anh (bamboo flute) also stood out in the folk performances.
They were followed by Alena Murang on sape and vocals, performing traditional music of Sarawak in the language of the Kenyah and Kelabit people from Ulu Baram. Murang is one of the few young women to openly perform and teach the sape, an instrument from Borneo that used to be a taboo for women to even touch. She learnt from masters such as Mathew Ngau, and has played overseas and gives talks and lectures on the sape.
Each evening, a drum circle was facilitated by Malaysia’s 1Drum (their slogan is ‘Drum, Cause You Can!’). The outdoor acts at night were held on two adjacent stages set in the picturesque rainforest. Traditional ceremonies to bless the festival were conducted by local cultural groups and musicians.
Sape’ Sarawak is a band drawn from the various Sarawak ethnic groups such as Orang Ulu, Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Malay, Chinese and other communities. The 17 players presented age-old tales of ancient warriors and supernatural princesses.
Naygayiw Gigi then wowed the audience with an astonishing array of costumers and ritual dances. The troupe, whose name means ‘Northern Thunder,’ hail from Bamaga, the northernmost town in Queensland, Australia. They played the music of seven clans from the Torres Strait, in the form of stories about celebration as well as defense from other attacking clans.
The focus shifted back to Asia with the Unique Arts Academy, performing music and dance of the South Indian communities in Malaysia. Folk drums such as thappu, kottu, chimta, and ganjira filled the stage, along with harmonium and bass guitar. The group has performed at the International Folklore Festival and World Harvest Festival.
Acclaimed Irish folk band Teada then took the stage; ace fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada regaled the audience with his humor along with his fellow musicians on percussion and guitar. “Ireland is so nice a place that all our neighbors invaded us,” they joked. They dedicated a song to the freedom-fighters of Ireland.
Their high energy set also featured some enthusiastic step-dancing by keyboardist Samantha Harvey, and the audience clapped loudly in appreciation. “Thanks, but your kindness will be forgotten,” the band joked again. Over the past 15 years, Teada has also performed at the Edmonton Folk Festival in Canada and Harare International Festival of the Arts.
The energy picked up several notches with a thunderous performance by Dol Arastra Bengkulu (Indonesia), who had also played a shorter set at the previous day’s preview showcase. The first African band of the festival then took the stage: Krar Collective from Ethiopia. The set had elements of electro-folk and rock, with the talented Temesgen Zelekeis on electric krar, Grum Begashaw on drums, and Genet Assefa on vocals and dance.
Assefa changed costumes six times during the set! and the audience had a tough time trying to imitate her ‘shoulder dislocating’ dance moves! The band has also collaborated with Baaba Maal and Rokia Traore, and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
The night came to a climax with the high-energy bagpipe and drum music group Auļi from Latvia. The band revives Latvia’s earlier bagpipe traditions, and added a terrific percussive layer with some of the biggest ‘tree trunk drums’ in the Baltics. They played danceable tracks from some of their earlier albums, which include the aptly named ‘Etnotranss.’
The indoor performances on Day Two were kicked off by Sikh hymn singer Dya Singh, who grew up in Malaysia and is now based in Australia. He has released over 25 CDs, and has performed at dozens of festivals including WOMADelaide, Vancouver Folk Festival, and California World Music Festival. His uplifting spiritual incantations actively involved the audience as well; he was accompanied by Dheeraj Shrestha (tabla) as well as his own daughter Gimel.
The second indoor performance featured solo acoustic guitarist Derek Gripper from South Africa, who has nine albums to his credit. He interpreted a number of kora compositions on his guitar, for which he had earlier received acclaim from classical guitar legend John Williams and kora maestro Toumani Diabate. The audience showed their appreciation by lining up immediately after his performance to buy his CDs and get his autograph.
An hour of torrential rain got the night performances off to a delayed start, but the show went on; after all, what’s the rainforest festival without some rain? The performances began with Mathew Ngau, master sape player and story teller, who also makes his own range of sape instruments and teaches the young Sarawak generation about their traditions.
The next band was Stelios Petrakis Quartet, performing the lively music of Crete from Greece. Petrakis also makes his own instruments such as the lira and laouto, and the pride and respect he had for his traditions shone through in his performance. The accompanying dances also drew loud applause from the audience.
Naygayiw Gigi from Australia treated the audience to some more brilliant costumes and dances; they were followed by Band Girl LKNS from the Sabah state of Malaysia, who showcased a wide range of traditional local gongs.
One of the most unusual bands at RWMF was Vocal Sampling, a male a capella sextet from Cuba, with a lineup that included Rene Baños Pascual, Pedro Bernard Coto, and Reinaldo Sanler Maseda. If you closed your eyes, you could almost visualize a real Latin band playing with congas, bass, trumpet, trombone and guitar! They have performed with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Bobby McFerrin, Ray Barreto, Celia Cruz, Chick Corea and Gal Costa.
The group has played at Couleur Café, WOMAD, Festival de Jazz de Nice, Jazz Festival Istanbul, and World Music Festival Sukiyaki. Their rendition of the rock classic ‘Hotel California’ drew loud applause as well at RWMF.
Another range of instruments then featured on the next stage, with Shanren from China playing high-energy folk-rock music from the Yunnan region. Reggae was also blended into the set as the quartet showcased instruments such as xianzi, qinqin and dabiya (four-stringed plucked instruments) as well as xianggu and sun drum (percussion). They have performed at Barcelona Festival Asia, Canadian Music Week, Midem in Cannes, Turtle Island Festival and Liverpool Sound City.
The perfect closing act for the Saturday night performances was Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band from Ghana. Called the ‘Golden Voice of Africa,’ Pat Thomas filled the stage with a phenomenal range of musicians including multi-instrumentalist Kwame Yeboah (guitar, keyboards) and saxophonist Ben Abarbanel-Wolff. The set blended Ghanaian highlife, afro-beat, afro-pop and even disco – spanning four decades of genres and fusion. The aptly-named ‘I Need More’ was the encore.
The indoor performances on Day Three featured some outstanding throat singing from Norway and Canada. Torgeir Vassvik and his trio kicked off the first performance; Vassvik is an artist from Sápmi’s northernmost tip, Gamvik in Norway. The Sami joik and resonant throat singing reflect the diverse textures and climates of the Arctic zone.
The second Northern band on stage was Nukariik from Canada. The duo consists of sisters Kathy and Karin Kettler. Their Inuit throat singing and breathing styles, performed while facing each other, were inspired by the birds, animals and seasons of their region; a backdrop of photographs provided stunning visuals as well. “The mosquitoes in the Arctic are much bigger than the Malaysian ones,” Kathy joked.
The sisters explained how the alternating scales and close sequencing of tunes lead to complex yet entertaining melodies. They have performed at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, and are on the Inuit Throat Singer’s Committee.
The night performances on the last day were kicked off by the youthful band Thunder Beats of Nanyang Wushu Drums, from Sarawak in Malaysia. It included 12 drums representing the 12 months of a year, which are performed for prosperity, fortune and abundance.
The eagerly-anticipated Syrian band Broukar took the stage next (I was fortunate to also catch their performance earlier in July at the Forde Festival in Norway; see my writeup here). They were founded in 2007 in Damascus by Taoufik Mirkhan (kanun), and the musician lineup now includes his sister Hadil Mirkhan (oud) and Modar Salameh (percussion).
“The kanun has 78 strings, which means 78 minutes of tuning,” joked Taoufik Mirkhan, during one of their earlier afternoon workshops. “We also teach this music to our younger generation so they can keep the culture alive – and hopefully one day perform at festivals like this,” he said, referring to the sad plight of Syrian refugees.
The highlight of their performance was three sets of whirling dervish dance by Ahmad Alkhatib – twice in traditional white Sufi costume and finally in a breathtaking black-and-white dress.
Another high-energy trio then took the stage: Violons Barbares, with members from three countries: Dandarvaanchig Enkhjargal (or Epi, from Mongolia), Dimitar Gougov (Bulgaria) and Fabien Guyot (France). Epi blew the audience away with his deep throat singing and sense of humour, and sizzling work on the morin khoor. The Malaysian expression for ‘thank you’ (terima kasi) spoken in his super-deep voice drew delighted whoops from the audience.
Dimitar Gougov played haunting tunes on the gadulka, and Fabien Guyot was simply magnificent on percussion. The trio played a range of love songs and high-energy tracks (including the Afghan ‘Caravan’), and pushed the frontiers of tradition and cross-boundary fusion.
Gears shifted to the largely percussion band Chouk Bwa Libète, a traditional Haitian Mizik Rasin (roots music) band. The voodoo music featured an astonishingly intricate yet highly danceable array of rhythms and chants, with multiple fades and crescendos. The energy was so infectious that lead vocalist Jean Claude Sambaton Dorvil even seemed to be possessed with a spirit for some time, adding a layer of drama to the performance.
Drummers Lakous Badjo, Souvenance and Soukri showed unbelievable energy and variation as they alternated between their instruments. The audience joined in a chorus of ‘Amun Aye’ for the last track, and a rousing conch tone wrapped up the set.
The place slowed down a bit with the traditional joget (Malaysian dance) by the group Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, and picked up once again with Latvian bagpipe-drum band Auli (who had also finished up Day One’s performances).
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 black-and-white twirling cape of Broukar’s dervish dancer Ahmad Alkhatib soaring above the rest of the musicians was a memorable sight. The festivities carried on with a poolside jam at the musicians’ hotel, with samples of Greek, Arabic and Canadian indigenous music!
I picked up 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 next Rainforest World Music Festival in 2017, which promises to be extra special since it will be the 20th edition!
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music including folk, roots and various types of global fusion