KUCHING 7 July 2014: Mega stars Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift are not the performers you expect to see at Kuching’s annual Rainforest World Music Festival that’s for sure.
For starters, they probably wouldn’t get invited. Lady Gaga doesn’t do flutes, or come to think of it even recorders. Taylor Swift might just qualify if she played an accordion, or better still a banjo or a tambourine. A fiddle would get them both through the gate or even an acoustic violin would help. Drums would be better. Drums of all shapes and sizes figure in world music and this year’s organisers of the 17th Rainforest World Music Festival left no one in doubt that drums topped the billing.
World music festivals are very much about instruments we have forgotten or that rarely figure in pop music.The last time I saw a tambourine it was providing the rhythm for a gospel song in the deft hands of a Salvation Army lassie. Banjo and lyrics were popular in the UK in the 1930s, while our parents associated the cumbersome accordion with riverboats or sing-alongs at the local community centre.
But World Music has come of age bringing together the chants of Asian bands, the percussion and the country music of Europe and the Americas, often giving percussion and strings that acoustic touch.
While we might call it ethnic or indigenous music, since the 1960s branding specialists have tagged it “world music” to describe musical trends that combine ethnic style and texture including Western elements. It brings to the audience traditional instruments often creating hybrid or fusion sounds; “local music from out there.”
Sarawak’s famous cultural village with its garden and lakeside dotted with traditional longhouses is the venue of the annual Rainforest World Music Festival. This year’s event was held 20 to 22 June a little earlier than usual to avoid Ramadan.
The village’s boardwalks meander around a lake leading to a natural hollow and a limestone ridge, covered in tall lush green trees, that rises a good 600 metres from the base of this natural amphitheatre, just a short five-minute walk from Kuching’s Damai Beach.
Thousands of music fans sit on the grass slopes of this semi-circular hollow facing two stages with the rainforest providing a dramatic backdrop. Behind them, through lines of trees, amber rays of sunlight sparkle on the surface of the South China Sea. It’s a perfect chill-out scene.
The onset of dusk signals the beginning of the evening’s session of folky, world music brought to this enthralling venue by 23 “world music” bands from Southeast Asia and around the world.
“Songs in so many languages have rung through the rainforest during this festival, a Welsh musician tells the crowd. “Now we bring to you a song in our native language.”
Within seconds a vast sea of people are dancing and waving to folky Celtic strains.
If you are a music lover, resident in Southeast Asia, a day will dawn when you browse the web to see if this festivall is really worth a visit.
It is, but the reasons are as varied as the bands and fans that descend on Kuching for this three-day festival.
One reason is the invitation process that brings together a variety of top performers,worldwide, to ensure there is a never a dull moment in the three-day programme. This year, 23 bands performed from Cuba, Canada, Africa and Europe and there was a spread of remarkable bands from Asia particularly Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
If you love authentic music, edgy with ethnic tones, a strong beat, percussion and performers who can really sing their hearts out then this is possibly the top festival in Southeast Asia. It’s different and that’s what makes it worth the trip.
Voted by the Songlines as one of the top 25 music festivals in the world, it is on our doorstep an easy hop by plane from any of Southeast Asian’s capital cities.
Sarawak Tourism Board, claims the festival attracts 20,000 music lovers over three days of stage performances, daily workshops and afternoon theatre chamber-style performances.
Despite a crowd of more than 6,000 people daily packed into this natural arena, this is a family friendly event. Families roll out mats sit on the grass. Dad sips a beer, while the kids snack on food bought from nearby tents. There is carnival atmosphere driven by the fast pace and beat of the show bands. Within seconds the fans are join the action, engaging in long snake-like chain dance through the throng, while the older fans sit on logs on the slopes enjoying the view of the two stages, wishing they were in their 20s again.
The music is edgy often with a message, but there is plenty of variety in the six nightly stage performances that alternate on the two stages without the need for intervals.
“Who’s your favourite band,” I ask people nearby whenever there is a short break.
Didn’t get the same answer twice. Every band was special and the variety of instruments, vocals and stage presentations gave everyone their own memorable performance.
It represents the festival’s ability to please everyone. Bands had their distinctive sounds and vocals, but at the close of each evening, we all had our own favourites.
This is one music festival where, the musicians circulate so you can catch them during jam sessions at the daily workshops, and they are likely to be camped out in one of the beer tents chatting to their fans once their gigs are over. But the festival is much more than watching big bands perform on two main stages.
There’s a chance to learn and gain an appreciation for traditional instruments and playing techniques at daily Workshops, held in three different longhouses every afternoon.
Workshops are a pretty official description for what is really a fun event where fans can interact with musicians and gain insights into the various instruments they play.
Drums from around the world are lined up in one longhouse with their owners taking the audience through the distinct features of each instrument. Every drum has its own DNA is the message and the owner show us why.
Another workshops features flute players from a mix of bands representing Indonesia, Sarawak, Italy and a single performer from Germany who owns a rare collection of Japanese flutes.
Kuching is pretty close to the equator so by 1400 I am ready to sneak off to the air-conditioned theatre for a world version of chamber music.
Ryuz, a Japanese trio, performs to a packed house of around 400 people for over one hour playing vibrant Japanese folk music with traditional drums and a string instruments to create a dramatic “fusion” of string, percussion and vocals.
So what’s the downside for music lovers in Asia? There are just not enough travel agents clued up on how to sell a music festival, add value and get groups together to explore Sarawak and wind up at the festival for a grand tour finale. This is a festival for groups of friends and families although a solo traveller will quickly make friends.
Travel agents could make it easier for us to explore Sarawak and cap it off with a night at this amazing music festival. Very few appear to bother and that is why travel agents in Asia are fast losing their relevance.
An Australian travel writer who attends the festival most year explains he will lead a group to next year’s event at the close of a speciality tour of Sarawak’s nature and Kuching’s heritage organised by a leading tour operator on the Gold Coast.
How many agents in Southeast Asia, selling tours to Malaysia, think out of the box and stamp a tour with added value such as attending this prestigious music festival?
Festival organsier, Sarawak Tourism Board explains that most of the travel agency business for the festival is generated in Singapore, Brunei and west Malaysia.
Show tickets at MYR130 for one day or MYR340 for three days are sold directly through the online service Ticketpro. The Malaysian version sells tickets for three music festivals in Sarawak (jazz, Asia rock and world music) See www.ticketpro.com.my.
Next year’s music festival will be held 7 to 9 August. See http://rwmf.net or follow on Facebook at Sarawak Travel Malaysia Borneo.
On stage: My favourites
Dakhabrakha a quartet from Kyiv Ukraine captivated the audience with its astonishingly powerful vocal ranges and the use of traditional instruments from Africa, Arabia, India and Russia.
Ryuz, a trio from Japan, talented folk singers, who deliver a vibrant performance with folk drums and the Shamisen traditional string instrument. The music is original Ryuz style with incredible percussion and vocals strengths.
Le Cor De Plana from Marseilles, France, great vocals and percussion and a passion for democracy and workers rights that shines through the vocals raising cheers from the audience. They demonstrate great stagecraft and interaction with the audience.
Kalakan from the Basque country, Spain, played for Madonna on tour , but they have not lost their commitment to Basque style music and its inspiring vocals. They captured the imagination of the audience.
Canzoniere Grecanioco Salentino brought Italian big band and dance to the stage. They won the Italian World Music Band award in 2010 and it showed in the polished performance and dance routines on stage.
For sheer entertainment, Gordie Mackeeman and his Rhythm Boys from Prince Edward Island, Canada gave a new interpretation of old time roots music adding energy to their performance that had everyone jumping off their log seats to dance.
Sounds of world music in rainforest