It’s not often you get the chance to brave the wilds of Borneo, and while the infamous headhunters have retired from their traditional pursuits, the jungles offer a much more friendly atmosphere as the Sarawak Cultural Village (Kuching City, East Malaysia), hosted the fifteenth Rainforest World Music Festival.
While Kuching City may be something of a sleepy backwater (its name suitably referring to the lazy feline), it provides an ideal base for adventure and eco-tourism into Borneo’s unspoiled wilds. While wildlife may be Sarawak’s main claim to fame, the local annual world music festival has made a name for itself as one of the world’s leading world music events, having been voted by leading world music magazine Songlines as one of its top 25 best events for the last three consecutive years. Held over a long weekend in mid-July, the extravaganza combines the local sounds of Borneo’s ethnic forest peoples with a dazzling array of musical talent from around the world. It’s not often you get the chance to hear musicians from everywhere from Palestine to the Reunion Islands.
The Sarawak Cultural Village is something like Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, nestled within the embrace of imposing jungle-clad Mount Santubong are an array of intricately reconstructed examples of ethnic housing which provided a picturesque backdrop for the two sound stages that were the epicenter of the performances, an evocative space which once the sun had set and was bathed in rich green lighting added to the wild ambience.
The event also hosted several musical workshops held in some of the minority houses – including a giant Iban minority house that easily hosted a couple of hundred people. The workshops demanded high levels of audience participation, and as the Malay Diplomats Of Drum and Rhythm of Borneo hammered at their percussion and drums intertwined with vocal embellishments led by leader Bobo Nawawi, the crowd keenly joined in with the gestures which accompanied the songs, with movements indicating that we were ‘flying the kite’, ‘planting the rice’ and ‘rowing the boat’, and while I’m not a great participant in collective activities, I couldn’t help but smile at the enthusiasm shown by performers and crowd alike.
If that was too easy-going, the afro-beat inspired Kwasa Kwasa dance workshop in the Dewan Lagenda had hundreds of people following Congolese rhythms led by an infectious trio of dancers and MC, calling out the moves. The highpoint of which included the ‘make the mobile phone call to the boy or girlfriend’, which definitely had international cross-over appeal!
The main stages in the evenings were of slightly more serious stuff, with Le Trio Joubran musicians from Palestine concluding their set with a heartfelt plea for an end to the occupation of their country and a rhetorical flourish, ‘what is this in my hand, a musical instrument, not a weapon, it makes love not war’.
Other highlights included the Malyoa rhythms of the Indian Ocean island of Renunion, with the sounds resembling a form of blues fused with slave plantation percussion led by Danyel Waro and the guttural incantations of the Mongolian Khusugtun ensemble.
While decades ago, the wilds of Borneo would only have attracted the most hardy traveller, make a date in your diary for next year’s event, as the easy-going charm of Kuching and the accompanying sounds of the world make it an ideal getaway from the stifling summer heat of Vietnam’s big cities.