Good vibrations from Santubong


Wilfred Pilo

FOR three nights in July over the past 15 years, Mount Santubong reverberated with world music – from the rumble of Brazilian drums to the melodic twangs of the Orang Ulu sape.

These good vibrations came from Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF), the annual gathering of folk and ethnic musicians the world over at the Sarawak Cultural Village at the foot of the mountain.

RWMF is arguably the biggest success story of the Sarawak Tourism Board, starting off as a surprise package in 1997 and going on to climb its way to be among the Top 25 Best International Festivals today, according to the rating of the renowned magazine Songlines.

However, the festival is not without its detractors, especially among the locals who could not connect with its genre of music and perhaps put off by the price of the tickets which, at RM110 per day, is steep compared to pop concerts held in the state.

As its name implies though, this festival is not geared for locals, being a celebration of world ethnic music with an intended worldwide audience.

RWMF was conceived as a vehicle to put Sarawak on the world tourism map and on this score, no one can deny the festival had achieved its objective.

The fame of this musical extravaganza spread by word of mouth and the large turnout each year bears testimony to its appeal to world music lovers.

Those who run down the festival are missing the big picture – RMWF is not just a musical concert but a massive tourism product.

To view RWMF merely as a musical festival would be an injustice to the organisers who have developed it into an important venue for cultural interaction of peoples around the world.

The festival attendees are exposed to the traditions and cultures of countries they are unlikely to visit not only through presentations of the musicians during the concerts but also daytime workshops on their music and dances.

I was impressed by Khusugtub of Mongolia with their unique folk music which blended the sound of their traditional stringed instruments with their guttural humming – a combination still humming in my head.

Thanks to RWMF, I do not have to travel to Mongolia to listen to authentic Mongolian music but what makes this festival stand out is the collaboration of musicians across the globe in some of their performances.

The group Hata, for example, comprised two traditional drummers from Taiwan, a flutist and a lute player from Korea, a guitarist from Azerbaijan and sitar, percussion and tabla players from Malaysia.

The fusion they produced from their impromptu interplay of their traditional musical instruments was mind-boggling and for a while, the world was truly borderless as music transcended borders and cultures.

Also noteworthy was the contribution of our local musicians. Their active participation showed we could contribute to this musical extravaganza as much we received from our guest performers.

However, a letdown was the absence of Mathew Ngau, the sape player and the icon of the festival this year.

Although the image of him playing the traditional Orang Ulu string instrument could be seen everywhere at the Cultural Village during the festival, he was nowhere to be seen as he was on a performing tour in the US.

The organisers should have avoided this clash of schedules and hopefully, it would serve as a lesson for future festivals.

And yes, there is that little inconvenience of the inevitable traffic jam to the Cultural Village, especially on the second night when the bumper-to-bumper crawl was about five kilometres long.

I would like to view the traffic snarl as the price of success and I must commend the organisers for doing their part to ease the congestion to the festival site.

There were ample bus shuttles to the festival site, picking up people from different parts of the city but it seems most of the locals still preferred to use their own transport, hence causing the nasty jam.

More efforts should be put into persuading the city folks to use public transport next year. Perhaps incorporating the bus fares into the festival ticket might do the trick.

Kudos to everyone who had made the event a happening weekend and whatever hiccups or slipups should be taken as lessons for future festivals, after all there is always room for improvement.

A note of caution is the tendency of music festivals losing their lustre after some years. And after 15 years, RWMF should be nearing the end of its shelf life and unless reinvented soon, the festival could start to lose its appeal, but for next year at least, it should be business as usual.