FROM its humble beginnings 14 years ago, the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) has grown into one of world’s best international festivals (as voted by music magazine Songlines) and the paramount attraction in Sarawak’s tourism calendar.
Surveying the motley crew of visitors, performers, volunteers and media in the audience of festival goers during the 14th RWMF last weekend, it’s easy to understand why the festival has spawned a unique culture all its own.
For most first-time festival goers, they are drawn by the promise of witnessing world-class music acts from around the globe against the unprecedented stage setting of a tropical rainforest. It’s the chance to flock together with other like-minded music lovers and immerse themselves in the exhilarating world of music where the traditional and the contemporary dovetail to form harmonious musical expressions which are at once familiar yet fresh and dynamic.
For returning festival goers, it’s all these things plus an annual pilgrimage of sorts – a time set apart in the year to enjoy good music and meet up with friends and acquaintances from far and near – with Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV), Santubong, as the point of confluence. It’s a time to renew old bonds and friendships.
But what all of these different groups expect is good music and a good time – something which is still very much a challenge for the festival’s organisers even with 13 festival’s worth of experience under their belt.
It could be said the success of the festival largely depends on balancing these different expectations of comfortable predictability with just the right amount of unpredictability, stemming from the pleasant surprise of new discoveries of new music, new acts, and new friends.
Magic of discovery
The afternoon workshop sessions, organised by themes such as instrument types, genres and geographical regions, demonstrate this delicate balancing act at work.
Afternoon workshop sessions are the defining attraction for many new and returning RWMF goers. In addition to giving them the opportunity to interact with performers in a fun and casual setting, it also provides performers with an intimate platform from which to share their unique knowledge, experiences and cultural background with other performers as well as audience members.
This successful formula of thematic workshops rarely changes from year to year but it does not always lead to the same outcome.
For example, this year’s ‘The Rhythm Method’ workshop. As the percussionists representing Afro Caribbean (Joaquin Diaz – Dominican Republic, Malike Pathe Sow – Senegal), bhangra-rock (Kissmet – UK), Eastern European (Warsaw Village Band – Poland) and gamelan (Agung Beat – Sabah) played in unison, it almost seemed possible that the venue was in danger of falling in on itself – such was the roar of appreciation from the crowd, clapping their hands and stomping on the wooden floor in time to the music.
A loud, rip-roaring good time is the outcome which the RWMF crowd have come to expect from the two or three percussions workshops organised every year.
But what they did not expect but, nonetheless, found themselves enthusiastically participating in was singing and dancing en masse in synchronisation to a bhangra rhythm led by the tabla, complete with familiar Bollywood-esquehand gestures thrown in for good measure.
Adding to the mix, the organisers also introduced twice daily 20-minute performance by Leweton Women’s Water Music – which was a stroke of ingenuity on their part as this group fast became a crowd favourite despite not having a performance slot during the main night concerts.
Dressed in traditional garbs hand-made from leaves, freshly plucked from plants around Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV), the group’s six female members began their moving performance with a swaying dance by the man-made lake at the centre of SCV before wading into its waters until water levels reached up to their waists.
Then, using only water as their instrument, these women astounded onlookers by producing a surprisingly wide range of sounds – from deep, resounding booms to light splashes reminiscent of fish splashing in shallow waters – beating the water with their bare hands while singing and dancing in time to the rhythms.
The festival marked their maiden trip outside their home country of Vanuatu to perform but these unassuming women with shy but ready smiles quickly won the hearts of many festival goers.
Magic of music
As for this year’s night concerts, probably the most unexpected thing to occur was that the weather stayed clear and the (in)famous muddy moshpit of years past did not make its usual showing – much to the disappointment of some festival goers who missed getting down and dirty.
This year, the organisers largely managed to achieve the right balance of contemporary and traditional world music acts, traversing the gulf between fans demanding world ethnic music versus festival goers who just wanted to party.
As expected, the show stealers were mainly those able to get the crowd on their feet and dancing. Memorable sets included Grammy nominated zydeco-Cajun music group Lisa Haley and the Zydecats (USA), Australian folk music ensemble Kamerunga, bhangra-rock fusion group Kissmet (UK), Mexican music act Victor Valdez Trio, Latin-Caribbean music maestro Joaquin Diaz (Dominican Republic), and Paddy Keenan (Ireland).
Among the Borneo Post’s personal favourites were the two Malaysian groups (gamelan act Agung Beat from Sabah, and the
Masters of the Sape from Sarawak), Iskwew (Canada), Pacific Curls (New Zealand), and MalikePathe Sow (Senegal).
However, it did not mean the other acts were any less good or moving in their performance. After all, to paraphrase the organisers, each group would not be there if they were not the best at what they do.
The overall mood and composition of the crowd for each night played a large influence over how each act was received.
Unfortunately, there was a perennial problem during the festival. Overall, sound quality was good but there were significant hiccups during some of the workshop sessions, especially for
those held in the Iban longhouse.
It was also unfortunate the final night concert was the one most plagued by sound issues. During the set by DuOud (Tunisia-Algeria), it was painfully apparent the sound system had failed to pick up the oud solo during what should have been a climatic part of a song.
But despite its shortcomings, this year’s festival has been largely successful at preserving the details, making it stand out, not just for the festival goers, but also the performers.
Performers enthusiastically spoke about personal discoveries, the sharing of experiences and spontaneous exchanging of ideas with their peers – with discussions spilling over into mealtimes and after concerts, often lasting late into the early hours of the following day and resulting in impromptu jamming sessions filled with dancing and revelry.
The camaraderie between festival goers, performers, volunteers, and staff, as well as between the media and organisers is testament to the power of music and a shared purpose to bring people from all walks of life together.
Indeed, it is by staying true to the magic of music and the magic of new discoveries that the RWMF had been enabled to
move from strength to strength.
As preparations begin for next year’s milestone 15th edition, the Borneo Post looks forward to seeing
how much will change and how much will stay the same.