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Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival

Han Mei at the Rainforest Music Festival.

Han Mei at the Rainforest Music Festival.

Han Mei at the Rainforest Music Festival. Mitra. Uchau Bilong & Mathew Ngau Jau.

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  • Image © 2000 Keith Rockmael

As I trekked through the rainforest in Sarawak the last thing that I expected to hear were guitars, violas and electric fiddles but that exactly what my surprised ears enjoyed as I spent two days at the First Annual Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival. The festival brought together a potpourri of well known international musicians and lesser known regional musical groups to create an eclectically good time.

Unlike so many music festivals, which compress crowds into industrial amphitheatres the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival (SRWMF), allowed music lovers to enjoy the resounding rhythms in the heart of the one of the world's oldest rainforests, and specifically in a living museum dedicated to preserving the indigenous cultures of Borneo. The 17-acre Sarawak Cultural Village served as the venue for the two day event so the cramped concert experience remains nonexistent. Situated below imposing Mount Santubong at the edge of the South China Sea, the Village provided an interesting location that lacked the touristy ambiance.

Unlike other festivals, which usually have one of two stages of constant stage performances, this festival allowed music fans to choose from a variety of daytime workshops, mini recitals, master classes, and ethnomusicology interactive lectures, which went from 2 PM to about 5 PM. They took place in cozy daytime venues - longhouses (which are just what they sound like) and traditional native dwellings - that allowed fans to gather closely. The close surroundings brought various fans together. The musical energy often brought smiles to the crowd. The joyful mood often became infectious, and soon the small gathering broke into clapping and sometimes dancing. The bands got into the groove as impromptu jam sessions often broke out with one band joining another. After the set ended the uplifting mood continued as the crowd mingled with the band. There was no rock star mentality here. The festival provided a great chance to strike up a conversation with the band members or some of the locals. I learned about various instruments and influences after rapping with some of the musicians. And they even signed autographs.

When the sun went down, the various groups hit the main indoor stage and the outdoor stage and each band or performer performed for about 30 minutes. The music filled the air until around midnight. It's worth sticking around. Last year the high octane Scottish band Shooglenifty, who blend traditional Celtic music with modern grooves, wouldn't even let a tropical downpour (it is a rainforest) dampen the festivities. Their electric fiddler scorched the strings as the rains came down and drenched the crowd. I joined a mass of people who hit the dirt dance floor, and joined in a muddy but festive dance.

Besides Shooglenifty, many other bands that are scheduled to perform in the Second Annual Festival are worth a listen. Check out Setona who bring their Nubian rhythms all the way from Sudan. Led by singer Setona Ali Adam and her husband Ahmed Abdel Kerim, the band offers lush arrangements with touches of Zairian and Nigerian influences to create gorgeous Arabian music.

Another crowd favorite was Los Laneros who specialize in music of the Llanos (savannahs) along the Orinoco River in Columbia. It's a rare treat to hear this authentic style outside of the Llanos, as it remains one of the regions special secrets. The group Börte arrived from the other end of the world (Mongolia) and wowed the crowd. Their falsetto lead singer and their unusual instruments such as the horsehair string instrument, provide a mesmerizing sound.

Be sure not to miss The Ensemble who bring their stellar reputation around the world from nearby Vietnam. The pair of Hoang Ngoc Bich and Ho Khac Chi brings their traditional orchestra backgrounds but play instruments not at all common. Chi creates remarkable sounds on the dan bau, a one-string zither. Bich adds the sounds of the ko ni, a two-string stick fiddle where the strings are attached to a disk which is held in the mouth. Definitely worth a look and a listen.

As for local talent there are many Sarawak groups slated to appear. Sayu Ateng uses instruments that sometimes only appear in museums. They use traditional Borneo brass gongs, a distinctive string instrument called the Sape and several historic drums. It's a great opportunity to check out the sound of instruments that are rarely heard these days.

Of course the festival provides other distractions such as food stalls which offer local Sarawakian treats, handicraft booths, and if you need a tattoo Setona Ali Adam creates henna tattoos (or permanent Orang Ula tattoos) in her own stall when she's not playing.

Music Notes:

What: The 2nd annual Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival
When: July 20th to 22nd
Where: Sarawak Cultural Village in Santbong (near Kuching)
Admission: Advance sale adult day pass RM25.00 (prices in Malaysian Ringits). 3-day pass RM50.00; Gate price: RM30.00 (US $1.00 = RM 3.80)

Info: www.sarawaktourism.com

Published on 4/25/01

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