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Rainforest World Music Festival, July 2008

The eleventh edition of the "Rainforest World Music Festival" (RWMF) was held on July 11-13, 2008 at the Sarawak Cultural Village near Kuching. We were anchored in the Santubong River about three miles away and attended all three days.We enjoyed the festival very much, and recommend it to others who may be in this area for future editions. Here is an account of what we saw and heard.

Twenty-one yachts were anchored near the Santubong Police Station during the festival. The owner of the land near the small marina graciously allowed us to use his docks for our dinghies. A local named Zam arranged for two minibuses to transport cruisers to and from the festival grounds for 6RM each way. The first bus left from the Police Station at 1:30 each afternoon, and the vans were on-call for returns at any time. This was a very convenient service which we all appreciated.

The venue was the Sarawak Cultural Village, a showcase for Sarawak's diverse ethnic heritage. This attraction was designed to allow tourists to learn about the major communities in Sarawak, with each group represented by a dwelling typical of its traditional lifestyle. These houses are normally enlivened by members of the ethnic groups dressed traditionally, engaging in traditional activities and available to answer questions. Normal activities of the Cultural Village are suspended for the annual RWMF. The buildings are arranged around a small lake in a park-like setting at the foot of dramatic Santubong Mountain. The RWMF has grown up with this Cultural Village. A large stage and a smaller "Tree Stage" are in a corner of the village with an open area for audiences. The stages were used for evening performances, while afternoon workshops were held inside three of the Cultural Village buildings. Four large screens in different parts of the Cultural Village enabled people to watch evening performance telecasts live while eating local food, enjoying beverages or just relaxing away from the crowds near the stages. Technical problems were at a minimum, with very professional lighting and sound available for all the stage and workshop performances. (This seemed an impressive achievement since the equipment needs to be set up anew every year just for the festival.) The "Rainforest World Craft Bazaar" was held in the Cultural Village on the same days. We enjoyed seeing some of those exhibits, but did not have enough time to see all of them because we didn't want to miss any music.

We purchased tickets on-line (www.rainforestmusic-borneo.com) 250RM for a three-day pass. Tickets were also available at the Visitors Information Centers in Kuching, Miri and Sibu. Adult tickets for one-day admission cost 90RM. Tickets purchased in advance were either mailed or held at the festival entrance for pickup on the day of the event.

On Friday afternoon we started with a workshop called "Not Your Average Instrument." This included a flute player who could even play a hollow stick without finger-holes, a dotara from Bengal, and the amazing khomok (two strings attached to a sort of drum) from India played by Kartick Chandra Nandy Baul in dazzling fashion. Then we moved to the village theatre to hear various drums of South Asia. Balakrishnan Kilakkancerry Vaidyanathan from India put "thimbles" on the fingers of his left hand and a drumstick in his right hand to produce astonishingly fast and complex rhythms on his Indian instrument. In addition, we were impressed by the talking drums of Sivabalan Shanmuga Sundram (mridangam) and Vickneswaran Ramakrishnan (tabla), Malaysians of Indian heritage. They could also rapidly vocalize the drum patterns, which amazed most of us. The last workshop included the young members of Sarawak's "Orchestra Anak Jati Bisaya" playing traditional gongs and a turtle shell, more tabla playing, complex solo drumming from Algeria and Greece, and a dramatic solo performance by Hiroshi Motofuji breaking drumsticks on a big set of drums.

After trying some of the local food sold all over the village, we settled onto our little tarp (placed early to save our spot) to enjoy the evening stage performances. The Prime Minister of Malaysia was among the VIPs attending that night, and security personnel were in abundance. Just as the first performance started at 7:30, the skies opened and a deluge soaked both the audience and the grounds. We huddled under our tarp and stayed relatively dry, but many were not so fortunate. The rain certainly detracted from the music which continued on-schedule. The rain stopped for the performance by "AkashA," a new Malaysian group (guitar, sitar, and two Indian drummers out front) which we considered the highlight of the evening. We looked for a CD by this group which was apparently too new to have any recordings available. [Feb 2009 Note: AkashA found this letter on-line and added it to their website under "Online Articles."] You can browse their website by clicking here. [Dec 2009 Note: They have more musicians now, and do have a CD available.] Rain returned for much of the rest of the night, and many people went home early.

We were back for the first Saturday workshop featuring reed instruments. There were two Galacian bagpipers, (one from Poland), plus a Polish bombard player and an African saxophone player. Next we squeezed into the overflowing Iban longhouse to watch many performers on frame drums and tambourines. The final workshop of the day was the best. In the comfort of the Theatre we watched Styaki Banerjee (dotara - northern Indian plucked string instrument), Kumaresan Karthigesu from Malaysia (sitar - classical Indian plucked strings), Adel Salameh from Palestine (oud - somewhat like a mandolin) and Ross Daly from Greece (rebab - a sort of upright fiddle) demonstrate various modes of improvisation and perform together spontaneously.

Mud was plowed off the audience area and sand was brought in, but the field was still pretty soggy on Saturday evening. The crowd was larger than at any other time. Although the area could reasonably be expected to handle 7,000 people at most, 8,000 tickets were sold for Saturday. The organizers showed true Sarawak hospitality by their reluctance to turn away people who had traveled far to attend. We thought this crowd included a rowdy element - smoking, drinking (Heineken cost 10RM per can) and talking during performances. This was most disturbing during the Adel Salameh Trio performance of quiet, subtle and complex "chamber music." The crowd preferred fast, loud music like the Celtic tunes of "Beltaine" from Poland and the modern African music of "Yakande" from Gambia/Guinea. Hiroshi Motofuji was accorded "rock star" status for his vigorous solo drumming.

On Sunday afternoon we arrived in time to get front-row seats in the Theatre. We stayed there for all three workshops. We sat with Gerald Seligman, General Director of WOMEX (www.womex.com),who was here to help musicians succeed in today's fast-changing music business. He was very interesting to talk with since he knew many musicians personally and had a very informed perspective. The first workshop featured Ross Daly (lauto - an upright violin), Adel Salameh (oud), and the Sarawakians of "Senida" (featuring the gambus - a type of sape). The first two were certainly "masters," and their performances were exquisite. The second workshop was a complete change of pace, since the audience participated. Everyone had a chance to try a bamboo rattle (angklung - originally from Indonesia). Nina played a "C" rattle during a little song directed by Narawi Rashidi who pointed to each note on a big chart. It was fun. The last workshop featured many different kinds of drums plus dancers. It ended with a remarkable dialogue between a Trinidadian playing tenor pan (steel drum) and an Indian playing the khomok. It is possible that neither musician had ever heard the other's instrument, but they interacted wonderfully and embraced after the workshop.

The final evening concert was muddy but more decorous than the previous night's. The New Rope String Band's zany antics were well-received, then the Sarawak youngsters performed on gongs, Hiroshi battered his drum set as if it were a martial art, the "Oikyotaan" group produced wonderful Indian music, Ross Daly presented his form of Grecian chamber music, and "Kasai Masai" made modern African music. It was another evening of truly "world music." The "Finale" brought all performers back onto the main stage for reminders of their performances and a chance to finish the festival together. It was a happy ending, marred slightly by a few who started slinging mud after the music was finished.We found our van and returned to our boat, again after 1:00am. It was well worth the late nights, but after this music festival we were tired!

(view Rainforest World Music Festival photos)

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