Picture steep-sided mountains covered in lush tropical rainforest with clouds forming in front of your eyes. The warm night air is filled with tantalising smells from the food stalls and above the sound of chirping cicadias, global sounds fill the natural bowl — the crowd turns its head as a flying fox is silhouetted against a giant floating globe light
A picturesque lake is surrounded by longhouses — beautiful wooden houses on stilts built by the island’s various tribes and doubling up as workshop venues. The stage is set in front of stunning and backlit tropical forest. This is the most picturesque and best-organised festival once could hope to go to.
It might be a bit cheesy but seeing nearly 7,000 people singing along to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ would melt all but the most cynical of hearts
A long house is where the whole community lives perched high up on stilts, cooled by gentle breezes and safe from cobras. This particular long house was built by the Iban community in the Sarawak Cultural Village. The remaining longhouses spaced out around the lake were put up by the other Sarawak rainforest tribes on the west coast of Borneo.
See our exclusive photo feature of the Rainforest World Music Festival
Today though, it has been leant to the inhabitants of Carey Island, the Orang Asli, who charm with their beautiful palm leaf sculptures made on the spot and handed out as we assemble for the workshop where traditional dance and the palms themselves are used to draw down the spirits for the healing ceremonies. When the island was originally colonised by the British, the would be colonisers made a deal with the locals that they wouldn’t settle and would only plant one crop. The Carey Islanders agreed only to find 80% of their land to be taken up by palm tree plantations. Now that once declining crop is highly desirable again as bio-fuel, not that the islanders expect to see any of the money. Somehow they kept on to their culture and the festival is a way of celebrating that resistance to modernity, colonisation and all the forces that strip traditional peoples of their ways and culture.
Despite its popularity, with about 7,000 visitors on any one night, the Rainforest Festival retains a charming intimacy where it is impossible not to keep bumping into the musicians
The next day a protest is fronted by a couple of rainforest people to explain that although they welcome the international exposure to their culture the festival brings, it is important to realise that the destruction of this very culture by global forces continues apace. In a country where a protest with four people can land you in jail, this is a brave thing to do.
Yeoh Jun Ling the artistic director bubbles with enthusiasm for the line-up which was whittled down from the 140 previous acts in the ten years of the festival to the 17 seen here over the weekend. For this, the tenth Rainforest World Music Festival, is a kind of best of compilation. If the process of choosing the line-up was “heart-breaking”, the resulting balance of bands provides for a mix of local culture with quite a few not-so-well known international bands and a couple of better known stars.
Of the stars, the band that captures everyone’s hearts is Black Umfolosi a now five-piece a capella group from Zimbabwe. As well as their rapturously received main performance, they got to close the festival but I had the bitter sweet pleasure of spending many hours at Kuala Lumpur airport with Sosha and Tomeki — the two most outspoken members of the band. Off stage we bantered over beer on the state of Zimbabwe and the rigours of touring, on stage their performance mixes the beautiful southern African vocal harmonies of the Indebele people with gumboot dancing. It might be a bit cheesy but seeing nearly 7,000 people singing along to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ would melt all but the most cynical of hearts.
Tarika Be (pictured), the only other African performer on the programme, created a stir with her sexy performances. One local journalist described closing his eyes during her workshop, where she used her body for percussive purposes, and imagining galloping horses and all sorts in a rather breathless piece of journalism.
If CD sales can be used as an indicator of popularity, the throat singers of Tuva, Huun Huur Tu may have had the edge on Black Umfolosi after their performance with Russian remixers Malerija on the Saturday night. A splash of rock histrionics and some dance beats helped the young audience connect to this astonishing band of multiphonic Steppesmen. Despite their somewhat fearsome appearance, these easygoing musicians were just really enjoying the festival when I caught up with them on the bus.
A large dose of culture crossing has gone on: in the bands we have an Australian band playing music of the Andes, a British salsa band, a Polish Celtic band and the Canadian Sarawakophile Randy Raine-Reusch, whose enthusiasm helped get the festival started a decade back when only 300 people came to the first one.
It has to be said that while the quality of these cultural transgressors was variable to my ears, the local audience absolutely loved them. There is a huge appetite for Latin music here for example and while the genuine article from Latin America would be preferred, no one was going to let that stop them partying to bands like Mas Y Mas (UK) and Inka Marka (Australia). On the other hand, if the organisers want to entice more European music lovers away from the 400 plus festivals taking place on their own continent, they will have to raise the bar in this area.
The local bands charmed and delighted audiences local and international alike with the rich Sarawak culture typified by strong drumming, simple dances and chanting — all done in stunning costumes. Although on closer inspection, tradition isn’t always what it appears for example Anak Adi’ Rurum had girls playing the sape, a traditionally exclusively male instrument, and the feathers for their costumes came from American turkeys, hand-painted to replace those of the now endangered hornbill. Aunty Nicky notes with some irony that the demands from eco-tourists to see traditional dancers in costume had led to the over-hunting of this iconic bird.
The Malaysian people are ethnically diverse with Malays, Chinese and Indians coming in various combinations of Christianity, Taoism and Islam. You may see girls in headscarves chatting away with girls walking around in bikinis in the warm tropical nights. As with every place, there are social tensions but these seem far away in this positive and festive atmosphere. Local teenagers save up for the party weekend. Even on the mainland there is nothing to compare to the weekend long programme of music and while in the UK we associate World Music with older audiences, here in Malaysia the audience is much younger and livelier. As a couple of regular visitors explained to me, they came first to party and then they realised that they actually really liked the music and now they come back for it as much as anything else.
I flew with Malaysia Airlines, highly recommended for lovers of long delays, dishonest jobsworths and cramped conditions.