Rich Music Resonates From Mount Santubong

loading Teada, from Ireland.

The Rainforest World Music Festival last month took audiences – and this writer – to new heights of musical ecstasy.

Lightning provides firework in the sky: flash, bang. The Bornean rain whips at the audience, but they are not deterred. Instead, the storm appears to invigorate them as they dance to the Cretan lyra, with a backdrop of towering trees that provide no shelter from the rain. “Our first song is a prayer for the rain to stop,” announces Stelios Petrakis of the Stelios Petrakis Cretan Quartet at the beginning of their very wet set. The crowd doesn’t care; it is hungry for the sound of the strings and drums from an island half a world away. The music starts, and so does the dancing.

The Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) is an annual spectacle held at the Sarawak Cultural Village in the outskirts of Kuching, at the foot of Mount Santubong. With some 20,000 spectators from near and far staying from August 5-7, it is a huge affair. From its humble beginnings in 1997 it has grown beyond imagining, and is expected to generate RM39mil in spinoffs this year during which 25 bands and musicians from all over the world featured.

It takes pluckiness and persistence to keep a world music festival going. And the RWMF has been going for 19 years.

“When we started, it was automatically a family affair,” says Yeoh Jun Lin, artistic director of the festival. “We try to please everyone – that is the point. It’s also about the budget and the timing – trickier than it sounds, but we try.” She admits that it is a very mixed audience – some turn up for the workshops, some for the afternoon performances, some for the last two hours of the night concert – but in any case, there is something unexpected for festival goers every year.

Malaysia's very own Unique Arts Academy.

It is hard not to compare it with Penang’s now-defunct two-night World Music Festival, which kicked off in 2007 and had a three-year hiatus from 2009-2012 before fizzling out this year. Having attended and enjoyed the 2013 edition, I was overawed by the absolute scale of RWMF: three full days of workshops, intimate afternoon concerts and evening performances on two stages that see the audience scramble from one corner of the field to the other as the sets alternate between stages without any breaks. Indeed, the already popular cultural village transforms into a huge hive of activity.

“Go for the workshops,” a seasoned festivalgoer tells me. With 33 workshops over three afternoons – most of which were held concurrently with other workshops – some careful planning is needed. Sometimes, you just need to flip a coin – how else can one decide between an interactive workshop on Estonian dance and a demonstrative workshop on throat singing? Tough choices had to be made, and I found myself watching a pair of Inuit sisters, a Mongolian Khöömii singer and a Norwegian Sami (or Laplander) in a throat singing jam session, bringing the guttural sounds of the tundra and steppes to the sweltering tropics.

Fringe events were also available – both at the city centre (Waterfront Music Fest) and a stone’s throw from the cultural village (Borneo Tattoo Expo). And, as part of their sustainable event management, this year saw another round of mangrove sapling planting at the Kuching wetlands – a strangely enjoyable event that got musicians and press alike down and dirty in the mud. And there was waste management as well: designated bins for recyclables and non-recyclables were provided at the venue.

Apart from being a platform for local musicians, RWMF goes a step further in wanting to inspire youngsters to play traditional music: “When we first started, there were almost no young people playing traditional Sarawakian music. We had to beg them to put away their guitars,” says Yeoh.

A success story is that of 29-year-old Alena Murang, who is from Kuching. She plays and teaches the sape, which was considered taboo for females in the past. And not only does she defy tradition, she also endeavours to connect the past and the present through art and music: “What I try to do is to learn the old Kenyah and Kelabit songs from the elders and reinterpret them and try to make them more relevant for contemporary ears. A the same time, I try not to lose the traditional music (element),” says Murang.

The powerful drums of Indonesia's Dol Arastra Bengkulu.

The Naygayiw Gigi Dance Troupe from Australia.

Sarawak's Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, with some lively joget!

This appears a common aim among musicians present in this year’s edition – to reinterpret and reinvent traditional music: the Stelios Petrakis Cretan Quartet from Greece plays pieces that show depth and power of tradition as well as new ideas, selecting music that speaks to the hearts of Cretan people and international audiences; Shanren from China combines traditional Yunnan music with powerhouse rock (which whipped the crowd into a moshing frenzy in the mud during their set); Dimitar Gougov of Violons Barbares says that he “not only wanted to play music from his country, Bulgaria, but decided to play music which is more rock and roll-like.”

But the musicians do not only reinvent their music; they have had to reinvent themselves as well. While many of the musicians are full-time, a number of them have day jobs. A question on their decision to make music reveals the various professions the musicians have, or had: Taoufik Mirkhan of Syrian band Broukar is a pharmacist and teaches music for a steady income; Petrakis was a lawyer (“I worked very hard to finish this part of my life and gain the diploma for my mother’s sake,” he says with a laugh); Kaspars Bārbals of Latvian band Auli says that the ten members of the group work a regular job, but what unites them is their love for music; Murang used to be a management consultant before she realised she wasn’t happy not doing art and music (“There are so many other people who can do management consulting and project management way better than I can”).

The finale. See you next year!

It’s not an easy choice, either – it is one often freckled with conflict and challenges, and Temesgen Zeleke of Ethiopia’s Krar Collective can testify to that: “My mother broke my krar (an Ethiopian bowl-shaped lyre) five times,” he laughs. “Whenever I started playing the krar, she wasn’t very happy. She always told me to focus on my studies. After breaking my krar for the fifth time, she gave up. The first time she attended my show, it was last year in New York. She was really very happy. She supports me now; no more breaking the krar.”

Passion and persistence: these drive them despite the uncertainties of life as a musician. After all, as Bārbals puts it simply, “We are not making a lot of money in whatever we do, so we (might as well) do what we like.”

Julia Bubba Tan is deputy editor of Penang Monthly. She is a drummer girl at heart.

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