If the late, great Ella Fitzgerald were still singing on our mortal coil, she would almost certainly have graced the stage of the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Sarawak, to sing her song ‘Into each life some rain must fall”, or indeed her gloriously simple “Rain”. Because this extraordinary event, which feels a bit like transporting Woodstock to the woods, or Glastonbury to the jungle, captures everything that Ella was about. Cultural transaction, looking at the world through new eyes, and finding joy in the world through music.
The Rainforest World Music Festival is an annual event celebrating music from global artists, international indigenous peoples as well as Sarawakian tribal triumphs too of course. The three days of festivities present music that not only shakes the surrounding leaves and trees, but also world opinion on the importance of worldwide rainforest preservation. And what a place to do it. Taking place in the island’s Sarawak Cultural Village, at the foot of jungle bedecked Mount Santubong, the festival site is described as a living museum for the rest of the year. And as workshops, music seminars, jamming sessions and dancing echo around the mountain during the festival days, and live acts boom through the beautiful biome afternoon and evening, this certainly is living.
Taking place in late July or early August, the Festival has been rocking the rainforest for 18 years now, so it has most definitely come of age, celebrating its 19th year between 5th-7th August 2016. Visitors can choose between a variety of accommodation, from local homestays to beach fronted hotels, jungle resorts or traditional and indigenous Iban and Bidayuh longhouses in the festival village itself. Not a long walk, however, to the myriad afternoon workshop sessions that wake the body up with all the right rhythms and vibes, ranging from dancing with Congolese pygmies, throat singing à la Mongolian, drumming with dudes from just about everywhere, jumping and jiving to Jagwa music from Tanzania, watching on in awe at the extraordinarily delicate plate dancing from Indonesia, Maoris making music and of course, learning and listening to Sarawak’s own expert sape players, a lute like instrument, also called the ‘boat lute’ due to their shape, played originally by the Orang Ulu or “upriver people”.
Dusk brings not only the fireflies, bats and beautiful birdsong, but the main stage events too, with leading artists in folk, traditional and world music. There is no doubt that the exquisite setting of the Festival injects the artists with an enthusiasm for sharing their creations like few other places in the world. Not for a second do you feel as if they are just churning out just another festival gig. They are singing to that mountain, beating in rhythm to the wildlife and, all in all, creating one big choral cacophony that captures nature’s sounds and celebrates musical traditions of the world. This year international and eclectic greats include such as Pat Thomas and Kwashibu Area Band from Ghana; Shanren, one of China’s top indie folk bands from the Yunnan Province; and traditional Irish folk band with a contemporary and multi-cultural following, Téada.