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The forests of Sarawak, Malaysia, reverberate with music as international bands converge there in July

Lush green forest cover and peaking Santubong mountain form a glorious backdrop to the annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. Though music has travelled in the form of a festival from confined concert-halls to various open-air venues, at this unique setting of 17 acres of forest land, it has taken a quantum leap since its beginning 20 years ago. The three-day festival held in the month of July hosts renowned musicians, both indigenous and international.

A couple of hours flying from Kuala Lumpur lands me in Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak and the base to get to the festival. Shuttle buses are organised from the city-centre, with the focus on reducing carbon emission, for the 35-km ride to Sarawak Cultural Village, a ‘living’ museum and the venue for the festival. People throng the gates in the opening hours of the morning but an efficient entry system keeps the wait-time to minimal.

Past midnight

All-day events begin in the morning and wind down well past midnight. There is something for everyone to keep the zing going. To sustain the energy-level for such a long stretch at the festival, it is better to kick-start the day with one of the wellness-programmes that focus on mental, spiritual and physical through yoga workshops, meditation and Tai-chi. Yoga enthusiasts can get to choose from various types such as hatha, budokon, vinyasa and yin but ‘bring your own yoga mat’ is the norm here. For the movement-oriented, Zumba, Bodycombat, Tai-chi, Capoeira and traditional Malay art of self-defence called Silat are the choice.

The festival ground is designed such, a boardwalk around a water-body would catch all the sights and sounds. Talks on wealth of plants in the rainforest, personal-care oil extraction and soap-making from natural ingredients are at Sarawak Biodiversity centre. Cheering kids holding mothers’ arms lead me to Pustaka Bookaroo, where children get initiated into arts, crafts and music.

thehindu Worldmusic

There is a heavy emphasis on Sape, a local ‘boat lute’ of four-strings made of hollowed-wood, through history and exhibition, art of making and playing workshops, to preserve and promote local musical heritage. The Rainforest World Craft Bazaar is an alluring stop over for souvenir hunters as it spreads a wide range from garments, pants, batik, beadwork to tapestries for which the raw materials are sourced from the forest.The festival aims to showcase music and dance rooted in cultures from around the world. Two stages, ‘The Jungle and Tree stages,’ aptly named for they are flanked by forest trees, are the focus for the prime-time mega acts. This year featured over 25 bands from South Africa, U.K., Guinea, Cape Verde, Columbia, Belgium to Tahiti. The bands play back to back creating a seamless transition though the sounds are distinct as they cover a range of genres. When the skies open, revellers literally ‘dance away the evening in the rain.’

As Sarawak is located just north of the equator, it is hot and sweaty. The only air-conditioned refuge is the Theatre stage that hosts afternoon shows that are chamber-style, intimate and classical for seated audience. Then there are ‘Mini Sessions’ featuring lecture-demonstrations, interactive dance workshops and thematic performances on ‘percussion,’ ‘wind,’ ‘strings,’ ‘keys’ and so on. Each musician gets to demonstrate his instrument individually and the session ends with them all playing together. These shows are held in the replica of traditional houses and halls of the Sarawak ethnic communities.

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