World music rocks the rainforest

L_NIGHT (3676)Borneo’s 16th annual Rainforest World Music Festival, held in the Sarawak Cultural Village near Kuching, brought together musicians and dancers from five continents. Audiences were treated to some powerful performances and a truly eclectic line-up.

This year, the mix included high-energy jazz from Indonesia, foot-stomping Cajun and Creole sounds from southern Louisiana, extraordinary shamanic songs and acrobatic performance from South Korea, riveting Bushehri music from Iran, a fiesta groove from Colombia, rousing rhythms and dancing from South Africa, and ethno-rock from Croatia.

On the first night there was a dazzlingly theatrical performance by the group Chet Nuneta from France, who astonished the crowd with their polyphony and their dramatic, impeccably choreographed movement. Michaël Fernandez’ drumming was as stunning as the vocals of Anne Roy.


The group is itself ethnically diverse, with members from France, Italy, Spain and Morocco, and it crosses borders in a flash, singing in Mandarin, Arabic, Armenian, Spanish, Creole, and Italian, and in endangered languages such as Komi from the north of Russia and the M’bochi dialect from the Congo republic.

The song and dance troupe Nunukul Yuggera brought the resonance, vibrancy, and dreamtime stories of Aboriginal Australia to Sarawak, and showed festival-goers how to start a fire without a lighter or matches.

The Colombian band Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica had an enthusiastic audience dancing to Vallenato, Colombia’s most popular rhythm, led by the accordion. Alberto ‘Beto’ Jamaica is considered to be Colombia’s king of Vallenato, and he certainly lived up to his title in Sarawak.

The Alp Bora quintet brought yet another change of pace. The quintet gives elegant yet fervent performances that straddle east and west. The lead singer, who was born in Turkey, but now lives in Austria, has a beautiful, haunting voice and the group performs folkloric music from the Balkans and Asia Minor, infusing it with Mediterranean, jazz, and funk flavours.

The night wound up with an innovative burst of Celtic excitement from the Irish band Kíla. The bodhrán player, Rónán Ó Snodaigh, is totally at one with his music and flies around the stage like a bolt of electricity.

A highlight of the second night was the performance by the Indonesian band Rafly Wa Saja. The lead singer has astounding energy and vocal power; his scat singing was extraordinary and there was some mesmerising flute playing by Saat Syah.


Rafly is a committed opponent of the deforestation that is devastating the north Sumatran province of Aceh. Seven of his songs are about the destruction of the forest in Aceh, mostly by palm oil companies, and the importance of preserving and embracing nature. He says the people in Aceh are united against national and local government plans that seek to exploit ecologically precious areas like the Tripa peat forest. He adds that saving Tripa is not just about saving the orangutans. “There needs to be a holistic approach that engages local wisdom so that the people of Aceh understand the true value of preserving the peat forest.”

Mohesen Sharifian and the Lian Band from Iran brought similar dynamism to the last night of the festival. Sharifian played an incredible array of bagpipes and the dancing was about as good as it gets.

L_NIGHT (3104)Photo by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board.

After Spiritual Seasons treated the audience to a vibrant mix of medieval, Irish, and Scandinavian folk music, the spectacular Korean performing arts troupe Palsandae brought their stunning extravaganza onto the main stage.

It is the first time the troupe has been able to bring all of its 16 members onto an international stage.

L_NIGHT (3820)Photo by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board.

Palsandae, led by Kim Woon Tae, weave acrobatics and dance into a breathtaking performance that is steeped in spirituality. The opening part of the performance is a ritual to cleanse the concert space and the highlight is the pangut, in which each performer plays a percussion instrument while whirling, and spinning ribbons on their chaesang hats. The players keep on running in a circle, expressing the continuous flow of life.


The foundation of the performance is shamanism, but elements of the many other religions in Korea are brought in. The essence is connecting with nature, people, the community, and the environment. There is a lot of improvisation, and changes are made even while the troupe is on stage.

Each Palsandae performance is adapted to the energy of the space in which it happens. “Kim created this programme especially for the rainforest festival and won’t use it again,” said troupe member Song Lee.

The Palsandae troupe is supported by South Korean government funding and the more they perform internationally, the more recognition they are getting in their own country.

Medan Maya Abdullah, who plays under the stage name Maya Green, opened his performance with two of his poems and images of the rainforest in Sarawak. Abdullah, who was born in the Bario highlands – a rainforest area deep in the centre of Borneo – is now a businessman. He plays the legendary boat lute of Sarawak, the sapeh or sape, which is the festival symbol.

L_NIGHT (2014)Photo by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to do what they can to preserve nature and protect the environment, Medan Maya Abdullah says. He believes the corporate world and nature can co-exist if business is done in a responsible, sustainable way, with companies respecting the environment and those who could be affected by their activities.

“Through my music, I’m trying to convey the message in my own small way. The music I play is born of the rainforest. It comes from people who live in the rainforest, who know what the rainforest means to them, who respect it, and know how to take care of it. I think by preserving the music of the rainforest we can help to preserve the culture and people of the rainforest, and hopefully the rainforest itself. Hopefully we can inspire young people to pick up the sape, learn how to play it, and understand the message behind the music.”

The members of Chet Nuneta are also engaged musicians, who are calling for the rainforest and its people to be protected. The group has a song in its repertoire called Pygmy Blues, which highlights the issue of deforestation.

During Kíla’s performance, Rossa Ó Snodaigh spoke about the danger of orangutans becoming extinct if their habitat continues to be destroyed.

Rossa Ó Snodaigh is also outspoken about the dearth of traditional and World music on Irish radio. “Traditional music is in Irish hearts and minds, but 98 percent of the radio output is Anglo-American pop. About ten years of excellent musical output was completely veiled over while the media gorged itself on really bland, boy-band music. It’s like white bread; there’s no life in it. People have been denied the richness of good music and that is very sad.

“All across the globe, commercial radio station output is based on studies of the views of 15-year-olds in Los Angeles. At least in France, 60 percent of music played on the radio has to be French. Over 25 years of being in a band I’ve seen thousands of Irish bands who have never had their music played on the radio. It’s awful.”

The message of Nunukul Yuggera is simple and straightforward: “We don’t own the land; the land owns us. We’re just here to maintain it the best we can.”

The festival organisers, the Sarawak Tourism Board, avoid engaging in the debate about deforestation in Southeast Asia, most of which is being caused by palm oil cultivation and pulpwood production. They say that the festival plays a role in raising awareness about the importance of preserving the rainforest and its ecosystem, but don’t comment about the current destruction being wreaked in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Local music from Sarawak has always featured in the Borneo festival, but since 2011, it has been increasingly present and the festival now includes native chanting in addition to the traditional festival blessings.

L_NIGHT (2034)Photo by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board.

Simon Broughton, editor-in-chief of the London-based World music magazine Songlines, says that when the festival first started it was difficult to hear traditional music in or around Kuching, outside of the cultural village. “Now, 16 years later, there is a vitality in the local music, which has come from the festival. The fact that they’ve showcased local music alongside international music gives it a validity.”

For several years there has been a competition for local bands and the price is a performance slot at the festival the following year.

Broughton cites a Sarawak gong orchestra that has played at the festival three times. The members all used to be elderly, but two or three years ago, young people started playing in the band.

“Apart from the fact that it’s a really nice festival, a great location and an opportunity to hear amazing music in an amazing setting, I think the effect of the festival has been substantial on the local indigenous music scene, particularly in Sarawak, but not just in Sarawak because groups come here from peninsula Malaysia as well.”

Broughton says Malay music has been much more neglected than music from neighbouring Indonesia. “There’s a much more vital tradition and pride in the traditions in Indonesia that there hasn’t been in Malaysia. I think it’s giving that pride back that’s been one of the success stories of the rainforest festival.”

This year, there was Chinese chamber music from Kuching and traditional Orang Ulu music from the group Lan E’ Tuyang.

The oil and gas company Petronas has just given Lan E’ Tuyang 50,000 Malaysian ringgit (nearly 16,000 U$S) to help to “preserve, nurture, and promote” sape music.

Lan E’ Tuyang’s lead singer Mathew Ngau Jau says that when he first started playing the sape nearly 15 years ago, he worried that the tradition was in danger. “Young people would pick up a guitar, not a sape; they were more into western music.” Gradually, however, as Mathew Ngau Jau and other sape players continued to perform and the Sarawak Tourist Board lent its support, young people saw the sape becoming popular around the world and became more encouraged to try it.

L_NIGHT (1025)Photo by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board.

Now, with government support and the financial aid from Petronas, Mathew Ngau Jau says he is even more motivated to continue spreading the Orang Ulu musical culture. “Now my own sons are picking up the sape. I am reassured; the sape is not going to die.”

Arthur Borman from the indigenous Bidayuh group Madeeh says the band is still experimenting with ways in which instruments from ethnic Sarawak can be played together. The festival has given him the chance to meet Mathew Ngau Jau, and the two are sure to collaborate in the future. Borman is going to make a bamboo pratuonkng for his fellow musician.

Last year Madeeh worked with the music department of the Faculty of Human Ecology of the Malaysian University of Sarawak (UNIMAS) to see how well Bidayuh music fits into the university’s symphony orchestra, and they’ll be doing the same experiment again next year.

The rainforest festival is not just evening performances; each afternoon there are workshops in three venues on the festival site.

There is always a wide choice of workshops, giving festival-goers the chance to learn about different instruments or styles of song or dance.

In this year’s workshops you could find out about string instruments of sub-Saharan Africa, flutes, plucked instruments, drums, bowed stringed instruments, guitars, bagpipes, accordions, and the gamelan (a set of instruments played in Indonesia and Malaysia that includes huge gongs). You could have a go at Norwegian, Scottish, French, African, Iranian, Korean, Aboriginal, or Bidayuh dancing or learn about songs from a whole host of countries.

One of the highspot of this year’s festival was the performance by the all-woman, award-winning gamelan group Rhythm in Bronze. Another was the presence of 71-year-old nose flute player Juk Wan Emang.

The nose flute is an instrument used for courtship among the Kayan people of Sarawak. Usually played by women, and is also used at a time of mourning.

nosePhoto by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board.

For the musicians, the rainforest festival is a chance to gain inspiration, exchange ideas, and talk about possible collaboration.

Colombia’s Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica plans to put together a “song to Malaysia”.

Colm Ó Snodaigh was particularly inspired by South African band Dizu Plaatjies & The Ibuyambo Ensemble. “They had no bass player or electric guitar; they can fill the stage with voices and shakers.”

He has asked the flute player from the Croatian band Kries to make him a four-holed and a three-holed flute, and thinks Kíla could learn a lot about harmonies from Chet Nuneta. He was fascinated, too, by the Chinese chamber orchestra, whose music darts all over the place. “They were like little birds chirping at one stage.”

L_NIGHT (2058)

Kíla often gets accused of, and sometimes insulted for, not being traditional enough. Many people expect the usual jigs and reels. Colm Ó Snodaigh comments: “It’s the weirdest world where people expect you to conform to their way of hearing music.”

It was when band members Rossa and Dee came back from a WOMAD festival in 1991, Colm Ó Snodaigh says, “that World music exploded into our consciousness”.

Kristian Bugge from the Danish group Habadekuk says his country’s folk music has been continually changing because of the passage of other nationalities through Denmark. “There’s been a lot of travelling going on, and a lot of inspiration all the time. We think the music has to keep changing to keep it alive. We don’t want to play museum music.” Habadekuk tries to be true to the traditional music while spicing it up with their own ideas.

The Sarawak festival won the BrandLaureate Country Brand Award for 2012-2013 and Songlines has just rated it as one of the world’s top 25 international music festivals for the fourth year running.
The event merits accolades; it attracts top-quality bands, and gives visitors to Sarawak an opportunity to enjoy and learn about traditional music and instruments.

Sitting in a wood and bamboo longhouse – albeit one created for tourists – while listening to the hypnotic sounds of the pratuonkng is a great way to experience the culture of the indigenous Bidayuh.

L_IMG (3291)Photo by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board.

The Sarawak Cultural Village is a beautiful setting for a festival, with its rainforest backdrop, its boardwalks, and its traditional-style houses. The village is set around a lake at the foot of Mount Santubong, next to a beautiful beach, and the Bako national park is a 45-minute drive, then 30-minute boat trip away.

This is a festival where you can be in the crowd, but still find space to breathe and relax; there are a host of fascinating things to do and see, and lots of opportunities to meet the musicians. The vibe is peaceful. It’s a truly convivial event; a festival as festivals are meant to be.

The first photo in this article was also taken by Leslie Liew for the Sarawak Tourist Board. The others are mine.