Rainforest World Music Festival 2011

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A to Z: From Algerian Oud Dudes and Accordions to Zithers and Zydekats

In an age when cell phones are common around the world and the connectivity of social media is growing like wild fire (Facebook, for example, has more than 750 million international members), ideas and music are circulating at an unprecedented rate. In this climate, the purity of musical styles is less defined and a world music festival such as the annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Borneo presents traditional music of many lands often tinged with influences of other genres, instruments, and sounds of the 21st century. Perhaps this is not surprising on an equatorial island in Asia, where remote longhouses have solar panels and the indigenous sape lute is now heard through amplifiers.

Certain themes emerged at the RWMF that cut across continents. Lost and found languages, instruments, and patterns of thinking were among them. Musicians from different continents spoke about singing in (saving) their languages, which were previously banned such as group members from Startijenn (meaning “energy”) in Brittany, France, whose parents fought for the language of Breton rather than the more dominant, national language of French.

Conversely, in Louisiana, kids were punished for speaking Cajun French rather than English in school. Vivacious violinist Lisa Haley, who is clearly proud of her 140-year-old tradition, and sings in the French Cajun dialect with her Zydekats band spoke of “Cajun music being banished to the garage. Because it was practically forbidden when I was in high school, I played it out of spite.”

At the festival there were also multi-lingual groups like the electrifying bhangra band, Kissmet, who rock out, singing in Punjabi, Hindi, Sanskrit, and English, which makes sense since they grew up hearing Gospel church music in the same neighborhood in England along with Hindu devotional songs and prayers from the Mosque. This blender mix of languages and sounds was a normal, daily occurrence for this group composed of three talented Indian Sikh brothers–who have never been to India–along with members from other lands. Ron Singh said his Dad liked North Indian music, while his Mom preferred Elvis.

Ora Barlow, a Maori woman from New Zealand spoke of over 200 indigenous Maori instruments, which were lost when Christian missionaries discouraged their usage and then of a recent revival of some, including bullroarers and ocarinas associated with ancient myths of their people and land. Sandy Scofield, a First Nations Canadian musician referred to North America as Turtle Island, reminding us the lyrics of the traditional songs and pattern of thinking emphasize respecting the ancient ways, and honoring the elders, community, and sense of place. Along with her trio Iskwew, (meaning “woman” in Cree) they sang only social songs in public, reserving the ceremonial repertoire for actual rituals in their native land.

“The voice is one of the oldest, most ancient sounds used in struggles, resistance, and healing,” explained Ora of the Pacific Curls band, whose members span across continents. Song lyrics are a window into culture, and this was clear at the festival whether singing about the Maori moth and flute goddess or a tune titled, “Paper In Your Shoe.” Lisa Haley explained there were three reasons for this: to cover up a hole in your shoe, to store money rather than in a bank, and to write down someone’s phone number at a dance. The Sisters In Song, We Are Strong vocal workshop was a chance to share these common bonds between outstanding and powerful women performers. It also affirmed that workshops are the very heart of the festival.

The intersection of music and repression was another theme, which emerged as musicians from Iran, Australia, and Ireland each addressed this topic. The hearty Irish balladeer James Riley (who sings about coalminers poor working conditions) from Paddy Keenan’s band said: “We were not allowed to play Irish music in the 1600s and in the 1700s we fought to keep our music, which is an oral tradition passed from person to person sitting around the table.” David Martin of the eclectic Australian band Kamerunga added that some of their songs speak of pain, suffering, and freedom.

The soulful Senegal griot, Malike Pathe Sow commented how difficult it is to separate political and artistic freedom, adding, “It is the role of the artist to tell the people what is really going on.” And the poignant vocalist Mamak Khadem reminded us women in Iran don’t have the freedom to perform as she does, since she now lives in the United States. Victor Valdes, the charismatic Mexican harpist who has performed for royalty, suggested if musicians ruled the world, there would be harmony.

Each group included some indigenous instrument in this world music festival, yet most ensembles reflected a contemporary approach, call it fusion, or as the musician Zurab Gagnidze from the Republic of Georgia in the band The Shinn (meaning “coming home”) explained, he heard his grandmother sing Georgian folk music when he was three years old and as a young man listened to the Beatles, whose sound went through the Iron Curtain. He said, “We mix our music with flamenco and jazz and so on. If something is good, we want to integrate it into our music. It is a peace-making music.”

But all the workshops were not peaceful. At the Euro Exchange session, after hearing some music from Lapland, one of the Polish musicians from the Warsaw Village Band skillfully held forth on a 140-stringed hammered dulcimer and then eyed members of the Finnish band, Frigg (who play “Nordgrass”) and said,” The Swedes took everything from us when they occupied Poland; now they play polkas.” But Alina Jarvela, who had characterized, her own instrument, the violin as “pretty boring,” shot back quickly, “We are not Swedes; we are from Finland.”

We did hear polkas from Poland, Finland, Brittany, and the US along with other dance forms from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Italy, Ireland, Kenya, Scotland, and Senegal. The audience went with the groove, regardless if it was merengue, mariachi, a beat box or a Baroque gavotte. Dance provided an international cultural union transcending other barriers.

The Rainforest World Music Festival happens every July in the large state of Sarawak, East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. The festival was founded 14- years ago by Canadian musician Randy Raine-Reusch, who still works as the Artistic Director today. Collaborating with hard-working locals from Sarawak, he has crafted a truly outstanding festival. Many of the returning audience members who make the annual pilgrimage have come to trust the artistic direction of the festival believing, even if you have not heard of many of the groups, you can expect an outstanding program on each night’s concert and an inventive interplay at the workshops.

Musicians from over 20 countries perform in three days of evening concerts alternating on two outdoor stages at the edge of the rainforest while the afternoons are reserved for more intimate thematic workshops in a variety of venues scattered around the inviting Sarawak Cultural Village site at the foot of Mount Santubong.

This appealing cultural village is set around a lake; it’s easy to walk from one longhouse to another although the property spans 17-acres with trails through the rainforest. The village, which is a living museum spotlighting seven of the 27 distinct ethnic groups living in the area–through architecture, crafts, cuisine, music, and dance–is well worth a visit any time of year. It’s a place to experience the daily cultural performance in their theater, try a Penan blowpipe, listen to the local sape lute (played below a lovely tree-of-life mural) at the longhouse of the Orang Ulu (a collective term for people of the highlands), watch weaving in the Iban house or learn about sky burials near the carved totem pole and taste the sweet sago delicacies outside the Melanau tall house.

The Sarawak Cultural Village has received awards acknowledging the preservation of music, dance and culture. General Manager, Jane Lian Labang added: “We want to strike a balance between a dynamic culture for tourists as well as instilling cultural pride of the people of Sarawak.”

During the 2011 RWMF, the centrally located lake offered a welcome surprise. An ensemble of women from the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, wearing leaves they had collected and sewn together, played water music. This was not Handel’s Water Music, but a semi-circle of a half-dozen women standing waist-deep in the lake as they “played” the water as their instrument. The Leweton Women’s Water Music group sliced, diced, slapped, sloshed, pushed, cupped, and gathered the water, creating a myriad of rhythms and timbres inspired by the sounds of nature: waves, dolphins alongside a boat, thunder, and a rain shower. The audience, myself included, was mesmerized.

This elemental performance was indeed a traditional music passed down from their grandparents without interference from the 21st century. The women had never left their country before this trip and each day was filled with something new. Among the long list of firsts for them, Cecelia Lolonun mentioned riding an escalator at the airport, seeing an orangutan, and hearing a piano.

While listening to the Leweton Women’s Water Music was a personal highlight of the festival for me, there were other musical moments that also held great resonance. One workshop featured modal music with musicians from Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, and Bulgaria. Particularly entrancing was the solo by Balkan wind player Theodosii Spassov, who combined traditional kaval playing (splitting the air column while holding the instrument at an oblique angle) along with circular breathing and contemporary techniques offering different tone colors (occasionally using a trumpet embouchure) and sometimes adding multi-phonics, simultaneously singing and playing in a virtuosic display, while seemingly channeling Eric Dolphy. He literally blew me away.

At the end of this workshop was a playful improvisation: the kaval player interacted with the Tunisian oud player Jean-Pierre Smadj (pronounced “smudge”), who seemed to smudge his samples, performing on his Apple laptop laced with humor. He gently swayed back and forth, putting body and soul into his “ax” while creating interesting layers with pops and clicks along with the Algerian oud master Mehdi Haddab, the other oud dude from DuOud, who at times sounded like Jimi Hendrix. Their sounds mixed with the arresting vocals of Persian musician Mamak Khadem, doubling on the daff frame drum (associated with dervishes).

The biggest challenges of the festival for me were selecting which of the workshops to attend (since three were held simultaneously) and listening to interfering audio issues at workshops where the interactions between musicians from different groups often created tasty new sounds. In spite of these concerns and the three days of travel to get there, I plan to return.

Dato Rashid Khan, C.E.O. of the Sarawak Tourism Board says: “Please come and see the nature, culture, and adventure that we have to offer you.” I hope to do just that, exploring the natural wonders in the Malaysian state of Sarawak as well as a festival leaving both body and soul sated. After all, where else can you discover such diversity coupled with high-quality musicianship from around the globe featuring Masters of the Sape from Borneo, water music from Vanuatu, impressive finger-picking from Colorado’s Blue Canyon Boys playing tunes like “No Worries in My Pocket” and “The Jalapeno Flashback?”

The Rainforest World Music Festival is a place to soak in the joyous music and dance from groups like Kenge Kenge from Kenya, and the truly electrifying bhangra band Kissmet, asking the audience to “scream from their hearts”. Hope to see you at the 15th anniversary celebration in the rainforest next summer, where the range of music is only rivaled by the biodiversity of nature.

For More Information

The Rainforest World Music Festival–www.rwmf.net

The Sarawak Tourism Board–www.sarawaktourism.com

The Malaysian Tourism Board–www.tourism.gov.my

Borneo Adventure–www.borneoadventure.com

Damai Beach Resort–www.damaibeachresort.com

Iris Brooks is a writer specializing in cultural and travel-related topics. She and photographer Jon H. Davis are a photojournalism team for Northern Lights Studio