You might be familiar with the quote ‘Music is the universal language of mankind’. With the unique elements of culture, heritage and art, the Rainforest World Music Festival is the perfect epitome of how music just makes sense, regardless of your ethnicity, the language you speak, or your religion. For 25 years, the festival has brought together the diversity of music from all around the world. This year, after a 2-year hybrid/virtual setting due to the pandemic, this internationally recognized music festival once again rattled the idyllic, old rainforests of Sarawak, and left its audience in serious post-festival withdrawal symptoms.
The Rainforest World Music Festival, or RWMF, is an event supported by the government of Sarawak (Sarawak Tourism Board) to promote the cultural diversity, heritage, arts, music, and food of Malaysia’s biggest state. As a state with 31 ethnic tribes, it is no surprise that Sarawak has always stood out as a land of rich cultural diversity. This year, RWMF took place on 23rd to 25th June. I had the wonderful opportunity of experiencing the festival myself, and I must say that this is an event you would not want to miss!
Hosted annually at Sarawak Cultural Village, the festival is already mapped out in a cultural setting, with workshops, activities and craft markets held in longhouses (Iban Longhouse, Bidayuh Baruk and Longhouse, Orang Ulu Longhouse), old huts, and old houses dated back from hundreds of years (Melanau Tall House, Chinese Farmhouse, Malay House). Entrance to the festival itself requires a ticket purchase, but all the activities and workshops are free!
Art experiences were hosted by a variety of artists and vendors, focusing on diverse elements. There were crafts inspired by the ethnic tribes in Sarawak, which include batik, bamboo, and Pangiah bead bracelet workshop, Pua Kumbu weaving, Bua Juli necklace workshop, and batik textile made from Melanau food. Visitors also got their hands dirty with terrarium painting, doodling, and indulging in an art and sculpture exhibition displaying art from local and international artists.
Music and fashion workshops made the festival even more fun, as the activities involved learning more about the different ethnicities of Sarawak. At one of the traditional huts, Joachim Atim shared on the traditional costume of Bisayah, and its evolution from the old days up until today. Besides Joachim, Allison Jong gave pro styling tips on how to dress boldly. Anak Borneo performed an intriguing musical demonstration using the popular traditional instrument, Sape. The beautiful instrument was demonstrated with a self-written song, ‘Imagine’.
Music workshops and mini performances were the activities that kept the festival alive and loud during the day. Featuring local and international musicians (who also performed at night at the festival concert), every venue was filled with audiences almost immediately, and you would have to arrive early to secure spots! Workshops and performances by international musicians were Latin-caribbean Rhythm by Steve Thornton, Thai Ethnic Colours by Ethno Thai Fusions Sound Band, Indian drumming styles and rhythm exercises by Chatusram, Sounds of Tanbur and Daf by Rastak, Voice Movement and Rhythm by Afriquoi, and Maldivians Rhythms and Dance by Fasylive.
There were also workshops and performances by local Sarawakian musicians such as Sounds of Borneo by Sada Borneo, bamboo instruments building with Rizal Hadi, Recreational Rhythm Circles by Shameer and Syed, Nyigar Pinyamut: Bidayuh Welcoming Dance by Suk Binie, Sarawak Folk Song by Tuku Kame, and Malaysian Collective Music Making by Nadir. Other activities include making recycled instruments, interactive music workshop, Kelantanese Wayang Kulit drumming, all-day community drumming, traditional African drumming and dance, and reflection sessions with award-winning music groups such as Gipsy Kings (featuring Tonino Baliardo) and Big Mountain.
One of the things I love about the Rainforest World Music Festival is how they include mindfulness and mental health in the list of activities. There was a mental health awareness talk, yoga and also a very interesting Sound Bath, “Land of Otherness”, hosted by Shaman Tea Room. Sound Bathing in an Orang Ulu Longhouse – now that’s something you wouldn't think of!
The craft markets at RWMF were pleasing, especially if you appreciate handmade pieces, unique trinkets, and love buying for impact. Local vendors at the craft markets sell a plethora of items from traditional handmade rattan bags and tie-dye apparel, down to jewellery made from small, delicate handmade beads.
At dusk, the atmosphere at Sarawak Cultural Village slowly transcends from hot, vigorous, and loud, to a more chill and inviting mood. The front stage in the field area, backed with the old rainforests of Borneo, was slowly filled with the audience who eagerly anticipated both fresh and renowned musicians from all parts of the globe. Performers at the Rainforest World Music Festival are different from typical concerts. All performers were curated, in which they are musicians who carry musical elements inspired from their own heritage roots. Probably one of the reasons why most RWMF performers can be seen using both modern and traditional music instruments.
I attended the festival only on the second day of RWMF, so I experienced 8 performers on that day. The concert opened with Olena Uutai from Russia, who was so talented producing music (using her flute and deep-throat sounds) inspired by the natural rainforest elements of Russia, that the whole audience went silent for the first 15 minutes when she opened. The concert started at 7 pm until past midnight, where the Gipsy Kings (featuring Tonino Baliardo) ended the concert with an astounding performance that really got the crowd roaring and dancing. Some other performers throughout the concerts at RWMF are Rastak (from Iran), Malaysian sensation and Sarawak-born Zee Avi, Chatusram (from India), Afriquoi (from United Kingdom), Safi Theatre (From Tanzania), Rizal Hadi & Folk (from Indonesia), and Big Mountain (from USA and Jamaica). If you appreciate music and enjoy exploring different genres of music, feel free to explore the full lineup of RWMF 2023 – you may end up adding a few notable pieces in your Spotify library!
RWMF appreciates the cultural diversity of the world through music. The festival brings everyone together, but music accepts them for who they are. Would I attend the Rainforest World Music Festival again next year? Yes! Would I recommend it to people out there? Definitely! This festival is a great way to learn about other cultures, heritage, art history, and how culture deeply influences music up until today.
Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23