Rainforest World Music Festival

My first ever Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak last July 13-15 and I had a blast!  It had been raining in Manila prior to my departure and I was a bit apprehensive about all that water being dumped from the sky and messing-up my travel plans, especially as far as flights are concerned.  But I arrived in Kota Kinabalu on Thursday evening with just a slight shower and flew to Kuching the next day in good weather.  It did seem, as observed by one guy, that half of the plane was heading to the RWMF.

I was shacked-up at the Tune Hotel, courtesy of David, my Couchsurfing host, and his cousin from Australia who had backed-out at the last minute and couldn’t get a refund for the room he had booked at the hotel so he let David use it.  My first Couchsurfing experience in Kuching and  I ended up in a hotel 🙂  How cool is that!  Tune Hotel, by the way, was quite nice.  The room was small but clean and had a large window.  You had to pay extra for air-con and toiletries though.

Had a quick lunch at John’s Cafe then we were off to Green Hill Mall just behind the hotel which was one of the pick-up points for the shuttle to Sarawak Cultural Village. Bought  a 3-day bus pass for RM 6o at the counter.  With each ride costing  RM 15 and a total of  six rides for the next 3 days at RM 90, the RM 30 saving was not bad at all.  That was roughly equivalent to almost half a dozen bowls of yummy Sarawak laksa or kolo mee!

Santubong, where SCV is, was a good hour’s sleep away so I was a bit refreshed just as the shuttle was pulling-up to the village entrance.  It was almost 2 pm and I wanted to catch the first of the workshops.  I showed my ticket confirmation and which was sent to my email a few months back and my passport for identification and I got my tickets.  Tore-off Day 1 and the girl at the entrance wrapped a plastic band around my wrist.  Over the next few days, I accumulated my bands.  Dark green for Day 2 and blue for Day 3.

Ain’t it obvious I was a first-timer? So happy to have been there!

The weather cooperated and the most that everyone got was a few minutes of light shower. Not enough to send everyone fleeing to the covered spaces but enough to get some people muddied-up.  The crowd was huge and really awesome.  The energy was palpable all throughout the evening as people danced, clapped, and cheered.  It was really fun especially on Day 2 when David, his Iban friend, and Hanis, another guy from Couchsurfing, joined me.  We stayed near the stage.  A bit of a downer were the locals, mostly the Malay and Indians who came in small groups and seemed more interested in being rowdy rather than in the music.  They talked loudly, jeered, made fun of each other and generally made themselves really annoying.  One really annoying Indian dude got hooted out by an older Indian guy who was intently watching the show.

One of my favorite acts was this three brothers who come from a long generation of of oud makers and musicians. One of the predecessors of the modern guitar, the oud ranks as one of the most important music instruments and these guys, calling themselves Le Trio Joubran coaxed music that ran the gamut from sensual to scintillating.  The playing was just so intense.  Even during the workshop featuring string instruments played with the fingers, these guys out shined everyone.  By the way, the guy in the middle makes oud and as explained by his brother, he studied at the Antonio Stradivarius Institute of Violin Making in Cremona, Italy.  Wow!

Thee guys and their “oud” at the Fingers and Thumbs Workshop.

String Sisters and their virtuosic fiddling made me stop, watch, and listen.  This wasn’t the usual Celtic or Gaellic movie-soundtrack playing that accompanies ships riding on beautiful but treacherous fjords or battle scenes between monsters and titans.  It was fiddle playing of the highest level.  Well as the emcee announced, it took them six years to get these gracious ladies together for the festival so they must be awfully good.

Two of the String Sisters not only fiddle dexterously but they sing beautifully as well.  On the far left are two of them at the Vocal workshop at the Iban House where they sang some really nice songs.

My festival favourite was Khusugtun from Mongolia.  Throat-singing is a nomadic tradition in Mongolia that has since been institutionalized in formal schools of music.  It has recently been declared by the UNESCO as an Intangible Heritage.  All musicians from the National Orchestra of Mongolia, these guys and girl (the only one) had the crowd roaring both in the concert and in the workshop.  The throat-singing was awesome as the throat produced two simultaneous melodies! Their singing evoked the sounds adn images of the steppes and plains of their country.  I had not heard such beautiful sounds as before.

My favorite Mongolian is Chokie, the chubby guy with the angelic face on the right who does high-pitched throat-singing.  I was in near tears as he produced melodious whistling tunes that had the sound of the wind. Made me want to plan my next long trip to Mongolia.  Chokie also reminded me of a documentary on Mongolia I watched on cable tv on how they were such voracious meat eaters owing to their cold climate.  He looked like one big carnivore, albeit a fluffy one with dimples.

These musicians got a standing ovation at the end of the workshop

Three Malaysian groups played and my favorite, and it seemed everyone else’s too was Diplomats of Drum which was headed by these three Indian/Punjabi drummers.  Compared to the other two who were winners of the talent search preceding the festival, their sound was sophisticated and their music complex.  The energy of the music was relentless and they led the crowd from one heart-pounding number to another.

Diplomats of Drum was a hard act to follow but the Raiz de Cafizal from the rainforests of the Brazilian Amazon held their own with their curimbo drums, banjo, maraccas, and cute songs.  The guys also taught the crowd to dance the carimba in one of the workshops.

Nah, the guys on the left aren’t part of the group.  It was hard to get a solo shot with the musicians as everyone wanted to have a photo-op.

I was at the Dewan Lagenda cooling my heels when Cankisou came on.  My calves were screaming for standing for hours on end so I headed to the covered hall for some water (expensive at RM2) and a place to sit on.  These Czeck guys rocked! I couldn’t understand a word they were saying but their music simply rocked and the sound of the words just blended with their music. Too bad, I had to leave as I wanted to catch the 10:30pm shuttle back to Kuching to beat the crowd.

A huge disappointment was Hata. I had high expectations for this group. The name sounded mysteriously exciting.  The Taiwanese drummer who exhibited his skill, both musical and acrobatic, at the percussion workshop on the first day of the festival, further piqued my interest.  I knew I had to watch them.

They opened with much musical flare and drama.  A red-lit stage.  A Korean evoking what seemed like a chant followed by thunderous drum rolls from a half-naked drummer and the clashing sounds of cymbals from a Zen-looking artists (who happened to be the leader).  But then the music degenerated to what sounded almost like a cabaret. Okay.  It was still fun to listen to but the next numbers were more in the “oh okay” department rather than “oh wow.”  I headed to Dewan Lagenda.

Their brochure made it seem that their music was largely Korean-based.  This guy on the bamboo flute hogged most of the numbers all right and he did play exceedingly well but their music was not near enough rocki’n and rollin’.  Hata was just not hot.

Another one of my favorites was Oreka TX.  I first came across the txalapartaris on a cooking show on cable tv. The host was in the Basque region of Spain and had been admitted in one of the gourmet sessions of an exclusive men-only gourmet club. Aside from all the cooking and eating, the session included txalapartaris playing.  I had since been interested in the instrument.

The two guys outdid my expectations.  At the workshop, they not only showed how brilliant they were as musicians but as teachers too.  They clearly explained and demonstrated how to play the instrument—- slabs of stone and wood struck by a pair of sticks. They also drummed on a plastic drum that had been turned bottoms-up.  It all seemed easy but the playing technique— having the two players alternating in striking the slabs to produce a melody was tricky.

Billed at the final night of the festival, I knew I could leave and return to Kuching without finishing the rest of the concert after watching and listening to these guys.  Amazing!  Plus they showed clips from the DVD on their travels that brought them around the world and jamming with local musicians.  Really awesome.  I especially liked their fusion with Indian and Mongolian singers.

On their last number, I rushed to the Dewan Lagenda to score one of their DVDs.  I had been hesitant to buy it as it had no English subtitles.  But seeing the images flickering across the screen as they played convinced me that language was not gonna be a barrier.  I got one of only three left!  Lucky me, remarked by another guy waiting to have his CD autographed.

My autographed CD and DVD. The guys were really nice and took time to sign.

I really enjoyed myself at the RWMF.  It was bit tiring though as I was at the SCV from 2pm until about 11 so I could join both the workshops and the concerts.  But it was all worth it.

What I Liked

1. The musicians obviously.  Really good. Really word class.

2. Food.  Music is food for the soul.  Meat pies, shawarma, and noodles are food for the body.  There was a lot of choices at the scattered food tents.  It was bit expensive, though.  I especially liked the meat pies (RM10) at John’s Pies.

3.  Workshops.  It not only made the musicians seem more human as they were up close and personal with the audience.  But it made everything more interesting especially in how the workshops were grouped according to themes.


What I Did Not Like

1.  The long long long line for the shuttle back to Kuching on Saturday night.  Me and my companions started lining-up around 10 and we got to a shuttle more than an hour later.  All the happy warm feelings from the festival just vanished.  The organizers should have expected that Saturday would be a block-buster and there were just not enough buses.  Quite a few people were grumbling already especially when two Indian girls skipped the line and got on the filled-up shuttle.  The guy in-charge didn’t tell the crowd that you could stand on the bus (which the girls did).  That would have saved him from a lot of criticism for playing favorites.

2.  The local groups who seemed to think that the festival was all about them and not the music and the musicians.  You’d see them near the stage just making a lot of noise or else at the Dewan Lagenda just smoking and drinking.

Festival Tips

1.  Buy your tickets early.  They really do sell-out.  Easy enough to get the early online rate for the 3-day pass; print the ticket confirmation, and show it at the gate to get the real ticket.

2.  Book your accommodations.  I booked a single room at Berambih Lodge via Hostelbookers and got it really cheap.  Scoring a room near the playdate becomes more difficult and expensive as the accommodations double or even triple their rate.  They can’t do that on sites such as Hostelworld or Hostelbookers.  Of course, I cancelled my Berambih Lodge when I got a Couchsurfing host.

3.  If you’re alone, get a 3-day bus pass. Cheap.  However, if there are 4 of you, you can get a taxi hire to share the cost to/from the SCV.  Of course, the bus pass is cheaper but with your own transpo, you skip the horrendous line.

4.  Cross the street and head to Damai Central for cheap eats and cheap drinks.  A small bottle of water at the festival is at RM 2 while at Damai, it only costs half of that.

5.  Bring a portable chair or a mat to sit on.  Mark your spot on the elevated parts of the audience area.  People start setting camp as early as 5pm.

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