THE BLOG

Jamming in the Jungle

06/05/2013 11:59 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013
Michael Switow

While I normally blog about the campaigns to Make Poverty History and create The World We Want, the World I Want is filled with music, particularly the music that is born from the passion of generations past and present. Every year, for some ten years now, I migrate to the shores of Borneo in late June or early July, to the base of a mystical mountain called Gunung Santubong, to my favourite spot for world beats -- the Rainforest World Music Festival. As you make your summer plans, if you're looking for adventure and tunes that touch the soul and move the feet, think about heading to Borneo yourself; this year's festival is 28 - 30 June.

A tattooed Iban warrior, with an embroidered loincloth and brown animal-hide fur vest, stands on a tree stump, divining rod in his left hand, raising a spear to the sky with his right. He's directly behind me on a small slope in the Sarawak Cultural Village. It's 11 o'clock at night and most eyes here at the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) are not on the warrior but rather on the main stage, as hips shake and bodies bounce to the balafon melodies and djembe beats of Burkina Faso's Mamadou Diabate.

Fans shout for more as the West Africans' set comes to an end, but then a spotlight shines on the warrior and a hush falls over the crowd, as if word has quickly spread of the ancient taboo against singing on the slopes of Mount Santubong, a prohibition that local trekkers take seriously but which has no hold here in this Borneo jungle clearing.

Borneo. The name itself evokes a sense of mysticism and mystery. This huge island in the South China Sea -- once home to the world's most infamous headhunters, a tropical place where many villages can still only be reached by boat or small plane -- has become home to something quite different over the past fifteen years: one of the planet's best organically grown international music festivals.

Behind me, the Iban warrior faces the mountain and chants a blessing in his own tongue:

Oh Gods of all Gods

Look kindly upon us

Bless us who gather here

Bless the people who come from upstream

and the people who come from downstream

Let us all have joy together

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The spotlight shifts to an old Bidayuh man dressed in black with a red sash around his waist. He's standing on a boulder near the back of the crowd, holding a rod with a raffia figure. He chants his own blessing before the spotlight shifts a second then a third time. The four men form the points of the compass and signify the fundamental elements: Fire, Earth, Water and Wind.

It's 10 years since I showed up at the gates of the Sarawak Cultural Village for my first taste of the Rainforest festival, but every year I meet people who have been coming here longer than me. The festival has swollen remarkably and now attracts about 20,000 people, including couch surfers, yachters and even a primary school marching band.

Over the course of three days, thousands dance to Mongolian throat singers, swoon to a trio of Palestinian brothers dueling on ouds (a Middle Eastern lute), kwasa kwasa with Congolese legend Kanda Bongo Man and rock out to a Czech band called Cankisou that features a didgeridoo and a homemade flute made from toilet hose and a metal broom handle. And this all takes place against the dramatic backdrop of Mount Santubong, which viewed from a distance resembles a pregnant princess laying on her back -- though that's a tale for another day.

"The Rainforest World Music Festival has the most extraordinary setting I've seen for a music event, ringed as it is by dense forest and dramatically high and ragged mountains," says Gerald Seligman, General Director of the World Music Expo (WOMEX), a trade industry event for the world music business.

The RWMF was initially the brainchild of Randy Raine-Reusch, a Canadian composer who literally plays thousands of instruments and has recorded with Aerosmith, The Cranberries and Yes. Raine-Reusch was traveling in Sarawak, researching and recording tunes on the gourd organ, when he was enchanted by the beauty of the sape, a melodic four-stringed instrument made from a single piece of carved out wood. 'Til today, no RWMF would be complete without the sounds of the sapé. At the time, Raine-Reusch lamented that Sarawak's rich musical heritage was in danger of disappearing.

And thus the Rainforest World Music Festival was born to showcase Sarawakian music to the world and bring world music to Sarawak. "Traditional instruments contain a soul, an essence to them," says Raine-Reusch, who was also the festival's first artistic director. "They're the voice of the people and the voice of culture for thousands of years and they have something that touches the human soul."

It used to be that every band here had to feature at least one indigenous instrument, and there was a time when electrical instruments were totally off-limits. Those rules have been relaxed, but the lineup still includes an eclectic mix of musicians from every continent as well as the interior of Sarawak.

Take the performance by Zee Avi, the diminutive Sarawakian singer-songwriter whose compositions have been featured on 21 Jump Street, Parenthood and even in a Johnny Depp movie. Avi could have been considered too pop, too mainstream for the Rainforest festival, but she traded in her guitar for a miniature sape -- a sape-lele -- and invited two of the Sarawak Cultural Village's resident musicians, Narawi Rashidi and percussionist Johari Morshidi, to join her band.

"I have two masters playing with me tonight -- such an honour!" an ecstatic Avi tells fans during her performance on the first night of the festival.

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Zee Avi and Johari Morshidi

Instead of singing English songs like "Bitter Heart," perhaps her best-known ditty, Avi instead performs tunes like "Mee Kolok Sigek," which she wrote while sitting along the banks of the Sarawak River in Kuching. While that song is inspired by a popular food (a local noodle dish) her performance includes a folk tribute to Princess Santubong, the spirit in the mountain that forms the backdrop to the festival.

"In every band, the ethnic identity is powerful and dominant," says Yeoh Jun Lin, a classical musician who rejoined the festival as its artistic director and put together this year's lineup after a several-year hiatus.

And in an age when most bands are dominated by just a handful of instruments -- drums, bass and guitar -- I encounter a new way of making music every year at the RWMF. In 2011, women from a village in Vanuatu turned the lake of the cultural village into their instrument, cupping their hands under the water to make booming percussion sounds.

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Leweton Women's Water Music

This year, my mouth drops when I see Harkaitz Martinez de San Vicente and Inigo Antonio of the band Oreka TX play the txalarparta, a Basque instrument that nearly disappeared after World War II. The txalarparta doesn't really look like an instrument. It's made from thick planks of wood or lengths of stone laid out one next to the other. Each piece is carved with precision to resonate just the right sound.

It takes two people to play the txalarparta; together they create a single melody. When Martinez de San Vicente and Antonio first explained this to me, I didn't get it. But when I saw the men playing it together, I understood. For a single person to do this, he would need four arms. "The important thing is the act of sharing the rhythm with the other person," says Antonio.

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Their performance is part music, part story-telling, punctuated by a documentary video that plays behind them, showing them travel through India and Mongolia searching for new materials to create their music. At one point, they carve blocks of ice into planks for their instrument and use batons of ice to play it.

Like most of the musicians here, Martinez de San Vicente and Antonio perform at least twice during the festival -- in a workshop and during the evening concert. The afternoon workshops are more intimate and informal affairs. Percussionists, string players and vocalists from different bands are grouped together to introduce their music. A jam session often results. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's magic.

The late afternoon -- in between the workshops and the evening concert -- is a time to chill out as a calm settles over the lake in the cultural village and hues of orange and red tint the mountain sky. Some days I exit the festival venue and walk a few minutes to the beach to take a swim in the South China Sea. Others, I check out the longhouses, each one built in the style of a different ethnic group. The newest -- the Bidayuh Longhouse -- is also the biggest; the round panggah attached to the longhouse traditionally housed the skulls of enemies killed in battle, though here it is used for an art exhibition instead.

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Today, while wandering the crafts bazaar and vendor stalls in and around the longhouses, I bump into Zee Avi and her bassist JP Maramba. It's not unusual to spot the performers in the crowd here, but Maramba stands out this time. One side of his head is shaved with the pattern of a warrior tattoo. Avi encouraged him to do it and he's happy with the result. Looks good on him, I think as I walk by the hair tattoo tent and consider getting one myself. The idea quickly passes and I opt instead to chill by the lake and enjoy a cold beer.

Unlike other gigs where bands are quickly flown in and out, here the musicians spend as much as a week together, forging new friendships and melodies. The camaraderie spills over to the stage. Late Sunday evening, Zee Avi warmly embraces Ghanaian dancer Paulina Lartey, before the two bust a move together centre-stage in the festival finale.

The Sunday finale is not a work of musical genius. The last performer of the evening, Kanda Bongo Man, lays down an upbeat melody as the members of each band that has performed in the three-day festival -- followed by the schleppers who carry their instruments, the liaison officers and other volunteers -- take to the stage for a last wave. Soon the stage is packed with people, everyone shaking to the soukous beat.

In previous years, Raine-Reusch stood stage right, whistle at the ready, directing each band like a traffic cop at a busy intersection. This year, Yeoh takes a more free-form approach. It's chaotic and no one knows quite what to do, but as the confetti shoots over the audience, everyone -- musicians and fans alike -- are clearly having a blast.

I climb onto the stage as well and as I look out over the crowd, my thoughts turn to the coming year. I'll miss the mountain and the music, but before I depart there's the after-party back at the hotel, where Mamadou Diabete pledges to play til dawn. The Brazilians and a French tuba player quickly join in. Every party, I think, should have West African drummers so that as in the words of the warrior chanters, whether you come from upstream or downstream, we will 'all have joy together'.

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Where to Stay
There are several hotels in Damai Beach near the festival venue. The Damai Puri is on the beach and a short walk away. The musicians stay at One Hotel Santubong. Or consider staying in a longhouse in the Sarawak Cultural Village (though most of these rooms do not have air-con). Most of the Damai Beach rooms are booked out far in advance, so reserve now or check back close to the festival dates for cancellations. There are also plenty of places to stay in Kuching, which is a beautiful river town about 45 minutes to an hour away.

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All photos -- with the exception of Oreka TX, which is courtesy of the Rainforest World Music Festival -- were taken by me. An earlier version of this story was published in an Australian magazine called "Get Lost".