Britain’s esteemed world music magazine Songlines defines itself as ‘the magazine that looks at the world through its music. Music is about politics, history, ethnicity and the environment’. A philosophy that is evident in Malaysia’s Rainforest World Music Festival; an annual meeting of approximately 30,000 people from around the globe that come here in search of a different sound – the beating of a pure, authentic lifestyle amongst the multiple ethnic groups, the hornbills and the orangutans of the surrounding jungle.
Inviting about a dozen bands from different backgrounds and encouraging traditional instruments that define their culture (though electric sound is no stranger here) the Rainforest World Music Festival differs considerably from your average music festival. The three days of events typically pass by with lazy wanderings around the National Park and the ancient caves of Sarawak, until it’s time for one of the afternoon festival workshops, ethno-musical lectures or informal jamming sessions. These bring the performers and the audience head to head, and you can casually ask about such things as Burkina Faso intonation and Mongolian musical lifestyle, which may be a million miles away from your own life. You can also move to the rhythms of Iban and Malay dances, and get your hands on bamboo angklungs and beat the ketebong.
Despite featuring musicians that have found fame abroad – such as the Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi, or the world-renowned kora player Mamadou Diabate – many of the bands are less familiar to international audiences. Take this year’s guests Chet Nuneta, a polyphonic ensemble accompanied by primitive drum beats, which draws on pygmy, sephardic, komi and other traditions; or Madeeh, combining the sounds of pratuokng, gaduok and sritakng. As with the subtle echoes of the rainforest itself, here you have to stretch your ear and listen to discover the secrets and colorful nuances of the world’s traditions. But the originality, purity and borderless authenticity of the music is more than rewarding in the end, inviting you to ponder the myriad forms of cultural dialogue that the festival offers.
Although it’s not the first but the fourth time in a row that Rainforest World Music Festival has featured in Songlines’s best of list, its quiet radicalism is threatened by factors both internal and external. On the one hand, Malaysian deforestation rates are reaching a frightening peak, threatening the environment and the livelihood of the locals. On the other, growing festival pains like the lack of adequate parking abruptly land visitors in a nearby metropolis. No matter how you look at it, a back to the roots philosophy and popularity hardly work hand in hand.
The Rainforest World Music Festival, though, is there to lead the way and if possible change people’s perceptions. The 2013 festival welcomes Ireland’s fire-combo Kila (Bono is a fan), who are celebrating their 25th anniversary. Louisiana’s four-time Grammy nominated Pine Leaf Boys offer a guide to vigorous Cajun music. Dizu Plaatjies and his band will challenge old South African traditions, while the brand new Shangyin Chinese Chamber Music Ensemble will try to assert their distinct role in the multi-faceted South East Asian music tradition. Rafly Wa Saja, Habadekuk, Spiritual Seasons and Mohsen Sharifian & The Lian Band complete the bill and will join the jungle from 28th to 30th June. No matter the name, this year’s line-up sounds as intriguing as ever, inundated as it is in indigenous myths and global legends.
As for those of us destined to look from afar, the Rainforest World Music Festival remains a thought-provoking affair that could make us reconsider both our life philosophy and our playlist – all the while gracing our dream to one day visit Borneo with beautiful music.