A Muddy, Memorable Music Festival
Not only is Malaysia the land of music nirvana it’s also the land of the hornbill, the headhunter and the orangutan.
Twenty-two hours and several time zones from JFK airport, it’s a Muslim country as well. Being a female traveler I packed conservatively thinking I would experience oppressive inequality if I dared to look different. I intended to wear the long-sleeve shirt, pants and head scarf too, that is, until I attended the Rainforest World Music Festival in the jungle of Sarawak province.
A warm yellow light falls from tiki torches while a faint midst hits the rainforest canopy. I’ve just entered the grounds and navigate a narrow bamboo walkway past old tribal longhouses and food and drink stalls. The weather is warm; the night is young.
There’s plenty of mossy turf in front of the main stage so my friend (GoNOMAD Editor Max Hartshorne) and I secure a spot with a flimsy piece of cardboard. I sit cross-legged, lean back and stare up at indigenous trees with massive buttresses swaying in the sticky breeze.
Congenial and Laid-back
Bats imitate the palms by swooping and diving at mosquitoes and insects. A portion of the moon and the evocative peak of Mount Santubong looms overhead. I breathe in the orchids, pollen and nectar of night blooming plants. This is a slice of nature’s heaven.
I peel off my collar shirt and jeans and happily change into a skimpy blue sundress, flip-flops and my peace-loving, democratic sensibilities. It feels okay to do so because all around me are mirror versions of myself, albeit with darker hair and tribal tattoos.
Malaysia is separated into two regions - Peninsular Malaysia (West) and Malaysian Borneo (East), surrounded by the South China Sea. Sixty percent of the people are Sunni Muslim and the other forty percent are a mix of Buddhist, Christian and Hindu.
About three percent practice Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese religions. All exercise their version of the first amendment through song: wonderful, whimsical and mystical song here at the Rainforest World Music Festival.
Now in it’s 11th year (2008), the Rainforest World Music Festival is held every July in a valley one hour west of the city of Kuching, Borneo. The beloved location is inside a sprawling living museum – the Sarawak Cultural Village.
The goal is to promote peace and harmony by assembling renowned world musicians from all over the world. The venue splits at the seams with breaking attendance records and people still arrive without tickets, optimistic of finding a way in. It’s akin to the ‘Woodstock of Southeast Asia’. About 9,000 other music fans joined me on this July evening.
Even Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi and First Lady, Datin Sri Jeanne Abdullah are here. These VIPs mean little to me but wild applause ensues as they take their seats under a giant canvas.
It’s clear that Malaysians of all religions, incomes and languages share an affinity for eclectic world fusion. They come to listen to the alien sounds of exotic instruments like the sape, (a stringed instrument with a short neck and elongated body) the serunai, (a horn-shaped instrument made from rice stalk and coconut leaves) and the angklung, (a percussion instrument made from bamboo tubes).
When the curtains lift, a colorful ensemble called “Senida” takes the smaller of two stages, the one to our right. As the first notes play, the clouds (as if in gratitude) applaud with a torrential downpour. We are, after all, in the middle of a hot, sticky and unpredictable jungle. Everybody scatters.
My friend and I squeeze under our shredded cardboard as prepared concertgoers pop open their parasols. We push under an open veranda to escape the shower but clearly not everyone can stay dry. Young revelers peel off their socks and shoes and revel in the moment by forming a mosh-pit.
Turbo-charged spotlights catch the falling rain in a tunnel of striking white light. It’s truly spellbinding. The moist ground becomes a thick sea of mud, foul smelling of decomposition and reeking like wild durian fruit. Still the crowd swells as band after band after band play throughout the night.
My friend Max has had enough. He abandons the open veranda and beelines it straight to the welcome tent for a soothing foot massage and shots of tuak (traditional rice wine).
I brave the elements and elbow my way to the front of the mayhem, losing a flip-flop when the muddy quicksand sucks it from my foot. Everyone is singing, tripping, falling, cheering, moshing and clinging to each other for balance. I struggle to pull my weight up from the grip of mud and filth.
I’m as uncomfortable as an Eskimo in a sauna but I revel in the rhythms on stage, the energy of the crowd and the kindness of strangers. And, like the taste of Malaysian satay on an open campfire, the exotic beats sound better outside than inside.
Spirits are soaring and the jungle reverberates with a deafening mix of melodies from Portugal, Japan, Congo, India, the Philippines, Guinea and Greece. Names of groups I can barely pronounce like Oikyotaan, Pinikpikan and Yakande dress in colorful beaded costumes, feathered headgear and long dreadlocks.
The rain ultimately subsides but the muggy air clings to my clothes, hair and dirty face. What I wouldn’t do to rush to Damai beach, just 200 yards from here and bath in the warm, clean waters of the South China Sea. We'd taken a dip in the beautiful warm water earlier in the day, watching Muslim children fully dressed romping in the waves.
Instead, I find plenty of drains and water faucets to clean up from under the warmth of a dry longhouse.
Sarawak Cultural Village represents more than just music; it’s a living museum showcasing the heritage and history of the Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Penan, Melanau, Malay and Chinese tribes. Activities like storytelling, ceremonial dance circles and craft fairs offer plenty to do during the day.
One of my favorite places to watch the show is from the Iban communal longhouse, raised 15 feet off the ground on stilts and divided into rows of family units called rusai and bilik. There are notched log ladders for stairs, a leaf thatch roof and strong bamboo strips for flooring.
The macabre practice of headhunting was once used for religious divinity and hierarchical dominance here. No worries though, that was before 1845, all that remains is a ceremonial room will shrunken heads and skulls hanging from netting. This longhouse can accommodate 500 residents or 80 families comfortably.
The night culminates with a crescendo of blinking concert lights, wailing sitars and a sea of bouncing spectaculars. When the din of cheers, hoots and howlers ends a rather naïve public announcement is fed to the crowd of about 9,000.
A worried father needs help finding his 16-year old daughter in this giant pigpen of mud and rain. Not only is his daughter probably muddy beyond recognition but despite this being a Muslim country, she’s free to wander without worry. This goes to show how concerned festival promoters are for the safety of their patrons and how liberated a Muslim country can really be.
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