Rainforest Music Festival in Soggy Sarawak, Borneo

Sarawak dancers

Sarawak dancers

Sarawak, Malaysia: Adventures on the Island of Borneo -

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Tonight We'll Groove to the Beat of the Rainforest

The Rainforest World Music Festival starts tonight, it takes place at the base of a mountain about forty five minutes from our hotel in Kuching. So far they've sold about 24,000 tickets, at a cost of about $77 for three days of music. It's a big, big deal in Sarawak, even the president of Malaysia, Abdullah, will be making an appearance.

The musicians include groups from Colombia, the Philippines, Poland, Guinea, Congo, Sarawak, Palestine, Greece and many others. It takes place at the Sarawak Cultural village in Santubong.

I am sure that there will be some incredible musical moments, since these bands just don't make it to the States that often, and I love hearing a variety of instruments and the grooves that can come out of unknown minds such as these.

Downstairs they are selling bus tickets to get to the festival, and in the airport we saw many men carrying musical instruments, all heading here to perform. We'll find out what it's all about tonight at dusk when Senida, a local band, takes the stage.

It Rains in a Rainforest

The Rainforest World Music Festival is held in the shadow of a great mountain called Santobong, which means coffee in Iban. There were thousands of people there, and they were all wet and muddy, since from before the first note rain poured down. This is the rainforest after all. Sony and I staked out a prime seat, close enough for her to get the video shots she wanted, and then after I had found some cardboard to sit on, the rain was too much and we joined many of the faithful and retreated to a wooden ceilinged area for shelter.

There I watched a young woman in front of me endlessly type and receive text messages from her slick little Nokia phone. She had a painted face and every time she put that baby back into her pocket, she'd quickly retrieve it and start another text. The people in front of us were of mixed ages, but mostly looked like a more sober version of the Grateful Dead faithful. One guy wore a Dead Kennedys T-shirt, another had ghastly tattoos all over his back and his legs.
A band from the Congo called Kasai Masai

A band from the Congo called Kasai Masai

The music begain pretty weakly with a band from Trinidad playing songs that were way too slow to really get anyone interested. The rain came down in steady sheets, and the ground became a sea of pretty deep mud. People walked through it carrying their shoes, and many danced excitedly when a band called Akasha that featured a sitar and a twangy Indian style drum rocked the place out. He played a Jimi Hendrix riff with that big sitar and it got the wet crowd pretty stoked.

I got tired of standing in the covered area, so I bought a few beers and Sony and I sat down for a while on those cardboard boxes I had found. They would come in even more handy later when the rain let up, and I sat on them instead of the wet ground. Some people eyed me with envy, and squatted awkwardly. One women swigged from a quart of Jack Daniels, making me ill just thinking about it.

Toward the end of the night, as the aroma of clove cigarettes wafted through the soaking wet crowd, and the rain began a more steady patter, a band from Portugal started singing 'heyooo, heyooo, and the crowd sang back in response. It was at this time that I started singing, 'heyooo, i wanna go, heyooo, get me to the van.' But when I finally began the long walk back, I found that there was a parallel universe: A ton of people were relaxing under tents watching big screens and staying dry, and enjoying it more than the wet rats out in front of the stages. D'oh!

Well, we return to this same scene tomorrow night, and I know just where I'll stay. Let's just say no drowned rats regardless of the forecast. I'll try out some of the charcoal cooked chicken satays and other foods that I didn't see until I was walking back to the van. We passed the Presidential Rolls Royce on the way out, being buffed up by an aide. A fleet of white BMWs and motorcycles stood by, waiting to whisk the VIP to wherever he would be staying here in Sarawak during this visit.
The sitarist for an Indian band called Akasha, which performs an unforgettable version of Jimi Hendrix's song 'Voodoo Child.'

The band Akasha

Playing the Blues on a Sitar

These guys called Akasha from Malaysia rocked the rainforest with their blues number played on a sitar plus twangy Indian drums, guitar and bongos. They also played Jimi Hendrix' Voodoo Child, with that unforgettable riff from the beginning repeated over and over. It was a fantastic performance and the most exciting band of the night by far!

Birds Nests Are Good For You...Really!

We took our friend Bidari up on his kind offer to drive us over to the Sarawak Plaza to his friend's record store in a hotel van. He picked out a bunch of CDs and a kind young lady unwrapped each of them and played cuts for us to choose. They were compilations of Malaysian music, which is characterized by the type of instrument they use.

Siti is the name of a very popular vocalist here, one of Malaysia's biggest sellers. I picked up her CD plus two others who had played at the Rainforest Festival last year and another group, Tuku Kame, who will pay Sarawak music tonight.

At the plaza we got a chance to do some shopping. Boy it's great to be in a country where the dollar actually is worth something! Time and again, our jaws drop in amazement at how cheap things are...Edmund bought a gorgeous batik shirt for $7, I got some leather sandals for about $19, and the CDs came out to about $20 for three!
The Kelapan Kelabit Bamboo Band is from Malaysia

Kelapan Kelabit Bamboo Band is from Malaysia

With travel to euro zones bumming out Americans and trips to London cafes becoming huge investments, it is wonderful to report that here everything is cheap, the people are friendly and speak English, and the culture is rich and full of surprises. Plus they have wonderful music.

As I left the shoe store, an attractive Chinese woman in a tiny tight black T-shirt caught my eye as she hung out by the shop door. Good marketing. I asked Bidari what they sold in that store, and he said 'birds nests.' We walked in and the girl giggled when I asked her what birds' nests do for you.

She spoke in Chinese then in broken English explaining that they are good for your insides. All over the store there were tiny nests, in various colors, and inside jars of water birds nest concentrate was for sale. The nests are spun using bird saliva to keep them together and they are very popular here. We munched on a few at the opening reception. I'd say they are sort of like sweet shredded wheat.

Today we'll return to the Sarawak Cultural Village where we will first take a dip in the warm South China Sea and then visit stalls where we can learn how to play the instruments like the sape, a native guitar and various kinds of drums. Like most of the places I travel, I love it here.

That's what makes life so much fun.
Khac Chi Music is a band that performs on a variety of instruments unique to Vietnam

Khac Chi Music is a band that performs on a variety of instruments unique to Vietnam

Mojitos in Hand, Chatting Up Concertgoers

The nicest thing about this big Rainforest World Music Festival are the people we've met. We got to the Sarawac Cultural Village early, and we sat on bamboo matts and drank mojitos. While lounging on big pillows we met a couple from Singapore with two young boys. He is an English architect who recently finished working on Beijing's famous bird's nest arena. His company specializes in stadia around the world.

I asked him about that amazing polymer ETFE that was used in this big building that is so lightweight, so cheap and is playing such a big part in green buildings.

He said that when it is applied, ETFE is like plastic wrap, but it's far tougher, and can be blown to cover up to 30 yards of area without additional support--and weighs about as much as a pack of sugar. It was used instead of glass in this auditorium, and when rain hits it, it's like a snare drum. It pops to a deafening roar. So he said it isn't good for projects in places that will get a lot of rain.

Later that night I sat next to an Aussie yachtsman who had come over with nine other vessels from Australia. He told me about Papua New Guinea, where he said that the economy has almost stopped functioning and lawlessness is the rule. He said that armed guards and men with baseball bats are everywhere, guarding the shops and restaurants which without them would be overrun. He said it was impossible to cash a check there since the local economy is cratering and anyone with sense and or money has since fled.

I asked him about piracy in the Straits of Malacca, where we are going next week. "The governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have had enough," he said, "Now they just shoot the pirates dead, no messing around."

That made me feel a little better since the last time I read up on this it was an epidemic that was threatening propery and life and nobody seemed willing to take action.
Max and Sony at a beach on the South China Sea

Max and Sony at a beach on the South China Sea

South China Sea Dip

The South China sea is extraordinarily warm. It's gentle and feels like a bath, and I floated out and put my ears beneath the waves and exalted in that splendor of nothing, of not hearing anything for just a few brief moments.

Sony also loved being on the beach and in the water and this felt like we were truly off duty, and no longer required to take notes or photos....but we couldn't resist using my x-tender to shoot a quick memory as the sun beat down on my untanned body.

This beach is part of a resort that offers tree houses for two, or rainforest cabins that sleep six. The cost is low, about $340 Ringets for four nights, including meals. Malaysia is amazing for these values, it's quite a relief from writing about places where everything is so expensive. Here the dollar is worth a lot, and so it makes traveling much easier.

Max Hartshorne

Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.