Malaysia: The Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival

Sarawak, Malaysia: A Muddy, Memorable Music Festival

by Sonja Stark

Akasha, a musical group featuring a sitar, one of more than 30 acts who played at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. photos by Sony Stark.
Akasha, a musical group featuring a sitar, one of more than 30 acts who played at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. photos by Sony Stark.

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.

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.

Watch Sony’s video from Malaysia:

I peel off my collar shirt and jeans and happily change into a skimpy blue sundress, flip-flops and my peace-loving, democratic sensibilities.

Loving the tunes: more than 9000 people were on hand for the opening night of the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak.
Loving the tunes: more than 9000 people were on hand for the opening night of the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak.

It feels okay to do so because all around me are mirror versions of myself, albeit with darker hair and tribal tattoos.

A Two-Part Country

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.

Sarawak Village is a showcase of native crafts and foods.
Sarawak Village is a showcase of native crafts and foods.

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.

Everybody Loves the Music

Chicken Satay is the most famous food in Malaysia, served up from tiny wood grills.
Chicken Satay is the most famous food in Malaysia, served up from tiny wood grills.

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.

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 plays throughout the night.

Losing a Flip-flop

A footrub feels so good after standing in the rain watching the music. Plus, you can hear just as well over the speakers next to the massage tent!
A footrub feels so good after standing in the rain watching the music. Plus, you can hear just as well over the speakers next to the massage tent!

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 universal energy of music and dance bridges differences in nationality and appearance. Malay, Chinese, Indian, African, we’re all muddy, exhausted and numb from clapping and singing so long.

The muddy center of it all. The music never stopped, and the rain was unending.
The muddy center of it all. The music never stopped, and the rain was unending.

We’d taken a dip in the beautiful warm water earlier in the day, watching Muslim children fully dressed romping in the waves.

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.

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.

A worried father needs help finding his 16-year old daughter in the 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.

Kuching, Sarawak Travel and Tourism

Sarawak Travel and Tourism Information

Rainforest World Music Festival

Damai Beach, on the South China Sea, where we took a dip before the show.
Damai Beach, on the South China Sea, where we took a dip before the show.

Sarawak Cultural Village
Admission: $20/per person, children ages 6-12 $10 and below 6 are free
Open 9am – 4:45pm daily
Email

Merdeka Palace Hotel and Suites
93000 Kuching, Sarawak Tel: (+6) 082 258000

Public Shuttle Bus Transportation:
Buses to and from Sarawak Cultural Village and Merdeka Palace are a first-come, first-serve basis. Leaving and returning from lobby of hotel.

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Sonja Stark
Sonja is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD's most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.