Road Notes: The Rainforest World Music Festival

Where the South China Sea meets the rainforest in Malaysian Borneo, there’s a music festival unlike anything in the West.

Editor’s Note: Where the South China Sea meets the rainforest in Malaysian Borneo, there’s a music festival unlike anything in the West. GP contributor Will McGough visited to dance, bang on drums and hear some of the best music of his life.

The coast turns the corner where the South China Sea is calm, the low tide more than tripling the size of the beach and revealing the smooth stones that dot the shore. The sun had come all the way up now, the sky changing from purple to light blue, and I could see the tree-covered saddle of Mount Santubong in the background towering over the stages of the Rainforest World Music Festival, set in the Sarawak Cultural Center on the forested coast of Malaysian Borneo.

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Before, when it was still dark, I sat on the floor of an Iban longhouse, perched up in the canopy of the rainforest. The traditional dwellings of Borneo’s Iban tribe, longhouses resemble oversized tree houses that sit upon stilts in the jungle. The active ones still present throughout Borneo typically house over a dozen families, and a visit is like taking a trip into your grandfather’s toolshed, everything with a purpose and place. This particular longhouse, just steps from the two stages, was being used as a hostel during the annual three-day festival. It held a backstage atmosphere after the performances were done for the night, a place where the bands and backpackers — both from all around the world — gathered on bamboo mats.

I looked around the open-air room. There was a clean-cut guy from Spain, a fiddle player from a Canadian bluegrass band, a group of backpackers from Kuala Lumpur, the lead singer of a French a cappella group, and a few Irish gals who said the whole night had been “good craic.” Guitars, hand drums, tambourines, a didgeridoo, and beer cans. The French singer picked up one of the guitars, and a woman from Kuala Lumpur broke a piece of wood into two and began to bounce a beat off a two by four. The lyrics were all in French — which hardly anyone in the room spoke — but a few people, myself included, got up to dance anyway.

There was something about the sight of that no-name guitar player entertaining the crowd that clicked for me. This festival was not like anything I had experienced in the States, where crowds of groupies pine after some untouchable rockstar they feel they know so well. What makes it so unique is that, unlike most festivals and concerts across the globe, branded bands are not the draw. For the first time in my life, I went to a concert and did not sing along with a single song.

Instead, I watched a man named Horomona Horo from New Zealand stomp around the stage for a one-man show that featured the traditional instruments of his tribe, including a flute made out of a crab claw that he wore as an earring (yes, he removed the crab claw from his ear, then played it as a flute). I listened to Cuban salsa, Canadian bluegrass, Welsh folk rock, Malaysian tribal music, French Basque a cappella, cobra-coaxing Indian melodies, and an all-female, drum-pounding posse from the Ukraine.

One minute, I stood in awe as those three Ukrainians used only their voices to mimic the sounds of the rainforest wildlife. The next, my arms were in the air, the lights of the second stage flashing on and the beat tiptoeing a staircase across the ocean to Havana. ¡Que rico! I saw thousands of fans wiggle their hips, and in that moment, it was hard to imagine that the festival only drew a few hundred people when it debuted back in 1998.

Tradition, not pop culture, drives the talent I heard at RMF; the music coursing their bloodstream will stick around a lot longer than the Top 40 fads we’ve come to love and hate.

Most likely, when you check out the lineup for this or next year’s festival, or any from the past, you won’t recognize many acts on the cards, if any at all. It’s not for people looking to name drop; it’s for people who love music. Not people who listen to music, but people who love it and appreciate all its styles, even if they can’t understand the lyrics. And those that seek out this type of environment are rewarded not only with the chance to rub shoulders at small after parties, but with an understanding that, contrary to what pop culture might have one believe, the passion and roots of real musicians go deeper than a bottle of whiskey and a few months of celebrity status.

Such was the vibe at the festival’s daily “workshops,” held every afternoon before the main events of the evening. Don’t let the word “workshop” fool you. In these intimate performances, the musicians gathered to explain and demonstrate their musical styles and influences. Picture this: Eight fiddlers from eight different countries going down the line and performing their country’s unique traditional take on the violin. Then, coming together as one, a jam session breaks out, the world’s sounds all coming together as one.

Later, I watched and listened to a young Asian gong orchestra play traditional songs that haven’t been modified in the last 100 years. I turned to my friend and asked: How do you think these guys get into this shit? At what point in your life do you decide to play the gong? My friend, much wiser than me, put it simply: “You learn from your grandfather.” Tradition, not pop culture, drives the talent I heard at RMF; the music coursing their bloodstream will stick around a lot longer than the Top 40 fads we’ve come to love and hate.

Every night before sunset, a community drum circle was held in front of the main stage, where the young and old came together, a mix of Malays, backpackers, media, and musicians. It was here that the diversity was felt: people of all ages and backgrounds. But once that first drum was struck, when the deep, rumbling sound began to pour out and wave through the leaves of the trees, it was easy to see that music is indeed the universal language. And regardless of where you were from, you heard it loud and clear in those moments in the rainforest.

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