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April 08, 2014, Malaysia

Jamming in the jungle

From accordion-fuelled tunes of Colombia to Malaysian folk music, the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak is a feast for the ears

Dave Fox

THE symphony of the rainforest was reaching its nightly crescendo.

Crickets were chirping in rhythmic soprano, and bullfrogs were belting out baritone notes. But on this evening, these jungle musicians were surely perplexed by the strange noises accompanying them.

There were drums and didgeridoos, violins and nose flutes — instruments contrived by humans from six continents who had converged in the woods of Borneo’s Damai Peninsula.

The Rainforest World Music Festival happens each June at the Sarawak Cultural Village on the outskirts of Kuching, Malaysia.

Performers and music lovers from around the world gather for three days and nights of concerts, jam sessions, ethno-musical lectures, and workshops.

World music magazine Songlines rated the gathering as one of the 25 best international festivals in the world.

My wife and I hadn’t originally planned to go to the festival. But as we made our three-week journey across Borneo last year, people on the island kept telling us: “If you’re into world music, you need to check it out.” So, we reworked our plans and paid for an extra flight — and we were glad we did.

Let the party begin

Amid a lush backdrop of towering trees and bamboo bridges, we immersed ourselves in a celebration of world music and dance from Friday to Sunday.

Two adjacent stages in a jungle clearing hosted more than five hours of concerts each night.

Friday evening’s headlining acts kicked off with ritual blessings from four Sarawak tribes. Clad in ceremonial clothing and headdresses, and covered in body paints, tribal representatives chanted prayers to spirits they believed inhabit the surrounding jungle.

The blessings, a festival storyteller told me, were pleas to those spirits to keep the performances safe.

Once the spirits were beseeched, 71-year-old Juk Wan Emang took the stage. One of the few remaining living masters of the Sarawak nose flute, Mr Emang offered a set of tunes on his instrument, which, as the name suggests, is blown with the nostrils rather than the mouth.

Up next, the 13-member Rhythm in Bronze ensemble bridged the gap between traditional and modern with a contemporary twist on Malaysian gamelan music. From there, the evening burst into a party of global fusion.

Chet Nuneta, from France, offered their spin on southern and eastern European folk music.

Rey Vallaneto Beto Jamaica fired up the crowd with high-energy, accordion-fuelled tunes from Colombia. Alp Bora, an Austria-based group of Turkish musicians, played songs from throughout the Balkans.

Rounding out the night were the Australian Aboriginal dance troupe Nunukul Yuggera, and the modern Celtic folk group Kila from Ireland.

On Saturday and Sunday evenings, the party continued. With several thousand other festival-goers, we bounced to a Louisiana Cajun band and an Afro-pop group from Cape Town. We heard Danish drinking songs, Iranian bagpipes and a vast array of other musical styles.

Transporting hundreds of musicians and their equipment into the rainforest seemed a formidable task, yet the music flowed seamlessly.

Fringe activities

Each afternoon, at smaller venues within the cultural village, we could choose from a diverse series of workshops, presentations and smaller performances.

Some of the daytime presentations highlighted similarities between seemingly disparate instruments.

Blowpipes In Borneo, for example, brought together a trombone, a trumpet, a didgeridoo, and four different types of bagpipes from different parts of the world. Each musician demonstrated his instrument. Then, they all jammed together.

Inside a traditional Bornean longhouse, festival-goers stomped and twirled at a Scottish dance class. And Rhythm in Bronze followed up their Friday night performance on Saturday with a hands-on gamelan demonstration, inviting us to sit with them on stage and try playing their instruments.

Dancing in the muggy rainforest left us blissfully exhausted at the end of each day.

Our one regret was staying in downtown Kuching and catching the 45-minute festival shuttle bus to and from our hotel. We would have been happier to be closer to the Sarawak Cultural Village, where a range of options were available for those who booked ahead.

The festival this year is looking equally enticing. Organisers have booked a fresh line-up of artists from at least 15 countries.

And the crickets and frogs will be there too, contributing their centuries-old undertones to the party in their home.


Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, SilkAir and AirAsia offer direct flights daily from Singapore to Kuching.

If you stay in Kuching, shuttle buses depart hourly between downtown and the festival site. Expect long queues at the end of the evening.

■ The 2014 Rainforest World Music Festival will take place from June 20 to 22. For details, visit

Pre-sale tickets are available through June 19 for RM110 (S$42) for a single day or RM300 for a three-day pass. Discounted tickets are available for children aged 12 and below. Tickets purchased at the festival are slightly more expensive.

■ While Kuching is well worth a visit on a different day, the festival is so packed with activities that it makes more sense to stay close to the Sarawak Cultural Village. There are three beachfront resorts within walking distance, along with a few budget-friendly options. The festival website also includes a list of options.

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