The Rainforest World Music Festival comes of age

COMING of age this weekend, the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) celebrates its 21st edition at the same location it started at in 1998 – the Sarawak Cultural Village at Damai in Santubong, 18 miles from the capital of Kuching.

The RWMF had a very humble beginning 22 years ago at the home of one of two Kuching-born Ong brothers, who had conceived of the idea after a home dinner gathering with a visiting Canadian world music proponent and recording artiste by the name of Randy Raine-Reusch. Randy was a multi-instrumentalist, who personally has in his vast collection almost 1,000 different musical instruments culled from all over the world. At that time, he was also the leader of a band called Asza.

Randy had landed in Kuching at the invitation of the Society Atelier of Sarawak, of which Edric Ong was the president (he still holds the same position today). His assignment was to professionally record (for Pan Record label in Holland) the unique ethnic sape music performed by Tusau Padang, the renowned ‘Father of the Sape’, a string instrument made popular by the Kenyah and Kayan tribes.

The after-dinner table talk at my residence turned to Ethnic Music (now more popularly known as World Music) and Randy brought up the idea of how wonderful it would be to actually stage a music festival where musicians from around the globe could interact and play with each other; for instance, merging sape music with the gu-zheng from China and so on. I then coined the brand Rainforest World Music Festival after many other names were bandied about. My brother Edric proposed that the Society Atelier, being the most appropriate platform, be tasked to sound out other possible interested partners – the Sarawak Music Society, Sarawak Tourism Board, among others.

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A first meeting was called at the Society Atelier’s office at Jalan Reservoir (now Jalan Budaya) attended by a promising number of interested invited guests and possible future partners or collaborators. After sometime, it dawned on the meeting that the project, although feasible and attractive, would need a hefty budget and sufficient funding was crucial for it to be done properly.

At this point, Robert Basuik, who was then the marketing manager at the Sarawak Tourism Board, thought he might be able to get the board interested to be its main sponsor as part of their then emerging tourism effort. Bob then brought the idea to Datu Aloysius Dris, who was then the CEO. It received the green light and all systems were go from then onwards.

Picking the venue of the Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV) was a no-brainer; SCV belonged to the same group of people who were part of the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC), and they in turn were very keen to promote their destination as a prime tourist attraction.

The acts and the musicians for the very first festival had to be very carefully selected by a small committee, which was headed by Randy, with myself, Yeoh Jun Lin, Jayl Langub, and Wan Zawawi being the pioneering group. Today, 21 years on, only Yeoh Jun Lin is still around, she is now its creative director.

Probably the most challenging part of selecting the musicians was to find the ideal balance – of local bands and artistes plus a good mix of foreign imports. In the early years, when the international music critic reviews came in, they had raved over the newly-discovered Sarawakian musicians, about the SCV venue, the well-planned programmes, the overall ambiance, and the magic of the Santubong jungle – everything was new and they had wallowed in their early ‘discovery’ of Borneo.

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Undoubtedly the sape music of Tusau Padan and Uchau Bilong really enchanted them; the many other instrumentalists from the more remote villages; the hitherto unknown and little heard drums, strings, and flutes of Malay, Bidayuh, and other tribal contributions both enthralled and surprised the mainly Caucasian audience.

As a counterpoint, the many bands from overseas – the Shooglenifty from Scotland, the Mongolian throat singers from Ulaanbaatar, the Malian and South African singers and dancers from Africa, etc – also stole the hearts of the many locals, who had come from downtown Kuching, Penang, Singapore, and Sabah.

The first year’s festival had only eight bands over two nights; the audience was a very modest 300; with a budget of about RM30,000. In its latest edition, on its 21st year, there are 27 bands over three days and three nights, and the budget I hear is well over RM4 million.

The RWMF has come a long way – it has become one of the best success stories that has come out of the tourism efforts of the Sarawak Tourism Board. It might never even have happened if not for the many people who were involved in pioneering, nurturing, and promoting it from Day 1 until now.

Along the way, the RWMF also had its lows – very few people are aware that in Year 4, the festival was almost hijacked and taken over by Womad, an international festival – World of Music and Dance, based in Europe; as a group of local expatriate entrepreneurs had made an attractive presentation and proposal to the Sarawak Tourism Board to ‘takeover’ the entire festival lock, stock, and barrel. Luckily level-headed minds prevailed and listened to some sage advice against it – so the festival remained as it was within the ambit of the STB.

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Again, a few years later, the STB had also considered the renaming of the entire festival commercially – firstly Heineken and later on another brand – Volvo. Imagine attending the Heineken or the Volvo World Music Festival.

We should all be grateful, in one way or another, to the many people who have stuck with the Rainforest World Music Festival throughout these 21 years, some are the early pioneers, others the nurturers, and of course the current group of brave and hardworking folks who will see it into the future.

Randy Raine-Reusch, Edric Ong, Robert Basuik, Edgar Ong, Datu Aloysius Dris, Mohd Tuah Jais, Heidi Munan, Yeoh Jun Lin, Angelina Bateman, Jane Lian Labang, Pauline Lim, Narawi Rashidi, Chris Robles, Gracie Geikie, Niall Macaulay, and so many others, too numerous to name.

Play on … dance on … come rain or shine – here’s a toast to the next 21 years of RWMF!

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.

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