Rainforest World Music Festival, Sarawak, Borneo

Just when you think Borneo can’t get any more exotic and enticing, you discover that Kuching in Sarawak hosts a three day music festival each July or early August. And this isn’t any old modest, C-list event either, it’s the Rainforest World Music Festival, and it brings together famous musicians from around the globe, as well as indigenous artists and Sarawakian tribes. The performers come from far and wide – India and Serbia, Tunisia and Chile – with many small nations represented. Think, the Comoros Islands, Guinea and, in 2018, a duo comprising one Chinese musician and one from Cote d’Ivoire.
Each day features a mixture of dance, instrumental and singing workshops, jamming sessions and mini concerts in the afternoons, all with the performers. So, unlike at Glastonbury, where the stars helicopter in, perform and leave, you have the chance to meet the musicians, learn about their music and join in. Chuck out your inhibitions and embrace all the rhythms and vibes, ranging from dancing with Congolese pygmies, throat singing à la Mongolian, drumming with dudes from just about everywhere, jumping and jiving to Jagwa music from Tanzania, watching in awe at the extraordinarily delicate plate dancing from Indonesia and of course, learning and listening to Sarawak’s own expert sape players, a lute like instrument played originally by the Orang Ulu or ‘upriver people’.
Dusk brings not only fireflies, bats and beautiful birdsong, but the main stage events too, with artists performing in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd. Variety is the only spice at this festival, so you might listen to sacred chants and love laments from the Philippines, enjoy a Malay nose-flute player, or dance to traditional Gaelic music mixed with electronic influences. Your musical knowledge will expand exponentially, plus, you’ll have a fantastic time! This has to be one of the most interactive, friendly festivals in the world – good humoured, unpretentious and incredibly good value, too. A three day adult ticket, bought in advance, costs around £60.
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There is no doubt that the exquisite setting of the festival – as unique as the line-up – injects the artists with an enthusiasm for sharing their creations like few other places in the world. Not for a second do you feel as if they are just churning out another festival gig. It all takes place on the Santubong Peninsula, 35km outside Kuching, at the foot of the jungle clad Mount Santubong in the Sarawak Cultural Village. This is a living museum, with replica buildings representing every major ethnic group in Sarawak – workshops take place in the Iban and Bidayuh indigenous longhouses.
When you’re not grooving to global rhythms, you can tuck into tasty food – there are lots of food and drink stands, but you’re not permitted to bring your own food or drink onto the site. Instead, the festival’s website suggests you ‘bring along a desire to be at one with nature and a yearning to celebrate and unite with kindred spirits from around the globe.’ So that’s your packing sorted.
Small group trips of around 10 days total typically include the full event, with a three day festival pass included, before moving on to discover more of Borneo. It makes for an incredible vacation. Three days of music from around the world, followed by the chance to hike through Bako National Park, explore the clear water cave system in Mulu National Park, and relax in Kota Kinabalu.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Eugene Yong] [Rainforest World music concert: Sarawak Tourism Board] [Singer: Eugene Yong] [Dancer: Sarawak Tourism board] [Mount Santubong: Bernard Dupont] [Dervish dancer: Sarawak Tourism Board]