Rainforest World Music Festival

If the late, great Ella Fitzgerald were still singing on our mortal coil, she would almost certainly have graced the stage of the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Sarawak, to sing her song ‘Into each life some rain must fall”, or indeed her gloriously simple “Rain”. Because this extraordinary event, which feels a bit like transporting Woodstock to the woods, or Glastonbury to the jungle, captures everything that Ella was about. Cultural transaction, looking at the world through new eyes, and finding joy in the world through music.
The Rainforest World Music Festival is an annual event celebrating music from global artists, international indigenous peoples as well as Sarawakian tribal triumphs too of course. The three days of festivities present music that not only shakes the surrounding leaves and trees, but also world opinion on the importance of worldwide rainforest preservation. And what a place to do it. Taking place in the island’s Sarawak Cultural Village, at the foot of jungle bedecked Mount Santubong, the festival site is described as a living museum for the rest of the year. And as workshops, music seminars, jamming sessions and dancing echo around the mountain during the festival days, and live acts boom through the beautiful biome afternoon and evening, this certainly is living.
Taking place in July or early August, the Festival has been rocking the rainforest for a couple of decades now and came of age at 21 in 2018. Visitors can choose between a variety of accommodation, from local homestays to beach fronted hotels, jungle resorts or traditional and indigenous Iban and Bidayuh longhouses in the festival village itself. Not a long walk, however, to the myriad afternoon workshop sessions that wake the body up with all the right 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 on in awe at the extraordinarily delicate plate dancing from Indonesia, Maoris making music and of course, learning and listening to Sarawak’s own expert sape players, a lute like instrument, also called the ‘boat lute’ due to their shape, played originally by the Orang Ulu or “upriver people”.
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Dusk brings not only the fireflies, bats and beautiful birdsong, but the main stage events too, with leading artists in folk, traditional and world music. There is no doubt that the exquisite setting of the Festival 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 just another festival gig. They are singing to that mountain, beating in rhythm to the wildlife and, all in all, creating one big choral cacophony that captures nature’s sounds and celebrates musical traditions of the world. This year international and eclectic greats include such as Pat Thomas and Kwashibu Area Band from Ghana; Shanren, one of China’s top indie folk bands from the Yunnan Province; and traditional Irish folk band with a contemporary and multi-cultural following, Téada.

Just 40 minutes’ drive from Sarawak’s capital, Kuching, and with shuttle buses running to and from the Festival all weekend, timing your visit to this extraordinary state alongside the Rainforest World Music Festival will either start you on a Sarawakian trip of a lifetime, or finish your trip with a bang. And desires for never ending encores. The good news is that, from Kuching, it is easy to keep singing the joys of the rainforest for a few weeks at least. Closest to the Festival site is Bako National Park, just across the bay. Sarawak’s oldest park, its most famous habitants are the proboscis monkeys, but there are plenty of other quirky creatures out there including the bearded pigs and long-tailed macaques. Which sound a bit like names of bands that might be doing the festival trail.
Nearby Gunung Gading National Park sprawls across four jungle-clad mountain peaks with a dense primary rainforest that’s traversed by crystalline streams and tumbling waterfalls. Damai Beach is the white sandy paradise that you need after a festival, with views across some of the world’s most ancient rainforest in one direction and the South China Sea in the other. Or work those post festival muscles by rock climbing at the limestone wonders of the Fairy Cave at Bau, or mountain biking on the nearby Bratak and Kampung Opar Trails. Whatever you do, the party never has to end. Come rain or shine. Which is, of course, another Ella song. Because Sarawak is a place where good spirits and souls always hover. Especially in the world of music. Find out more and book tickets to the Rainforest World Music Festival
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Responsible Travel would like to thank the Sarawak tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Eugene Young] [Top box: Sarawak Tourism] [Band at festival: Eugene Young] [Damai beach: Dustin Iskandar]