Sarawak’s Rainforest World Music Festival is now Malaysia’s best known music festival. It has been running for over 20 years. But was it like at the first Rainforest World Music Festival which took place from 30-31 August 1998. What bands played? How big was the crowd? What was the stage made of (answer: wood and atap). Which band or singer stole the show?
I attended the first festival and it was brilliant. Every year there are articles that talk about the festival, how it has grown and how the first festival attracted a small crowd (not really true – there was a decent crowd). Most recent articles contain very little about the inaugural event. And finding photos from the 1998 event is not easy.
I wrote a review of the 1998 RWMF but I could not find a copy on my laptop. So I decided to search the internet for any reviews of the first festival. I thought I would find several reviews and articles but I didn’t. Most reviews written about the first festival were published in niche print magazines (rather than online) and very few journalists were invited to the first rainforest festival. I eventually managed to find my article on the Way Back Machine. I also searched around at home and found some print photos from the first rainforest festival. Below is my original review of the first Rainforest World Music Festival along with some of the photos I recently found. Another review of the 1998 festival I have found is by Antares‘. This was first published in Men’s Review Magazine and can be found here.
Review of the Rainforest World Music Festival, 30 to 31 August 1998
With Joseph ‘Pepe’ Danza, an Uruguayan percussionist and multi-instrumentalist, Qiu Xia He, a Chinese pipa (four string lute) virtuoso, Andre Thibault, a brilliant Flamenco guitarist and Randy Raine-Reusch, a Canadian multi-instrumentalist whose diverse talents have to be seen and heard to be believed, no one can accuse ASZA, a Canadian acoustic quartet of being a conventional band.
ASZA combine musical traditions from their own different cultures with other global musical styles that they have studied to produce an exotic blend of innovative and powerful music. By taking musical traditions from indigenous cultures from around the globe, and weaving these into their own in a process of enrichment without dilution, a truly unique sound results. In a typical performance the band use between 50-70 traditional instruments from around the world, just a part of their collection of over 600 instruments.
When ASZA took the stage as the last act of the Rainforest World Musical Festival on the eve of Malaysia’s Independence day, the crowd had just enjoyed an evening of diverse musical performances. In the previous couple of hours, Joey Ayala’s band from the Philippines had punched out some funky and powerful songs with meaning; Mak Minah of Anak Dayung had stolen the show with a storming lyrical call; Zurinai had just proved that Malay singers don’t have to sing about ‘cinta’ or even sing in Bahasa Malaysia to win over local audiences; and Badan Budaya Melanau had offered a unique and special performance of music and ritual which included a shaman entering a trance.
The crowd were full of expectations and ASZA more than fulfilled these with each member of the band contributing their unique talents. Joseph Danza was filled with wild Latin energy as he banged his drums and delicately waved small bells in the air, grinning at the crowd who loved it all. Andre Thibault provided flamenco flair whilst the sounds produced from Qiu Xia He’s strings were simply beautiful. Randy gave direction and amazed everyone as he moved from instrument to instrument and even threw in a burst of Tibetan throat singing. Randy also explained how the group “ASZA-fy” other musical traditions. A classic example of this was when Randy played a beautifully “ASZA-fied” sape number with the other members of the band all adding their own spin to things. As a familiar sape melody filled the air, the two Sarawakian guys next to be excited launched into a discussion, clearly liking what they were hearing – one of their own musical traditions still instantly recognisable but with something special added.
ASZA’s performance was a fitting end to what was an enjoyable weekend-long festival. The Rainforest World Music Festival took place from 30-31 August 1998 at the Sarawak Cultural Village, Damai Beach. The event consisted of two full days of musical workshops and two concerts from 6 pm until midnight on Saturday and Sunday night, with the second night’s concert being the best of the two.
The first night’s concert had its moments but essentially amounted to a warm-up for the musical energy and excitement of the second night, which really kicked the festival into gear, and essentially laid the foundations for what is set to become an annual event. Although there were some enjoyable performances on the first night, the programme was just too packed with performances that didn’t really suit the festival’s “World Music” tag. For example, Andrewson Naglai is undoubtedly a popular artist with 14 albums to his credit but I couldn’t quite work out why a karaoke-style ballad singer should be performing at a world music festival. Ditto the BM Boys, a popular Chinese band from Penang. Their pop tunes went down well with the Mandarin speaking members of the audience but it was a pop act rather than a World Music performance.
To be fair these pop acts had their fans in the crowd and with some local colour provided by various Sarawakian groups the first night was still a lot of fun. Local cultural and musical input was provided by a Bidayuh dance troupe; the voice of Usun Apau, an ensemble of Penan singers; and Sape Ulu, comprising four of the best sape players in Sarawak. Safar Ghaffar – a singer, dancer, choreographer, composer and costume designer – led a colourful performance that was more theatre than music. The combination of theatre, fashion and music, influenced by the people and cultures of Sarawak, could have worked but didn’t. Safar’s energy and enthusiasm had to be admired but his theatrical mutterings about warriors and female slaves were a tad OTT and a bit of an insult to the cultures that his performance borrowed so much from.
The highlights of the first night were undoubtedly B’Tutta and the Lammas. Tuku Kame, a band formed by the musicians of the Sarawak Cultural Village’s were also fun to watch as they combined the music of traditional Sarawakian and Malay instruments with modern sounds. Jerry Kamit, Tuku Kame’s young pony-tailed sape player, looked a complete dude as he took the stage for his solo. B’Tutta, an Australian percussion group who play traditional African music and contemporary Australian art music, displayed their technical mastery of a diverse range of instruments, with one member of the band even banging out tunes on a plastic bowl filled with water. The Lammas won the crowd over with their blend of progressive jazz with a Celtic twist. Vocalist Christine Tobin’s soulful voice was the icing on the musical cake as guitarist/percussionist Don Paterson, saxophonist Tim Garland and saxophonist/accordionist Karen Street demonstrated their status as veteran musicians.
The second night of the festival included a rare treat – a performance by the Badan Budaya Melanau, a group of Melanau dancers, singers and musicians who are reviving a dying art form. Melanau dance and music is influenced by the rituals that are performed at traditional healing ceremonies, cultural festivals, weddings and funerals. After a few recreational pieces the audience were treated to some ritual music when Edmund Slaman bin Tuna, the group’s leader and one of the few remaining Melanau Shamans, entered a trance. Against a background of music and chants, Edmund moved further into the trance and then danced on broken glass.
I hadn’t heard of Zuriani and even after a quick flick through the festival brochure I still wasn’t sure of what to expect. Her profile looked good – singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, and founding member of the Malaysian world music band “Asia Beat” some 20 years ago. Long resident in the US and now back in Malaysia, Zuriani has recently produced albums for a number of top Malay artists including Situ Nurhaliza, Ella and Fuaziah Latiff. I must confess I expected a Malay diva pumping out bland but popular tunes with a lyrical overdose of the word cinta (love). I was wrong. Zuriani confidently stepped onto the stage complete with a recently recruited back-up band that included Rafique Rashid and Antares from Anak Dayung, flutist Narawi Rashidi and gendang player Johari Morshidi from Tuku Kame, and Johari’s nine year old son on percussion. She looked like Malaysia’s answer to Sade, and after few words of introduction Zuriani’s beautiful voice filled the air. Stage presence, lyrics with meaning and a superb voice – what a combination. Nobody would have guessed that the back-up band had spent less than an hour rehearsing for Zuriani’s first public performance in two years. The audience loved it.
When Anak Dayung came on stage I had feeling that something good was going to happen. Dr Wan Zawawi – anthropologist, songwriter and true ‘bring people together’ man – had assembled a motley collection of musicians; a line up that included Wan Zawawi himself, Rafique Rashid, the Nuradee Brothers from Singapore, local guitarist Ken Linang, Antares aka Kit Lee decked in full tie-dye hippie glory, and Mak Minah, a 60 year old Temuan (one of the many Orang Asli groups in West Malaysia) folk singer and star performer. As the band set things up, Mak Minah sat next to Rafique Rashid and looked to be in a world of her own as technicians and the other band members scampered around doing their technical checks.
And then it happened. The moment the whole crowd had been waiting for, the moment when one person stole the whole show. As soon as Mak Minah got out of her chair and launched into Hutan Manao, the crowd went berserk. I was simply blown away with her powerful voice. But is wasn’t just Mak Minah’s voice, it was her talent as a performer, the talent to stand up on stage and get the crowd going. When she wasn’t singing she was moving around the whole stage, dancing the joget with Wan Zawawi, digging him in the ribs when he teased her, and playing to the audience who were lapping it up.
Anak Dayung also performed two tracks – Mencari Amerika (looking for America) and KL Blues – from Dayung, Wan Zawawi’s debut album. During these tracks Antares danced around like a dervish, showering the crowd with his enthusiasm. The Nuradee Brothers then took the mike for a powerful vocal duet.
Like many of the performers from Asia, Joey Ayala’s music highlights environmental problems and social issues. But where Joey Ayala’s band came into their own was with their sheer musical energy and their range of songs. A bit of folk, some soulful riffs, funk and then a blast of rock, from the moment they stepped on stage the place exploded with the raw energy and excitement of a band that know their stuff.
After ASZA’s last piece the other performers stepped up on stage to join ASZA for the grand finale jam session, followed by a midnight count down to Merdeka, Malaysia’s Independence day. With performers from North America, China, Australia, Europe, Latin America and South East Asia, including the Melanau Shaman giving his all on the drums, the Rainforest World Music Festival ended with music and smiles from around the world.