Rainforest World Music Festival

The Rainforest World Music festival is an annual festival featuring international, regional and local artists in a three day outdoor event that takes place in mid july, just outside of Kuching, the capitol city of the Malaysian province of Sarawak, on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo.

Randy Raine-Reusch was in Sarawak recording traditional music for the CD Sawaku: The Music of Sarawak for Pan Records. In this process he had a number of meetings with fellow Canadian Robert Basiuk (formerly from Winnipeg), who was the then deputy chief executive officer of the Sarawak Tourist Board.

One of their topics was the rapidly disappearing local musical traditions and how to recontextualize the music (some of which were associated with the no longer practiced headhunting rituals). In one of these meetings Randy suggested a festival of traditional music, and Robert replied that he had already suggested that idea to a number of people without any response.

They discussed the idea further and flushed out a model for a festival including both professional international touring artists on stage with traditional musicians from the longhouses of the interior of the province that had no professional training. They decided that a good model were the Canadian folk festivals which stressed both evening concerts and daytime “workshops” or mini-concerts that involved the audience and where musicians from different groups were placed together to share stories music and experiences.

Randy created a proposal and then tried to sell the idea to many agencies and societies in Kuching that had an interest in promoting traditional arts. Edric Ong, then president of the Society Atelier Sarawak, well known for preserving, promoting and advancing Sarawakian traditional arts, took up the idea and presented it to the society (comprised of many of the most influential and creative members of the community) which then decided to present a modest festival at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong, a small coastal village 35 km. from Kuching.

As preparations were well under way for the festival and interest in the festival really started to grow in the community, the Sarawak Tourist Board decided that the Society Atelier Sarawak was not large enough to run the event and took control of the festival.

The mandate of the festival was to promote and preserve the unique cultures of Sarawak, to present an international festival where local artists could stand side by side with international artists, each learning the wealth of each other’s art and presentation, and to present a new context for the traditional music of Sarawak, so it could survive well into the future.

The First Year
Randy Raine-Reusch drew up a comprehensive plan for the festival, which included details ranging from booking the artists to garbage collection. The Sarawak Tourist Board hired Raine-Reusch as a consultant, although his accommodation was gratefully provided by the Society Atelier Sarawak. He decided to run the festival for three years only, with a progressively diminishing role, so the local community would eventually run the festival completely.

Raine-Reusch then oversaw the creation of the first festival, with the support of a large number of volunteers, as well as numerous community and government agencies. Artist selection was done by committee (mainly comprised of members of the Society Atelier Sarawak ) with Raine-Reusch in the lead, while programming was done by Raine-Reusch and one community member only.

The festival opened on a Friday night with a number of acts on the main stage, with Saturday and Sunday’s programming featuring four hours of workshops on a number of smaller venues, followed by main stage events in the evenings. The afternoon workshops were informal and often acoustic, presented on small stages set up within the replica traditional houses that are a feature of the Sarawak Cultural Village. Artists were chosen that had something in common with the theme of the workshop. Themes would range from “Sting Things” to “Songs I Never Sang”. Emphasis was put on combining musicians from the longhouse with international artists, and the result was often quite amazing, with local artists totally amazing the internationals with their skills and ability to improvise (often for the first time).

The first year the festival was small with only about 1500 people in attendance, but it was very well received. A major concern was the weather, as Sarawak can be subject to torrential rainfalls, and it did rain off and on, but the weather did not dampen the enthusiasm of the artists or the audience. The festival was a hit!

The first year artists included groups from Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, as well as many of the diverse indigenous communities of Sarawak, including the Iban, Kenyah, Kayan, Bidayuh, and Melanau peoples. Raine-Reusch performed with his group ASZA at this festival.

The Second Year
The second year Raine-Reusch took a secondary position, only handling part of the programming, and taking care of emergencies. He still oversaw all the arrangements but at arms length so that the local organizers could get more experience running the festival. In this manner when the local staff made a mistake or missed something, Raine-Reusch would step in, and the result was another good festival. As budgets were bigger for the second year, more international acts were brought in and the audience grew to over two thousand, with more attendance at the afternoon concerts. Raine-Reusch performed with zheng virtuoso Mei Han at this festival. Although it rained again this year, the highest point of the festival was watching many members of the organizing committee dancing with abandon in the rain to Shooglenifty!

This year saw some interest from the international press, and there were a number of articles and news items distributed in Asia and North America on the festival.

The Third Year
This was the last year that Raine-Reusch acted as consultant for the festival. He basically functioned more as an observer and occasional advisor, only stepping in when necessary. One such instance was that due to cancellations there was a lack of artists booked for the festival. Although Raine-Reusch had performed two years in a row and had not wanted to perform at this year’s event, he was forced to create an ad hoc group with a number of local musicians to fill out the program at the last minute. The programming was also very weak in local artists, and so Raine-Reusch requested a number of performers to be added to the line-up. Two of these were a singer, and a nose flute/ mouth organ player from Long Laput Baram, a long house in eastern Sarawak. Raine-Reusch encountered a good amount of resistance for wanting to bring a nose flute player to the festival, as this was still considered by those in the community that did not know the longhouse tradition to be a novelty instrument. However, Raine-Reusch insisted and these two artists provided the highlight of this year’s festival. After hearing the powerfully plaintive sounds of the nose flute, a large portion of the audience was in tears, and many people commented that they never knew that the most beautiful music in the world came from such a simple instrument from their own region.

The audiences were substantially higher again for this year’s festival and it ran very smoothly with only the occasional glitch. The afternoon concerts were very well attended with many people saying they were the “jewel of the festival”. The international press was in attendance in abundance and the festival was making a big splash internationally. Although there were calls for him to remain, Raine-Reusch felt very confident to call this his last year and hand the festival on to the local community, as he strongly felt that an outsider should not run this festival

Raine-Reusch was brought back to perform at the 10th anniversary of the festival (2007) and then as the Artistic Director for the 11th year (2008) to the 14th year (2011). to mentor a replacement from the local community. He also assumed the posiiton of Artistic Director of the Miri International Jazz Festival, which he renamed Borneo Jazz.

Raine-Reusch built up both festivals bringing more groups and an all star line-up to both festivals. Over the four years the Rainforest World Music Festival featured: Akasha - Malaysia, Bisserov Sisters - Bulgaria, Blue Canyon Boys - USA, Braagas Czech Republic, Dazkarieh - Portugal, De Temps Antan - Quebec, Debu - Indonesia, Duoud - France, Farafina - Mali, Frigg - Finland, Galandum Galundaina - Portugal, I Beddi - Italy, Ilgi - Latvia, Inti-Illimani - Chile, Iskwew - Canada, Joaquin Diaz Puerto Rico, Jouhiorkesteri - Finland, Kamafei - Italy, Kamerunga - Australia, Kenge Kenge - Kenya, Kimura-Ono - Japan, Kissmet - UK, Layatharanga - India , Leila Negrau - Reunion, Leweton Women's Water Music - Vanuatu, Lisa Haley the Zydekats - USA, Malick Pathe Sow - France, Mamak Khadem - Iran/US, Minuit Guibolles - France, Monster Ceilidh Band - UK, Muzsikas - Hungary, Noreummachi - Korea, Novalima - Peru, Oudaden - Morocco, Pacific Curls - NZ, Paddy Keenan Trio - Ireland, Pingasan'k - Philippines, Red Chamber China/Canada, Reelroad - Russia, Sape Masters - Malaysia, Shanbehzadeh Ensemble - Iran, Startijenn - France, The Shin - Georgia, The Zawose Family - Tanzania, Victor Valdes - Mexico, Warsaw Village Band - Poland, Watussi - Australia, amongst others.

On into the Future
The festival is back in the hands of the former Artistic Director, but is suffering from political interferance, and funding cutbacks. The festival also is starting to include all electric bands, something that was not preveiously allowed. However, the festival has made a powerful presence in the region. It has been heralded as one of the most unique festivals in the world, and it draws a substantial international audience. It has been the subject of many films, articles and DVDs, and does not show any signs of slowing down. For more information of the festival visit its web site at www.rwmf.net

See M. Maxine George's Article
The Rainforest World Music Festival Thrives in the Heart of Borneo