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Here's Why You Should Attend Next Year's Rainforest World Music Festival

July 15, 2014 at 11:52 AM | by | ()

Last month, when we previewed our attendance at the Rainforest World Music Festival, we anticipated that it would be one of the best events of the summer given its location on the island of Borneo and its lineup that brought in bands from all over the world. We’re happy to report that despite the “on-paper” promise and high hopes we had set for RMF - typically a travel no-no - the festival weekend exceeded absolutely every expectation.

Why? The first and foremost reason is because it is exactly as advertised in terms of its exotic setting and multi-cultural lineup. They call it the Rainforest World Music Festival for a reason. Located at the Sarawak Cultural Village about 45 minutes from Kuching, the festival takes place in the shadows of Mount Santubong, where the rainforest spills down to the coast. The rainforest serves as a backdrop for the two stages, and across the street is the beach and the calm waters of the South China Sea.

Dahka Brakha from the Ukraine

As for the performers, the variety was impressive: Cuban salsa, Canadian bluegrass, Welsh folk rock, Malaysian tribal music, French Basque acapella, cobra-coaxing Indian melodies, and an all-female group from the Ukrainian. One minute you're standing in awe as three Ukrainians use only their voices to mimic the sounds of the rainforest wildlife, the next your arms are in the air as the beat tiptoes a staircase across the ocean to Havana.

If a festival's worth is judged only by its location and lineup, you’ve already gotten your money’s worth. But the little extras of RMF is what put it over the top, what ultimately made it worth the trip all the way from North America. When browsing the official site, you might notice that while most of the performances are at night, a series of “workshops” take place during the day. “Workshops” has a pretty rigid ring to it. Don’t let the name fool you.

"Workshop" featuring the string musicians from each band at RMF

They are officially called “workshops” by the festival’s organizers because the audience has a chance to interact and learn something from the artists, but to me, that name is misleading on the ears. Before attending, I pictured them to be very structured and formal, an artist addressing a quiet crowd about music theory, the audience sweating bullets in a humid classroom.

But in reality, these side sessions turned out to be intimate performances. In one I attended, a man named Horomona Horo from New Zealand put on a one-man show featuring the traditional instruments of his tribe, including a flute made of a crab claw that he wore as an earring. In another, eight fiddle players from eight different countries went down the line and performed traditional music from their countries, then jammed together. These weren’t “workshops” – they were up close and personal showcases of the world’s music. Best of all, they were held in traditional Iban longhouses.

Blackbeard's Tea Party from York, UK

It was this sort of interactivity and accessibility to the artists that made the festival a slam dunk. Music festivals in the States hold true to our country’s ever-growing measures of heightened security, one where performers and the audience rarely get to mingle. At RMF, you’d have to try pretty hard not to meet the musicians. All the “workshops” are followed by official meet and greets, or you can simply walk right up to them as they are packing up their instruments. And because it is only a few thousand people and put on in such a remote location, we found ourselves running into them not only during other acts of the festival, but during the day at the beach and in the food tents (which, by the way, served ridiculously good Malaysian cuisine).

Public drum circle at the Rainforest World Music Festival

The lineup for next year won’t be announced for some time, but if you consider yourself a music lover, you might want to wrap a trip to Southeast Asia next August around this particular weekend in Borneo. And when you go, be sure to take part in the daily drum circle, one of the best opportunities to meet people from all over the world. It is there, and at the Rainforest World Music Festival in general, that you will realize that music is indeed the universal language.

Lo Còr de la plana from the French Basque Country

[Photos: Rainforest World Music Festival]

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