A Foretaste Of Heavenly Rapture

Three days have elapsed since RWMF 2002 ended at the Sarawak Cultural Village, under the benign gaze of Mount Santubong. I’m still euphoric from the glorious feelings of ecstatic harmony and dynamic optimism generated by some truly brilliant and lovable musicians (and dancers) from all over the earth.

No, it wasn’t the delicious tuak (rice wine) which I only sipped occasionally as I imbibed the inspiration and joy of the performers (and their audiences too), and shared their excitement in a holy communion of happy perspiration. It was something more subtle, more unquantifiable and indefinable than the heady effects of tuak or langkau (a local species of schnapps). As we arrived at the KLIA after it was all over, I overheard a fellow journalist describing RWMF 2002 to his friend as “a life-changing experience.”

Indeed, it would be that to anyone unaccustomed to basking for three days straight in a supercharged field of good vibes, good company, and very good music. In the mundane 3D matrix of debts, mortgages and harsh penalties from which many of us are beginning to wriggle free, we don’t often get bombarded with such exuberance, such incredible talent, and so much love. Excellence gets us high, mediocrity is a drag. It’s as simple as that.


JULY 12: Thank heaven the only example of mediocrity occurred early on the first night with BERINGIN – a music-by-numbers combo comprising lecturers and tutors from Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK). How did they get invited to the festival? Political pressure from the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism, no doubt. Fortunately, the female singers from Beringin were nice-looking and honey-voiced, and they kept the polite audience from walking off for more drinks and a long pee.

Calcutta-born AVIJIT GHOSH, a sarod prodigy at 27, was an invigorating blast of excellent musicianship, even if his material wasn’t exactly “world music”. Ghosh, ably accompanied by 28-year-old BIVASH SANGHAI on tabla, played a few abbreviated ragas in the classical style, but deliberately went for the multi-orgasmic approach, inducing a series of quick climaxes to win the crowd’s approval. A student of the son of legendary sarod master Ustaz Ali Akbar Khan, Ghosh is assured of good prospects as a career musician. His sidekick Sanghai seems already poised to astound the world with his magic fingers.

TUKU KAME, the Sarawak Cultural Village’s resident ethno-fusion band, had their usual slot in the programme, but remain locked in their civil service mindset. Most of the members are technically accomplished musicians but only a few, like sape innovator Jerry Kamit, percussionist Johari Morshidi, and his amazing 13-year-old son Ainal, show any promise of breaking free as individual performers. As a group, Tuku Kame can only make it on the hotel circuit or on a state ticket. They play it too safe to be musically interesting.

The Neapolitan street band SPACCANAPOLI saved the night with their vivacious vibrato vocals and impeccable and impassioned musicianship. Led by the larger-than-life Marcello Colasurdo and the pint-sized but powerful­voiced Monica Pinto, Spaccanapoli easily triumphed with their superbly theatrical performance (even the wind cooperated by blowing the dry-ice effects into a dramatic illuminated backdrop of multi-hued swirling clouds at precisely the right moments). Antonio Fraioli’s fiery electric violin lent the music a tempestuous gypsy flavour, while Domenico Maglionico’s puckish embellishments on an array of winds (including a 150-year-old wooden saxophone, a medieval shepherd’s reed flute, and piccolo) conjured a devil-may-care Bohemian mood.

Spaccanapoli was indisputably the first and only world-class act on the first night and ought to have closed the show instead of MATATO’A – a rambunctious bunch of virile-looking beachboy warriors all the way from mysterious Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Their entrance was showy enough, with fierce full-body warpaint, flaming torches and fantastic hair extensions. But when they broke into song, what I heard was a bunch of renegade hillbillies (or a hippie rugby team) on a surfing vacation with feathers and shells. Yep, they shore sounded like Appalachian acidheads with their ukuleles and yeehahs. But Matato’a had a freshfaced hula dancer with them named Taripa and she was a veritable vision of paradise. While the guys in the crowd daydreamed about being marooned on an island with her, their gals surged forward to get a closer look at those muscular, tanned bodies glistening with sweat and hipswaying to cheery Polynesian rhythms. Many a pubescent girl must have sworn that night to emigrate to Rapa Nui. In any case, there was a ritual exchange of ceremonial paddles between Sarawak and Rapa Nui officiated by the Minister of Tourism, so there should be no visa problems.

JULY 13: Peninsular Malaysia redeemed itself somewhat with ASEANA PERCUSSION UNIT (APU) whose energetic and hearty performance warmed up the Saturday night crowd for a night of furious dancing. Led by Paul Augustin, who runs a company called Rhythm Support, this feisty free-spirited group of capable musicians (which features the amazing Kirubakaran a/I Narayansamy on gadum and thavil) entertained with exuberant showmanship and a spicy rojak of infectious polyrhythms. They even tossed in a poignant song (“Eagle” by Paul Augustin) about preserving our wilderness for posterity. It’s ironic that the growing popularity of the Rainforest World Music Festival will draw more and more ecotourists to a country that continues to ravage its precious hardwood forests with clearfelling, disastrous dams, and polluting industries, while paying lip service to conservation and “sustainability”.

The ETHNO TRIO TROITSA from Belarus was a rare and special treat. Led by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Ivan Kirchuk, who has spent decades roaming remote villages collecting and reconstructing ancient songs from the pagan as well as Christian eras, the trio was a prime example of how to achieve more with less. Kirchuk cut a striking figure – something between a funky cleric and a pagan king – and played a vast array of exotic wind and string instruments with names like zmyk, duda, gusli, and domra. Backing him were two exceptional musicians, both named Yuri: Dmitriev is an accomplished and sensitive guitarist, while Pavlovski must be one of the most original percussionists I’ve come across. These intriguing Belarusians communicated via their Dutch interpreter, Martin Past, a charming spokesman for the trio who also served as emcee for their warmly received and deeply appreciated set.

LAN-E-TUYANG (meaning “among friends”) is an electric sape trio formed by Sarawak’s younger generation of traditional musicians. Matthew Ngau, whose uncle Uchau Bilong is the musical successor of the late Tusau Padan, owns a sape factory on the outskirts of Kuching and is acknowledged as a young master of the traditional Sarawakian sape; while Jerry Kamit and Cottrell Tassim lead the field in adapting the sape to contemporary musical idioms. Theirs was a short, sweet set giving respite to the ears and quietly evoking the Bornean mystique. I met Uchau Bilong strolling in the grounds and he looked skeptical about the whole experiment with modernisation. “They’re only after success,” he remarked, to which I responded: “Young people are the same everywhere,” and that seemed to placate his purist soul as he shuffled off with a benevolent smile.

BLACK UMFOLOSI was a total knock-out with their sonorous a capella repertoire of Ndebele folksongs a la Ladysmith Black Mambazo, their Zulu warrior dances, and their utterly hilarious gumboot dance (inspired by generations of hard labour in the gold mines). Their act is a winning combination of chain-gang chants, adroit footwork, and slapstick humour – and is guaranteed to go down well with any audience anywhere. The trick is to get 11 talented Zulus from Zimbabwe to perform as a single organism – and they do. I was gobsmacked by the unassuming genius underlying the slick choreography and structure of the entire performance, which required multiple costume changes and split-second timing. Rumour has it Black Umfolosi were the most expensive act in the festival but they certainly proved to be fantastic value in terms of universal appeal.

Only the GARIFUNA ALL-STAR BAND from Belize could follow an act like Black Umfolosi. Featuring punta rock heartthrob Andy Palacio and guest-starring the 75-year-old Paul Nabor (a voodoo high priest and folksinging icon with a huge following), plus some of the finest Afro-Caribbean musicians you’ll ever meet (including the brothers, Denmark and Ryan “Skull” Flores on Garifuna drums, maracas and turtle shells), this group wowed the crowd from the start with their electrifying energy and irresistible dance rhythms. Possibly the best party band I’ve ever danced to on a Saturday night under the tropical sky – never mind if the ground was still soggy from the late evening thunderstorm!

JULY 14: I caught the tail end of a short set by PERSADA (KUMPULAN CAK LEMPONG) from Negeri Sembilan. It was updated and watered-down trance music from the mystical silat tradition, performed with gusto by gauche youngsters fresh from the kampung who looked mighty chuffed to find themselves before such a huge international audience. The group acquitted themselves fairly well, though they certainly lacked the musical sophistication of the KHAC CHI ENSEMBLE – or, to be precise, DUO – from Vietnam.

Ho Khác Chi, virtuoso of the dan bau or one-string bamboo zither, was a master instructor in traditional music at the Vietnam Conservatory and conducted its famous Traditional Music Orchestra until he migrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1992 with his wife Hoáng Ngọc Bich, an exceptional vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (and angelically beautiful to boot). The couple won the hearts of the audience with their humble and folksy presentation. Here were two consummate musicians representing a venerable and little-known tradition but who were unafraid to innovate and improvise. The sheer ingenuity of the homely instruments – many of them cleverly modified for touring purposes – was truly impressive. The k’longput, for instance, consists of bamboo tubes of various lengths, closed at one end and tied together like giant pan pipes. Bich produced the sweetest music by lightly clapping her hands in front of the tubes, while Chi amazed the audience with the synthesizer-like sounds emanating from his handmade dan bau which has a pitch bender made from buffalo horn. During a number called “Love of the Forest” (or something to that effect) an enormous Atlas moth fluttered around Bich and landed momentarily on Chi as if in appreciation of the music. It was almost Disneyesque, but nonetheless a genuine epiphany that moved all those who witnessed it. Pure Santubong magic!

ORIENTAL MOOD was a musical merger between heart and head, Arabic torch songs and cool Nordic jazz – with brilliant musicians from Scandinavia and the Middle East coming together in a remarkable fusion of mysticism and science. Led with surgical precision by Moorish tabla master Lars Bo Kuhjan (who reminded me of Mr Spock from Star Trek), the group of seven men and one woman evoked the musical idioms of Turkey, the Balkans, Kurdistan, Morocco, Egypt, and India under the Moghuls. The delectable Asmaa Mnour from Morocco stole all the men’s hearts with her sultry vocals. Hadji Tekbilek played a variety of flutes and reeds with soulful lyricism, while Yasar Tas dazzled on the oud. Frank Juul displayed impressive prowess on the Indian tabla (which he studied for 7 years in India), Morten Carlsen proved himself an ace clarinetist, and Jan Anderson was absolutely solid on drum kit. I didn’t catch the bass player’s name but he was equal to the rest and turned out an exquisite solo during one of Asmaa’s haunting numbers. A low-key act of the highest quality.

This was INKA MARKA’s second appearance at the RWMF and they hit new heights with the addition of 19-year-old John Kendall on mutant electric violin and 20-year-old Andrew Mellado on angelic quena and zamponas (flute and panpipes). Their infectious brand of Andean music is folksy and celestial at the same time and strikes directly at the heart. lnka Marka began as a Latin immigrant busking band in Melbourne with the majestic Jose Diaz Rodriguez on percussion, zamponas and vocal harmonies; the charismatic Enrique Sanchez on guitar, lead vocals, and zamponas; the cherubic Michel Bestrin on charango, zamponas and vocal harmonies; and the enigmatic Jaime Carrasco on violin, ronrocco, quena, zamponas and vocal harmonies. When Carrasco left the group, Mellado took his place and proved to be a boy wonder on the winds. John Kendall introduced a dash of Irish into the heady mix with his fast, fluid and funky violin – and, like Andrew, had enormous teen appeal. The crowd began to ascend almost as soon as lnka Marka struck up the first notes. By the end of their uplifting set, everyone was floating way above the Andes with love and pure joy. You simply had to be there, seeing the ecstatic glow on people’s faces, to believe that this event was indeed a foretaste of the heavenly rapture at the end of time (and the beginning of eternity) as foretold by Mayan Elders.

Nothing I can say about ADAMA YALOMBA will do justice to this young man’s incomparable charisma and talent – and the sheer musical bite of his kick-ass band from Mali (where Timbuktu is located). A prodigy on the 9- stringed n’goni or African gourd-harp, Yalomba (whose real name is Adama Traore) is a megastar on par with Sting and Stevie Wonder. I felt privileged to be able to watch this master of the slow burn perform n’goni and yalomba solos like some recent incarnation of Mozart. When he executed a slow-motion cartwheel on stage after a spot of nifty dancing that would have put Michael Jackson to shame – and topped it off with a nonchalant backflip, my admiration turned into awe. You need a powerful pair of legs and yogic breath control to perform acrobatic stunts like that. And this 28-year-old son of a Bambara artist-farmer possesses all of those attributes – plus a voice with more appeal than Youssou N’dour’s and a boyish toothy grin that would melt any girl’s heart. Although the band played tight and cool (quite a feat in the sweltering heat) the ready-to-party crowd seemed unaware that they were being entertained by a superstar of the first magnitude, and seemed a mite restless. Perhaps, the brooding moodiness and musical intricacy of Yalomba’s songs were too subtle at this late hour – but, for me, discovering Adama Yalomba was a significant event in itself. I’m glad I had the chance to give him a hearty hug afterwards (and an Akar Umbi CD to take to Timbuktu!).

“Hey, Sarawak, you rock!” John Kendall of lnka Marka was heard to roar during the explosive grand finale that went on and on for a good 30 minutes.

Why has the Rainforest World Music Festival been such an uproariously successful event? To begin with, the idea was proposed to the Sarawak Tourism Board by world music exponent and avant-garde musician Randy Raine-Reusch, who established the format and ran the show for the first couple of years. The STB organising committee, under the enlightened leadership of Tuan Haji Tuah Jais, has done a great job of managing the complex logistics and somehow manages to blend their famous Sarawakian friendliness and hospitality with a high level of efficiency. Most importantly, the idyllic venue at the foot of Mount Santubong sets the aesthetic tone of the event, while the ethnic ambience of the Sarawak Cultural Village helps generate a music festival with a truly festive spirit. This brings out the best amongst audiences and performers alike – and people end up having the time of their life.

There has been talk of big capital muscling in and taking over the RWMF. Privatising it, in effect, for profit rather than retaining its promotional nature. If that dreadful prospect ever comes to pass, thousands of RWMF junkies all over the world will find themselves in deep mourning.

First Published: 19.07.2002 on Kakiseni

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