Disco at the End of the World

Primal Jam

Everybody was rushing to the Iban longhouse. It’s not the real thing, but a mock-up version here at the Sarawak Cultural Village. The audience who were already seated for the previous session, led by the Doghouse Skiffle group, remained fixed to the bamboo floor. Fanning ourselves in vain attempts to alleviate the heat, now aggravated by the surging crowd, we waited and panted for the next session: Skin & Shakers – a battle of the drums, featuring percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes from New Zealand, Gujerat, Indonesia, UK, Malaysia, Brazil, Italy and Iraq. How many places in the world can you witness such a primal jam? Little wonder why this afternoon workshop proved the most popular at the Rainforest World Music Festival 2004, held just outside Kuching, Sarawak, from July 9 – 11.

Soon, the problem became obvious. The space within the longhouse was stuffed like a sauna on Saturday and more perspiring bodies were arriving. The musicians, over 20 of them, had given up trying to squeeze in. Finally, someone came up with the brilliant idea to stage it outside at the balcony, with the audience on the grass below.

As the sea of sweaty people emptied out, I swear I heard the longhouse groaned with relief. Then the magic began. The chunky Samoan men from New Zealand knocked out a tidal wave of rhythms on their logs, while the Gujerati of African descents hypnotised us with trippy beats from their talking drum, foot drum, and armpit drum.

The Indonesian band, consisting entirely of barely legal boys, was the most delightful. Beating their instruments with playful abandon, they caressed out the most intoxicating melodies I have yet to hear from such taut skins. It sounded like the music of an unspoiled civilisation. When all the other percussionists joined in together, it was the welcoming party for a world without borders. We were standing in the bitching sun at this quasi-village, but we felt the cool refreshing splash. Behind us, a cloud passed over the mount of Santubong and the man-made lake glimmered in approval. This is the life.

Wimpy songs

But, unfortunately, the Indonesian band totally sucked on the mainstage later that evening. After a dynamic intro piece, Samba Sunda, as they are known, shocked us with… dangdut! For this travesty, they featured a singer whose gyrations were so violent she could knock out some teeth. Whatever intoxication they had were snuffed out by the over-enthusiastic 17-piece band. All the boys played like they were competing for the girl’s attention. This, as we know, had brought many great civilisations to ruins.

But Samba Sunda weren’t the only bands to disappoint. Te Vaka from New Zealand gave a somewhat schizophrenic show. In between demonstrations of the Haka and other Polynesian dances by two of their most macho dancers, they sang some wimpy songs about the environment, AIDS awareness and the rape of New Zealand by capitalists. I like socio-political songs, but stick to the tribal thing, I say. Big macho men dancing in skimpy sarongs make a better case for paradise preservation.

World music acts, like most cultural commodities in this globalised age, seem to be in danger. The tendency is to make their music accessible to folks trained on a lifetime of Western music (ie. everyone). Sometimes, in adding guitars and drums, they end up with music that is generic. Like The Corrs. Or Te Vaka. Or Samba Sunda.

Fusion drug

But borrowing influences need not be bad. Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project has demonstrated how music along the trade route – from Turkey to Mongolia – grew richer with the exchange of instruments and techniques through the centuries. Also, some music genres are not necessarily cultural hybrids, they were specially created. When musicians splice together genres like chemists concocting psychotropic drugs, we call the drug Fusion. Case in point: Anton Carlos Jobim mixing West Coast jazz with Brazillian rhythms to get Bossa Nova.

Mas Y Mas are a trio of English dudes channelling a super combo of cultural influences – Afro-Cuban, Gypsy, Reggae – all niftily underscored by the energy of punk rock. Playing self-penned Spanish songs in an agro-latin style, they escaped categorisation, and bristled with as much Hispanic passion as was possible for white folks.

Another English group, Doghouse Skiffle, also a bag of oddities, was delivered by three blokes with self-mocking cool. It’s a stretch to consider anything English as world music. Nevertheless, its meagre working-class origins have affinity with much of ethnic roots music. The genre began some time during the great depression of USA when folks sang the blues with washboards, tea-chest, and nothing your grandpa can’t afford. It was popularised in the UK in the 50’s by Lonnie Donegan. One time, when they came around to it, the Doghouse Skiffle guys finally bought tickets to a Lonnie show. But on the day of the concert, Lonnie died. For better or worse, the music lives on through these three jesters.

Closet populists

Still, WOMAD and events like the Rainforest WMF, instead of being platforms for cultural exchanges, have been witness to an inevitable global trend. Many world music practitioners seem to be seduced by the universal, foolproof appeal of programmed dance beats, giving rise to the fusion now known as Worldbeat. The mystical Baul Bishwa from Bengal used to be a tabla-flute-mandolin-voice set, but has over the last few years infused his music with electronica. Thankfully, the decks couldn’t outdo his incredible tabla player, or the former Miss India prancing about. From Mali, we have Issa Bagayogo, known as Techno Issa back home. But for a long time, he was unsuccessful in his own country until a producer started weaving dub beats around Issa’s six-stringed kamele n’goni. When Blur’s Daman Albarn’s recorded Mali Music, his interventions were subtle enough to let the music speak for itself. Issa’s skillful plucking, it must be said, was mesmerising on its own.

The Jesus-lookalike Silverio Pessoa from Brazil, a lecturer in Music Pedagogy, believes himself to be the saviour of ‘forro’ music. It is the music of a poor north-eastern state, a land of sugar canes, where political and commercial forces are actively denying the revolutionary power of their folk music in favour of pop. Forro’s uniqueness (the accordion, I am told) seemed largely overwhelmed by furious dance tracks. Musicians, no matter how revolutionary, are closet populists. But Silverio’s messianic complex was persuasive – he made me wanna follow his beats. I danced like a madman to prove my allegiance to the spirit of his music.

You see, I don’t blame musicians for giving in to the hegemony of dance music. Not always, anyway. People do want to dance. Dancing to someone else’s folk music – under the open skies and in the middle of a thousand year old rainforest – is a wonderfully unifying experience. We are the world! The world is our disco! Groups of shirtless local boys, all of whom had one too many, took to moshing and making a general nuisance of themselves. As long as they weren’t screaming stupidly in the middle of some quiet acts, I didn’t mind them, and even moshed along. It was trés unifying.

Nature boys

The real problem was the less imaginative acts, which sometimes end up as New Age fluff, a la Kitaro. This happened to Malaysian duo Mohram, who are fronted by a suling player and a rebana player. They wanted to remind stressed city folks of the rivers, kampongs, mountains, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, their music was so stratospheric it never got its feet in the muddy earth long enough to be real. They were skillful, but too safe. Their music remained largely a city folk’s notion of what nature is: pretty but dispensable. Someone even said, “Spa music.” But it gave me a headache.

Now, the question is: Does Malaysia really have international standard contributions to world music? Yes we do, and not just in the form of Gawai celebrations at Sungai Wang plaza. Over the last seven years since its inception, the Rainforest festival had featured Malaysian acts such as Akar Umbi, Jerry Kamit the sape player, and the Dama Orchestra. The following should also be invited to play: Hands Percussion, the Gamelan Club, PCC Orchestra, the Petronas Performing Arts Group musicians, etc. And don’t we have ethnomusicologists who collect local folk songs to be reinterpreted by a band of progressive-minded native musicians? They should all be here.

This festival is also great education. I was glad to see that the Cempaka International School took their kids here. I wonder if Akademi Seni Kebangsaan and music programmes at local universities would do the same.

Sweet poison

The best acts were those who didn’t have to fudge their music, or make the sounds more accessible, or whatever. Tammorra from Italy played with the unrestrained joy of the sun-drenched Sicilian countryside. They may look like mafias but they are really just big flirts. I didn’t know what their song of ‘a naughty lady’ is really about. But looking at the faces of the ladies in the audience, I knew they must think the song was about them. Sidi Goma, those Africans lost in India, may not be terribly sophisticated musicians, but they had amazing focus and raw energy. Starting with a call to prayer, and then boiling slowly to frenzied rhythms and conch blowing and animal mimicry, they easily made pagans of us all.

Black Umfolosi returned again to sing us Zimbabwean spirituals. Their divine voices silenced the night and took us to the jungles, the mighty jungles of Africa. These guys are as real as it gets. Silk and Bamboo from Japan were equally haunting. They are two Texan guys and one Japanese chick playing the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and koto (silk zither). Their contemporary-styled traditional music was like sweet poison, an elegant, swirling brew, dark with enchantment – music to which you could commit hara-kiri. I stood in the middle of this forest clearing and imagined this was my music chamber. Or suicide chamber. It was lovely.

But my favourite of the festival was Fawzy Al-Aeidy, an Iraqi in Paris. He was the first international act of the festival and his standards remained unequaled throughout. Fawzy escaped Saddam’s Iraq 30 years ago to learn the classical oboe at a conservatoire in France. Now he is a master oud (lute) player and an earthy vocalist, bridging Middle Eastern music with just the right balance of western influence. At the workshop for guitar jamming, his humility and virtuosity made him the most endearing. His quarter-tone improvisations were as free as a man in self-exile, his music as warm and welcoming as a cup of Persian tea. There are few things in life as precious as hearing music this liberated, this liberating.

Pang’s trip and accomodation courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board and MAS.

First Published: 08.08.2004 on Kakiseni

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