Vagabonds in Their Own Land

The first day of the Rainforest World Music Festival began with three choices for me. Attending the press conference for the media invited to cover the festival, attending the opening ceremonies of a Bidayuh Gawai (the traditional harvest festival – nothing to do with RWMF) or attending a landmark court case on land rights. The latter won out.

The main question being decided at the court was whether the indigenous folk’s land rights (Native Customary Rights) in Sarawak apply only to areas under direct cultivation (where they have established orchards and farms) or whether it extends to lands foraged, the communal forests (where they hunt, fish and gather forest products). The case had appeared before the High Court, who had decided in favour of the villages, that the land was theirs and that they therefore deserved compensation. Not just the land that they had cultivated, but the surrounding forests as well, forests vital for the livelihood of the community.

The State Government, represented by the Superintendent of Lands & Surveys, Bintulu, argued that this previous judgment that had awarded the land to the indigenous community had placed “undue concern” on “the Ibans being ‘vagabonds in their own land.'” In other words, it is not the court’s business whether the Ibans are dispossessed.

Of course, the link between this and the RWMF is not immediately obvious.

According to the message from the Sarawak Minister of Urban Development and Tourism Dato Sri Wong Soon Koh (printed in the RWMF programme), “This is where we would like… to have these world’s indigenous music blended in rainforest of Sarawak [sic].”

From this perspective, Malaysia’s very own world music festival, held at Sarawak Cultural Village, Santubong, seemed an amazingly progressive idea, bringing together “indigenous” peoples from across the world to share cultural ideas and motifs. Progressive because motifs of lands, forests, nature are replicated internationally. The themes of love, death and ritual. And alongside indigenous culture exists a repression that is also replicated internationally. Indigenous groups challenge our modern definitions of community, of land, of ownership, of development and of progress.

Culture, particularly indigenous culture, is inseparable from politics.

There aren’t enough priestesses

The Gawai I attended on Saturday night, after the world music festival had ended for the day, makes the connection clearer.

Santubong, where the festival is held, can also be pronounced ‘Stubong’, with rising emphasis on the ‘tu’, a musical cadence. As ‘Stubong’ it is the spiritual home to the Bidayuh, a people known to generations of Borneo anthropologist wannabes as the Land Dayak.

The Gawai (or Gawea Sowa to give it its full title) is usually held from the end of May to the end of June. The official circuit finished the weekend before the festival. This was outside that circuit and it was the first time that a Gawea had been held in this village for over five years.

The reason it was held so late was because there aren’t enough priestesses to hold the ceremony. There are less than 20 priestesses still alive, of which only one is under 40. The village no longer knows how to build the required altar. In villages where the Gawea happens more regularly, it takes about half an hour to build the altar. It took them more than three hours here. The priestesses are the vanguard of the old, pagan religion. One of them introduced me to her granddaughter. She was fascinated by the Gawea, but didn’t know much about what was happening. The heritage, the traditions have been lost in just two generations.

The village no longer has its own musical instruments. They had to beg them off prominent community members. This means that the young are not learning how to play the gongs. For many of the young this was their first Gawea, certainly the first they could recall in their village. They were fascinated, but there was a lack of understanding. In accordance with the printed programmes, they left after the priestesses came out of their trance, missing the final closing ceremonies where the spiritual or blessed beras (from Santubong) comes down the spirit bridge and is distributed among those participating in the ceremony.

There is obvious community interest in the Gawea. A friend of mine is documenting the Bidayuh festivals. The main official event draws an annual crowd of around 6,000, mainly local. But it’s an expensive festival for the village to host. The expense is partly offset by the mejeng, a dangdut disco where men pay to dance (and women get paid). It’s partly offset by contributions made by local liquor shops.

And yet not only the festival, but the religion itself is dying. It is a religion tied in to the land and the seasons. It isn’t a natural death that the rites are going through. Modernity and development, the cash economy, the manner in which all these have been imposed, have all helped its demise. A senior civil servant, last year, told me that he was concerned about his girls learning traditional dances – he had strived so hard to be civilised it was disheartening to see his wife dragging his children into the past, the past of the headhunters, of paganism.

Beyond this, the Gawea also requires expensive sacrifices, the building of a large temporary structure, accommodating the priestesses, priests and their assistants for almost a week. With an increasing number of families turning from the traditional beliefs to Christianity, it’s a burden that’s become increasingly hard to bear.

But even the Christian Bidayuhs feel its importance. My (Christian) host spoke of identity, of land, of culture and of politics, how all of these are bound up with the Gawea. Which brings us back to the other side of the Santubong spirit bridge.

Suffering from its success

Aside from the Minister’s comment in the programme, the Rainforest organisers more honestly state that the aim of the world music festival is not the promotion of indigenous music – where would a Polish Celtic band fit? – but of world music.

Last year, the festival suffered from its success. The Orang Ulu longhouse has a safe capacity of 50 people, but was packing in hundreds. The Malay spinning top arena provides a nice cosy venue for maybe 30 people, but loses its charm when hundreds jostle to catch a glimpse of Maori dancers.

To handle that, the organisers made a couple of decisions. First, they limited the number of tickets to 8,000 per day. They also limited the number of workshops and their venues. It meant that each venue accommodated a lot more people, so some of the intimacy of previous years was lost. It still provides a unique opportunity for the audience to talk to and meet the stadium performers of the festival and seems to be the only practical way of keeping a great tradition going without restricting the audience numbers further. (The organisers might want to consider having evening-only tickets).

One of the other ways audience numbers were restricted was through a 50% increase in ticket price. Unfortunately, the line-up didn’t seem to justify the increase. Pakistani qawwali musician Faiz Ali Faiz, for example, was full of energy, his music was inspiring and inspired. But it just wasn’t the same intensity of magic that Sidi Goma had reached last year. The Doghouse Skiffle band from last year was the Old Spice Boys of this year, and again, while the Old Spice Boys were witty, amusing and musically interesting, they didn’t connect to the audience the same way the skiffle group had. It didn’t help that, despite their reputedly large repertoire, they repeated numbers on the first and last nights.

There were other little things that felt exploitative. A stall selling small bottle of mineral water for RM4.50. The RM5 trip from the hotel to the venue (as a member of the media, this wasn’t one I had to pay). The cost of food was higher. And perhaps all these things contributed to the decrease in local visitors. There seemed to be a lot more foreigners this year, there were certainly far fewer visitors from Kuala Lumpur.

Highlands and campfires

This isn’t to detract from the fact that the festival was a resounding success. On the first night, Polish Shannon carried the crowd to the highlands of Scotland (bizarrely) with their interpretations of Celtic music. Tattooed, bag­piped, kilt-clad, head-banging. And Polish. Acquarangia Drom on the second stage prepared the audience for them, flamboyant, swirling Roma tunes.

Petrona Martinez presided over the second evening, with Colombian bellerengue rhythms. These are a matron thing, Petrona leading the men in a series of questions and responses. They’re designed for dance, obvious from the moment she came on stage. Flamboyant, Petrona even got a standing ovation in the workshop the next day (mind you, everyone was already standing, dancing in the narrow rows of the auditorium).

Djamel Laroussi missed out by playing after Petrona and – thanks to a late start – they began playing well after midnight, with the audience already drifting away. Their workshop on Algerian rai had evoked the long, and highly male, dances of traditional Algerian festivals. The trance-like quality of the intimate workshop, though, was lost among the modern instruments, size and energy on the main stage. An earlier billing might have prevented the feeling of anti-climax.

Earlier in the evening, a highlight had been Namgar, a shamanistic Buryatia band evoked the campfires of a Mongolian horde (though they kept evoking it for a little longer than necessary). A culture straddling the Russia and Inner Mongolia, it is a nation ‘on the brink of extinction’. With the erhu-like morin khuu playing a major melodic role, its familial ties with traditional Chinese music was obvious, but its separate evolution showed not just in the throat singing and other instruments, but also in the translation of ‘morin khuu’, the horse-head fiddle.

Locally, Tabuh Pak Ainal, a father and son percussion team, outshone the elderly Baun Lanjau and her nose­ flute. Tabuh Pak Ainal were professional performers, with the showmanship, and flourishes, that made this more than just a drum performance. It was dance. Jerry Kamit on the sape likewise outshone the wooden lotongs of Paya Kajan and Balu Bungan.

The way of life

The line-up on the final night was the only one that presented no organisational quibbles. The first main stage act of Thai’s Chulalongkorn University Ensemble started off comparatively quietly, and worked the audience up with a mix of traditional Thai instruments and melodies and occasional forays into a dance (as in the music genre) experiment. The Foghorn Stringband had people square-dancing from their first notes. They were obviously getting as a much of a kick from the audience as the other way round.

The final band, Yelemba D’Abidjan, was tiring. In a good way. The energy expended on the dancing, would have worn me out if the rhythms of the doundoum, djembe and balafon hadn’t provided a boost.

But the highlight of the festival is always the finale. Bringing together on stage musicians from six continents, dominated by the Pakistani chants of Faiz Ali, complemented by Petrona Martinez, led by Yelemba, with accompanying sounds and visuals from all the other performers over the three nights. Nobody wants to come down after that.

The two festivals that I experienced belonged to such different worlds. The Bidayuh Gawea had little in common with the RWMF. Except, perhaps, in the persons of Baun Lanjau, Paya Kajan and Balu Bungan. Because they seemed to have the same quality of being needed and wanted, but of feeling part of a lost culture, just as the Bidayuh priestesses did. As did Florencio Mess from Belize, representative of a dying Mayan tradition that found little support in the RWMF crowd. Despite coming down into the crowd to dance (surrounded by over-­enthusiastic security guards), he just didn’t have the pizazz, the confidence to move people.

It’s a confidence, a rootedness, that is tied in to the political marginalisation of these people. The court in Kuching decided against the villages, but reinforced the earlier decision that the Natives of Sarawak are entitled to the forests surrounding their homes, as long as they can prove ownership. It was a better judgement than appeared from reading the papers the next day. Progress and tradition don’t have to be at odds. It requires all of us to respect what the indigenous people, whether in Semananjung, Sarawak or Inner Mongolia, say that they want, not to tell them what they want. To respect their knowledge and culture, not plunder it. And, most universally, most fundamentally, respect that the cult of almost uniform modernity is just one way of life, not the way of life.

The danger is that the traditions and cultures of the rainforest peoples represented at the festival are becoming museum-ised. The last nose-flute player. The last of the Mayan musicians. The last of the Bidayuh priestesses. Available for your entertainment, for a limited time only.


Thanks to Sarawak Tourism Board, Malaysian Airline Systems, Santubong Kuching Resort for making the writer’s trip and accommodation possible.

First Published: 03.08.2005 on Kakiseni

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