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More Than a Festival

  • July 25, 2007

By Antares

It gets harder and harder to review the Rainforest World Music Festival without sounding like someone who’s had a lobotomy and can’t stop grinning like an imbecile – especially when this was the 10th anniversary reunion well-worn partiers like me have been anticipating since the end of last year’s bash. So I’ll start from the bottom of the scale of joy:

There was the unmistakable pong of dog shit as I checked into my room at the Santubong Resort, which houses performers and media guests every year. Then I noticed the dogs themselves, and their handlers, stationed around Cell Blocks 8 and 9 (which accentuated the penitentiary architecture of this remotely-located three-star hotel all the more). I found out, later, that this was a bomb-sniffing team imported from the Philippines for the occasion. The Sarawak Tourism Board was taking no chances. A 55-man security team from Miri was on hand, to scan festival-goers at the entrance with metal detectors. Sign of the paranoid times …

Magic Returnees

But the moment the music began, the untameable magic of Santubong kicked in – and petty discomforts like the clammy heat and long queues for the shuttled faded from memory. How many sweet and sweaty bodies were counted on Saturday night alone, grooving to the music? 9,000? 11,000? I don’t know, but from where I stood, near the stage, it was certainly the hugest crowd I’ve seen since the festival’s quiet start in 1998. On the bill were 19 of the hottest acts drawn from RWMF’s previous nine years:

For Black Umfolosi, the ever-popular gumboot-dancing a capella group from Zimbabwe, 2007 is their third appearance – and, once again, had the crowd waving their hands and singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in perfect unison. They’ve done it every year, and that gets a tad tiresome for jaded ones like me – but it’s soulful stuff, I admit.

Also on their third round were Shooglenifty, the Edinburgh-based “acidcroft” band that’s been cranking out their particular brand of funky Celtic fusion since 1990; they’ve acquired a laid-back sophistication, along with an iconic mystique. Core members Angus Grant (fiddle), Garry Finlayson (banjo), Malcolm Crosbie (guitar), and James MacIntosh (drums) were a joy to behold in action; Luke Plumb, their 26-year-old mandolin player from Tasmania, combined teen appeal with prodigious technique, and new bassist Quee MacArthur was rock solid – though I found myself missing their former bassist Conrad Ivitsky’s syncopative agility.

The third band to have played three times at the RWMF was Inka Marka, a South American group based in Melbourne. As usual, their mellifluous voices blended with panpipes, charango, and flute to conjure the uplifting poignancy of the Andes.

The Tuvan throat-singers of Huun Huur Tu teamed up once again with Russian techno-trance band Malerija, to effect a molecular shift amongst the tranced-out crowd. As they played, I was reminded of the first time they were here, in 2003: there was a full moon, which magnified the general euphoria.

From Madagascar we had Tarika Be, featuring the alluring sisters Hanitra (pronounced “Anch”) and Noro, with an instrumentalist named Njaka in tow, whose sensitivity on the valihy (a bamboo zither originally from Borneo; the island has strong genetic and cultural links to Madagascar) was remarkable for one so young. Hanitra’s songs of freedom, courage and nonconformity – and her irresistibly sexy stage image – were in stark contrast to her demure and prayerful solo performance, later, on the small stage, accompanied only by the delicate lyricism of Njaka’s playing.

Proud Daddies

Throughout the three days, the festival’s general atmosphere was one of jubilation and joy. There was one outbreak of drunken aggro, promptly managed by the security crew – the greatest annoyance, by far, were several loudmouthed sons-of-lumberjacks who insisted on jabbering inanely near the stage during quiet moments. However, even this intrusive foreground noise – compounded by the moans and sighs of tabla­ player Siar Hachimi’s all-girls fan club – couldn’t deter Ensemble Kaboul from delivering a superb and heartfelt performance.

Arguably the biggest hit this year was Mas Y Mas, an entire Latin Afro-Cuban orchestra compressed into an ebullient trio from Nottingham, UK. Featuring a spritely Wayne D. Evans on a 100-year-old double bass, Richard Kensington on percussion, and the incredibly talented Rikki Thomas-Martinez on guitar and lead vocals, Mas Y Mas (which means “more and more”) is, indeed, well-named. Every time they played – on stage or at their Latin Rhythms workshop – people kept demanding more and more of their infectious music and wit. Mas Y Mas first played at the RWMF in 2004, and instantly fell in love with Malaysia. Certainly it’s been a love reciprocated.

The Doghouse Skiffle Group from Hull went down pretty well too, considering the trio specialises in tongue-in-cheek cowboy tunes. Keith Cheesman held it together with his chunky rhythm guitar, Alan Harman did smirking chimp impersonations while thumping his one-string tea-chest bass, and Garry Pullen mesmerised the crowd with Hopalong Cassidy poses, Texan boots, and whimsical kazoo and washboard solos. Their audacious cover of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (which they introduced as “an old English folksong”) qualified them as masters of their craft.

At their first appearance, two years ago, the Foghorn Stringband from Oregon got the crowd square-dancing under the stars. As traditional American country bands go, Foghorn played as tight as it gets – but after three numbers their songs started sounding exactly the same. From Peninsular Malaysia we had the Aseana Percussion Unit, which featured gifted home-grown percussionists like Kamrul Bahri Russin and Kirubakaran. The group’s colourful exuberance and its muhibbah repertoire of crowd-­pleasing numbers carried it through – but they were conspicuously lacking in both emotional depth and musical substance.

Khac Chi, a versatile, Vancouver-based husband-and-wife act from Vietnam, were in a class of their own, in terms of sheer musical skill and entertainment value. They travel with a portable museum of traditional and homemade instruments – mostly bamboo, with a few constructed by Chi himself from rubber honkers.

Also from Vancouver was the venerable multi-instrumentalist Randy Raine-Reusch (who proposed the idea of the RWMF ten years ago, and served as festival director for the first few years). Randy’s presence as the festival’s “proud daddy” added to the celebratory atmosphere, while his astonishing prowess on an exotic array of ethnic instruments was an education in itself. His inspired but all-too-brief performance – brilliantly backed by Johari Morshidi and Ainal Johari on percussion – encapsulated the essence of what “world music” is all about.

The After-Party

Sarawak was represented by sape virtuoso Jerry Kamit; a dynamic father-and-son percussion act called Tabuh Pak Ainal (named after Johari Morshidi’s precocious 16-year-old son Ainal, who began performing at 7); and the 30-member Kelapang Kelabit Bamboo Band (whose early set I, unfortunately, missed). However, I was very glad I caught the Mah Meri of Carey Island in action. Theirs was a visually spectacular act, rarely seen outside the confines of tribal tradition; I was impressed by how impeccably they presented themselves before such a huge crowd of strangers.

Another great opening act I witnessed was the item by Anak Adi’ Rurum: a beautiful bunch of Kelabit youngsters under the tutelage of Nikki Lugun, whose sincerity and passion to preserve a fading culture brought an unexpected tear to the eye.

Tammorra, a rousing Sicilian group with impressive vocal power and musicality, was a very welcome rerun – as was Shannon, from Poland: a big hit in 2005, with their virile Celtic folk-rock sound. However, this time around, the band had evolved in a different direction, with a major change of personnel: Marcin Drabik (electric violin) had a flamboyance reminiscent of Jean-Luc Ponty on steroids, and band leader Marcin Ruminski’s delectable fiancée Maria Namyslowska (keyboards and vocals) contributed not only a feminine element, but also fresh musical ideas. Not everybody was pleased with the new Shannon sound, but I found it ecstatic, triumphal, adventurous – and even more danceable.

As is often the case, however, the real finale happened spontaneously after the festival – when Enrique Sanchez (of Inka Marka) and Rikki Thomas-Martinez (of Mas Y Mas) began singing romantic Latin duets at the poolside. Garry Finlayson (of Shooglenifty) whipped out his banjo and proceeded to play some exquisitely epiphanic riffs. Soon, the Foghorn fellows began insinuating their prudish 4/4 beats into the mix – but just as I was on the verge of wandering off to bed, a few members of Black Umfolosi jumped in with their Zulu chants and transformed the cowpokes into true-blue world musicians. I finally dragged myself from that festive scene with the trill of magpies serenading the dawn.

First Published: 25.07.2007 on Kakiseni