AUGUST 10, 2008
(STAR) By Bernard L. Supetran - When you put together 100 musicians, 23,000 music lovers from all over the world, and an embattled prime minister in a tropical rainforest by the foot of a legendary mountain, you can expect unbridled carousing on a global scale.

This is exactly what happened at the 11th edition of the Rainforest World Music Festival held recently at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Sarawak, Malaysia. With no less than Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi taking a respite from the political heat in Kuala Lumpur, as guest of honor, the musicians put their best foot forward not just to amuse the besieged leader but take the music fest to a new level.

The merry-makers included some 110 international journalists masquerading as music aficionados hauled by the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board as part of Malaysia’s relentless effort to market itself to the world.

Flown in by flag carrier Malaysia Airlines from key cities in Asia, Europe and the Americas, little did they will know that they would not just be covering history as it happens, but would themselves be part in the unfolding revelry as they danced and sang in between shooting photos and taking notes.

Often called the “Woodstock of Asia,” the extravaganza was also about world peace and understanding and care for the environment through music, and very recently we discovered, carefree fun in a mud bath after a downpour.

Home to indigenous peoples, rare flora, fauna and wildlife species, Sarawak is a hands-down choice for the musical spectacle. The 14-acre Cultural Village (Kampung Budaya in Malay), situated 45 minutes away from the state capital city of Kuching, served as the stunning open-air stadium for the event. It is a so-called “living museum” inhabited by the Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and Orang Ulu tribes in their traditional tribal longhouses that approximate the real thing.

Instead of tarpaulin banners riddled with sponsor logos, the century-old hardwood of mystic Mount Santubong’s rainforest provided a magnificent backdrop to the center stage. And for three enchanting evenings, nature and culture became inseparable soulmates.

According to the event organizer, the Sarawak Tourism Board, the 15 participating artists from across the globe were chosen from among more than 400 aspirants who showcased their ethnic-inspired music and native instruments.

Voted by the World Music Expo as among the top 10 music fests and a winner of the 2006 Pacific Asia Travel Associations Gold Award, the Rainforest World Music Festival has undeniably put Sarawak on the map for music lovers.

Pinikpikan Wows Them All

As festivities unraveled, there was an unexpected downpour leading to an interesting facet of the event — mud fest. Unmindful of the filth around them, the audience gamely danced in the muck, with some even rolling in puddles as though they were fields of gold. The crowd’s euphoric spirit surprised even the organizers who were unprepared for the heavy rains.

The artists came from all sorts of musical stripes — from Palestinians fusing Andalusian and Arabic-themed music, to Congolese mixing voodoo chants and saxophones, to English pub stand-up comic musical acts.

Among the notable bands were Akasha from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia which played blues with Indian sitars, percussion, rap and indigenous lyrics; and Portugal’s Fadomorse which sizzled with hot funk mixed with Iberian folk and African beats.

Solo acts taiko drummer Hiroshi Motofuji of Japan and llanero (South American cowboy music) master Cholo Valderrama of Colombia held their own against their bigger counterparts.

Orchestra Anak Jati Bisaya, Kan’id and Tuku Kame, the resident ensemble of Sarawak Cultural Village and perennial performer in the festival, carried the pride of the host state with their mastery of the native gamelan percussion and mesmerizing dance steps.

It was diversity at its finest, yet one in a single mission of proclaiming peace and unity among all peoples through the universal language called music. It was truly “music without borders,” as the organizers put it.

The resultant mudfest notwithstanding, revelers stayed glued to the ground literally until Cinderella hour to watch the touted Pinikpikan wow the crowd. Thanks to the favorable word-of-mouth and reviews from the local press of their pre-event gigs, the band has become a must-see musical sensation.

Playing as though possessed, the group never let the crowd down. Rendering their local hit songs with an electrifying performance, they drove the audience into frenzied dancing and singing to the unintelligible lyrics which I myself couldn’t make out.

Named after the popular native delicacy in the Cordilleras, Pinikpikan masterfully fuses Filipino indigenous music and blues-rock, coupled with their version of the birit which will leave you breathless and gasping for air in shock and awe.

The band captures the spirit of the cultural communities from the highlands of Luzon to the lumad and Muslim tribes of Mindanao, and transforms the culture into something contemporary using their own instruments and homegrown beats. No wonder they are the exponent of world music in the Philippines, in a class of their own.

The next thing you know, you’re swaying to the irresistible tribal-slash-rock music, trotting out your favorite disco or ballroom dance steps. But fancy footwork doesn’t matter; it’s the spirit of revelry that counts in Sarawak.

Elsewhere, there were dance troupes doing tribal dances in the little pockets of the park and jamming with the audience.

With people from all walks of life dancing to Pinikpikan’s tunes in whatever little muddied space available, I realized it was Philippine pride at its zenith once more, just like Pacquiao knocking out Dela Hoya.

Even after the curtains had fallen on the music fest, the group was still the talk of the town — nay, the globe — and had people riding to the office with new songs in their heads.

According to the organizers, Filipino musicians have never failed to make a splash at this annual revelry ever since musical icons and siblings Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander wowed the crowd in 1998 and 2000, respectively. And with the addition of Pinikpikan in the honor roll, Pinoy performances have become tough acts to follow.

Side Attractions

The festival also featured musical workshops in the afternoon to promote appreciation of world music among the uninitiated. Here, the audience got to interact with the artists, jam with them, and even try their hand at native instruments.

Two fringe events have been included to add more color to the festival — the Rainforest World Craft Bazaar and the Folk Art Forum (which showcased native crafts and featured workshops, exhibitions and talks by well-known folk artists).

The music fest is such a smashing success that last year, the state of Penang staged its own version a week later to provide residents of mainland Malaysia with a taste of the magic of world music.

To tap an even bigger audience next year, organizers will be introducing innovations to their winning formula and outdo themselves in delivering to the world another feast for the senses worth looking forward to.

The Rainforest World Music Festival has come a long way, growing from a musical experiment to a global cultural movement. Ten years and thousands of musicians later, the world has come to realize that, indeed, all is fair in love and music. If only for this, then by all means, play on.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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