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Rhythm of The World

Special Features
Writer
Afham Yusoef
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Looking back and ahead with the Rainforest World Music Festival.

“Anything for Sarawak. ”

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That was how positively Gracie Geikie, Director at Place Borneo and former CEO of the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) concluded our colourful two-hour conversation on the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF). I sought her reflections on the iconic international festival as someone who had been closely involved with it in the past, and found them to be nothing but warm and heartening - just like the many hearts and souls that have been coming together to give anything and everything they could for RWMF in the last 23 years. Such is their love for the state and the festival, and this is their story.

Music In The Heart of the Jungle

The RWMF is usually held across 3 days over the weekend, typically in mid-July when the weather is most welcoming. Organized by the STB at the Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV), it consists of workshops and fringe shows during the day and festival performances during the evening. It has won hearts and acclaim, featuring distinguished and talented locals alongside some of the best world music artists from around the globe.

Some of the highlights during RWMF 2018.
Some of the highlights during RWMF 2018.

The RWMF was an idea shared in 1997 by a group of people united by their love for Borneo. The dream was a world music event at the foothills of Mount Santubong. The group consisted of Robert Basiuk who was then deputy CEO of STB; Randy Raine-Reusch, a Canadian on a research trip; and brothers Edgar and Edric Ong. They envisioned a platform where world music practitioners can share their culture and pass their heritage on to the future generation.

Thus, after a series of fruitful discussions with key decision makers from the state, the first edition of the RWMF took to the stage in 1998 to a small but spirited crowd of 300. In 2000, it had to leave its initial lakeside home to accommodate 3,000 attendees. By 2003, a special area consisting of a main stage and a side stage had to be designated at the Sarawak Cultural Village for RWMF, to accommodate a 10,000-strong daily crowd.

The first edition of the RWMF in 1998
The first edition of the RWMF in 1998
Sarawakian Hospitality, Borneo Magic, World Recognition

“The RWMF is an opportunity to showcase our rich diversity - its people, food, crafts, song and dance every year,” enthuses Gracie. “Arts and crafts vendors, artisans, tribal chefs and local entrepreneurs get to share their rich ethnic heritage to the world.”

RWMF showcases the best of Sarawak's music and culture alongside international world music performers.
RWMF showcases the best of Sarawak's music and culture alongside international world music performers.

Listed as one of the Top 25 Best International Festival (2010-2015) by British magazine, Songlines; repeated Top 10 ranking by the Transglobal World Music Chart; and receiving the Brand Laureate Country Branding Award (2012-2013) - these are just some of the many recognitions the RWMF has garnered, as shared by Sharzede Datu Hj Salleh Askor, the current CEO of STB. It is easily one of the best music festivals Southeast Asia has to offer.

Sustainability initiative program at RWMF 2019
Sustainability initiative program at RWMF 2019

“The RWMF is Sarawak’s most iconic event and the region’s largest world music festival. It is our gem; a great platform for our locals to deliver the sounds of Sarawak in a big way, shining as a wonderful and unforgettable ambassador that unites different sounds from all continents,” explains Sharzede, who noted that RWMF intends to become an environmentally sustainable event, in line with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

23 Years and Counting

Sustaining a festival for over 20 years takes a lot of dedication and faith. Amidst the concerns that the brand is declining, RWMF 2019 recorded 23,650 festival-goers, its highest ever turnout. Meanwhile, the festival has had a significant influence on Sarawakian socioeconomics. As it grew and evolved in the last two decades, so has the city it calls home.

During festival season, Kuching bustles with activities. This has extended to the months before and after the festival, boosting the local economy and inspiring a new generation of local talents. It has also catalysed nearby festivals - the Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival, the month-long What About Kuching (WAK), the Miri Country Music Festival and the Borneo Jazz Festival, helping build a more active Sarawak festival calendar. Besides that, it has also spawned the Rainforest in the City (RITC) and the RWMF Fringe festivals. The RWMF Fringe is an initiative to address concerns among the locals that the festival has been less affordable in recent times.

Crowds during the Tabanka performance
Crowds during the Tabanka performance

“The (RWMF) Fringe was meant to complement the RWMF this year. We worked with Yeoh Jun- Lin, the Artistic Director for RWMF, to design a programme to bring it closer to the locals,” Donald Tan, festival director for the RWMF Fringe, shares passionately. “It is a healthy mix of independent local and indigenous works, with a splash of international offerings. The idea is to inspire and elevate the locals to the levels of their international peers. This is the platform to give them a push.”

Looking Back and Ahead

“Fondest? Hmmm...” Gracie mused when I asked about her fondest festival memories. “It’s definitely the camaraderie and the energy from the team every year. This spirit shows how much a music event brings to the community.” She proceeds to share her pride watching Sarawakian artists like Matthew Ngau, Jerry Kamit and Alena Murang along with groups like AT Adau and Nading Rhapsody gain international recognition via the RWMF.

Nading Rhapsody (Photo : @nadingrhapsodyofficial)
Nading Rhapsody (Photo : @nadingrhapsodyofficial)

When talking about more recent times, Gracie reflects further, “Now that it is peaking in terms of numbers, RWMF has to evolve to a different model post-COVID-19. Should it go for smaller numbers or multiple locations stretched over 5 days instead? Regardless, I hope and pray that it will continue to bring music to the world, Borneo style. I was fortunate to see the festival celebrate 10 years in 2007. I'm humbly proud to be a part of this 23-year journey. And I have complete faith in the current team and STB to continue taking it to even greater heights.”

Gracie’s hope is shared by many Sarawakians. It is one example of their affection and appreciation for their land, a symbol of their proud dedication to do anything for Sarawak.

(Photos sourced from rwmf.net)

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