Rainforest Festival

Posted on July 18th, 2012 in Music Travel, Recent posts by .

Photos of Zee Avi and Rhythm of Borneo by Pien Lee/Sarawak Tourism

Zee Avi“How you doing Rainforest?” I rather like being addressed as a piece of flora and fauna in the magnificent ecosystem around us in Sarawak. Against the backdrop of the forest, I’m watching Zee Avi, the headline artist on the first night of the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. One of the songs she sings tells the legend of Santubong, the mountain on the island of Borneo at the foot of which the festival takes place. A few brief notes, then, from the Rainforest Festival held this last weekend (July 13-15).

The days are hot but the evenings are balmy, although occasionally there are showers of rain. This isn’t the rainy season, but it is the rainforest. One of the highlights of the whole weekend was String Sisters, six female fiddles – Catriona MacDonald (Shetland), Liz Knowles (Scotland), Emma Härdelin (Sweden), Annbjørg Lien (Norway), Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Liz Carroll (US) who rightly got an ecstatic reception on Friday night.

Other class acts were Khusugtun (Mongolia), Orexa TX (Basque Country), Mamadou Diabaté (Burkina Faso) and, closing the festival, Kanda Bongo Man (Congo) – the ringmaster of rumba in his black jacket, rimmed hat and a band fizzing with guitar licks. The atmosphere was electric.

I was particularly interested to see some of the local bands. Last year the festival started the Rainforest Festival Talent Search – a competition for local bands. The prize is a slot in the festival. This year’s winners were Nading Rhapsody, a Sarawak-based group playing contemporary arrangements of folk songs in several of the local languages – Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Orang Ulu and Malay. They are very dynamic onstage and attracted a young audience. Last year’s winners, Rhythm of Borneo, I liked even more. They are based on peninsula Malaysia and use several types of Malaysian drums and gamelan-like gong chimes (caklempong) to play the melody. I can see this group going down well at festivals anywhere in the world.

But the big discovery was the young Sarawak-born singer Zee Avi. She’s a big star back home because she’s made it big abroad – rather like the Indonesian singer Anggun, who lives in France. Zee Avi – in her 20s – lives in New York and came to fame thanks to a YouTube hit in 2007. She’s since played countless festivals and gave her first gig back in Sarawak last year. Singing in English and Malay, she is small but full of a quirky energy. For the Rainforest gig, she referenced tribal clothing with a typical Iban collar of beads, and included local instruments and musicians in the set. A real discovery. I hope she can do well without becoming too bland and mainstream.

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One Response to “Rainforest Festival”

  1. Jane Says:

    Hi Simon, I was fortunate to be at this year’s Rainforest World Music Festival also, and agree that Zee Avi was a real delight and a terrific ‘local talent’ discovery. Other personal highlights included performances by Danyel Waro (I was blown away by this magnificent performer from La Reunion – the first time I’ve caught him in concert, and one of the drawcards for me to this festival), and Le Trio Joubran from Palestine. It was my first time attending this festival and it was a fantastic experience overall – great programming and enjoyable workshops, held in a beautiful setting. ‘Terima kasih’ to the organisers! I hope to return.


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