Words by Simon Broughton
Sarawak provides a celebration of musical diversity
The extraordinary global spread of Sarawak’s Rainforest World Music Festival is evident in the diversity of it’s line-up. The 2013 programme brought together Grammy-winning Cajun band, the Pine Leaf Boys from the US, Dizu Plaatjies & the Ibuyambo Ensemble from South Africa, Aboriginal group Nunukul Yuggera from Australia, Kíla from Ireland and Palsandae from South Korea. It’s one of Songlines’ Top 25 World Music Festivals – both for the breadth of its programming and the beauty of the setting, around a lake in the Sarawak Cultural Village. Despite sponsorship by Heineken (which seems surprising in a Muslim country), the atmosphere was incredibly relaxed and tranquil. There were large crowds, but absolutely no aggravation.
During the day, there were workshops held in a longhouse and other locations around the site. Usually these involved demonstrations and jam sessions between groups of percussionists, flute players or string players from different parts of the world. While loads of fun, these events were also a useful indication of how difficult it can be to create meaningful collaborations. More interesting were those workshops where groups explain their own traditions – like Rhythm in Bronze, a powerful, largely female Malaysian gamelan group, who provided instrumental demonstrations and hands on experience for a keen audience.
The way the festival has revived the local music scene is one of the other reasons it is in our Top 25 list. It was a shame though, that local musicians were only given short sets before international artists took over the stage. My favourite workshop was a session by Arthur Borman and his group Madeeh, demonstrating and explaining the music from his Bidayuh longhouse about 65km from the Sarawak capital, Kuching. The Bidayuh, who inhabit the west of the country, are one of Sarawak’s four main indigenous groups of people. Visiting a Bidayuh longhouse is like entering a bamboo world – virtually the whole building is made from various cuts of the material. They also make crafts and, of course, musical instruments out of bamboo. Borman, and the other three family members in Madeeh play party, celebratory and dance music on three bamboo zithers accompanied by a drum. The demonstration took place in a longhouse – although it was a wooden Iban longhouse in the Sarawak Cultural Village rather than a bamboo Bidayuh one. But you certainly feel the musical energy and intimacy in this sort of environment.
The Bidayuh bamboo zither is called a pratuokng – and I promise you that’s not a misprint – apparently pronounced ‘pratwa.’ At first glance the instrument looks basic – a thick bamboo tube with its strings cut from the skin of the bamboo itself and raised up on little bamboo bridges. It’s very similar to the traditional version of the Malagasy valiha, also with bamboo strings. The valiha, a more virtuoso instrument, is plucked, but Borman demonstrates how the intricate patterns played on the pratuokng use three additional techniques. Mainly, the strings are hit with a short stick in the right hand, but Borman also plucks a bass note with his left and strikes a resonant panel on the tube for percussive effect. What’s more, these instruments are light and easy to transport, so let’s hope someone brings them to Europe before too long. In the meantime, Radio 3’s World Routes will feature Borman and other Sarawak musicians in mid-August.