Rainforest World Music Festival 2013

The kayaking wound on my knee was a lucky break. The brightly colored bandage got me out of numerous crowd-participation workshops, including one that scared me stiff: African dance.

I limped to the back of the sweltering longhouse to take photos as the crowd surged forward to do their best booty shake. With temperatures at the sweaty, afternoon workshop already elevated to that of the average sauna, the last thing I had in mind was trying to shake the junk in my trunk in a fearful manner.

Fortunately, the other workshops turned out to be less painful and incredibly interesting. Musicians from all over the world jammed together in unstructured, unpracticed sessions that turned out surprisingly excellent. The workshops ran simultaneously through the afternoons, allowing you to choose by interest. Most were highly entertaining.

Workshop Sarawak

Workshop in a longhouse

I wrote about one of the percussion workshops — my absolute favorite — here.

Busy but unforgettable.

That’s the way I would describe my recent press trip to Sarawak in Borneo to cover the 16th annual Rainforest World Music Festival.

This was my second visit to the festival, but unlike the first trip in 2010, this time the Sarawak Tourism Board provided me with media passes, VIP access, and even a room at the hotel which provided an opportunity to hang out with the performers. A whopping 21 different international groups educated people with workshops during the days then took to the two stages to play in the evenings.

We stayed busy. Media and performers all stumbled the 20-minute walk back to the hotel around 1 a.m. each night. Wake up for breakfast the next morning, hit the press conferences, share some gossip, then repeat.

Sarawak Borneo music festival

The main stage.

As an unexpected bonus, I found myself sitting with Nikki, the editor of Southeast Asia Backpacker Magazine, at the pre-party on opening night. I’ve been reading her magazine for years and she’s certainly hardcore. Like myself, she incorrectly sat at a reserved VIP table and decided to follow the old mantra I learned from a mentor at IBM: “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

‘World music’ is a pretty wide genre so unsurprisingly there were a few acts that I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to see again. I’ll play nice and won’t name any names, but if your act involves spinning tassels attached to your head for 45 minutes while a woman shouts “oooohhhhh…” into the microphone, it’s hard to rock out. Even the culture vultures and ‘spiritual’ travelers in fisherman’s pants looked confused.

Fortunately, a majority of the bands did rock. The Pine Leaf Boys from Louisiana were a taste from home and even though they played Cajun/Creole, it was close enough to my beloved Bluegrass to get the adrenaline flowing.

Pine Leaf Boys Rainforest World Music Festival

The Pine Leaf Boys

The traditional Irish band were a hoot, even offstage, and I’ve never seen anyone smile more than the Colombians who proudly showed off Cumbia to a crowd of Asians doing their best to dance in the throng of people pressed against the stage.

The same jovial Colombians even did their best to save the poolside afterparty on the last night of the festival which inexplicably didn’t involve drinks but instead fried rice and fish balls. The Danish band I sat with were as perplexed as I was when the somber realization hit that our three days of fun were to conclude with fish balls rather than watching the sun come up.

Probably a good thing, as I was off in the morning to stay with 16 families in a remote longhouse to experience their way of life. More on that later.

Damai Beach Resort

The view from my balcony

With the exception of the afterparty fishball fail, I’m sure that the performers had as much fun as the rest of us. These weren’t Motley Crue types who demanded lavish dressing rooms to destroy in a fit of ego rage. No, these performers literally left the stage and joined the audience to watch the next act and have fun. More than once I found myself chatting with people who had just been on stage.

Tickets for the Rainforest World Music Festival costs around US $38 per day. Where else can you enjoy a music festival, learn about world culture, and enjoy a rainforest setting on the South China Sea with travelers from all over the world for that price?

I’ll be back next year, and hopefully with two functioning legs ready to dance in the Sarawak mud.

  • Here are details for attending the Rainforest World Music Festival in Borneo for yourself.
Damai Central Sunset

Sunset on the South China Sea