Celebrating World Music in the Borneo Jungle

This weekend, the jungle-clad foothills of Sarawak's Mount Santubong in Borneo came to life with the three-day Rainforest World Music Festival. Now in its eighth year, the event is drawing some of the best global acts and attracting 20,000 attendees annually to the east Malaysia state.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

If you're in search of world-class music this summer, you can go to Tanglewood in western Massachusetts or perhaps to the Seattle, Washington, Musicfest, or you can hop the next flight to Malaysian Borneo. That's where Maria Bakkalapulo went this weekend, and she filed this report on the annual Rainforest Music Festival.

(Soundbite of ocean surf)

MARIA BAKKALAPULO reporting:

Standing by the surf where the South China Sea hits Malaysian Borneo's largest state of Sarawak, your eyes are quickly drawn to the mystical Mt. Santabon(ph). And tucked away just below, a resort paradise. This remote enclave has become the destination for thousands of music lovers drawn to the yearly Rainforest Music Festival, now in its eighth year. The venue is Sarawak Village, a 17-acre showcase of the 28 ethnic groups that call Sarawak home.

(Soundbite of frying food; hammering; music)

BAKKALAPULO: Members from the different groups fry up festival rice cakes and weave traditional fabrics by hand. Many even live here on-site with their families. Jane Lian Labang is the general manager of the village.

Ms. JANE LIAN LABANG (General Manager of Sarawak Village): This is the grand entrance of the Sarawak Cultural Village. The grand entrance itself is very interesting. It has a--it's like a gateway to a Sarawakian experience, so it's very inviting. It's interesting. It faces the South China Sea, so it looks like people are coming from the sea, the feel of it.

BAKKALAPULO: When you enter, the living museum comes to life with music and sounds of a thriving village echoing against the backdrop of Mt. Santabon.

(Soundbite of sape)

BAKKALAPULO: In the Bidayuh longhouse, a wooden structure where families live in a communal setting, 39-year-old musician Catrall(ph) strums a lute known as a sape that he learned to play when he was a child.

(Soundbite of sape; musical instrument sounds)

Unidentified Man: One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of festival music)

BAKKALAPULO: Catrall is a member of Sarawakian ensemble Tukakomay(ph), one of the local groups performing for many than 20,000 people visiting the small village this weekend. For the three-day festival, the longhouses have been transformed from showcases of local culture to lodging for festival-goers. During the steamy afternoons, the wooden bamboo structures vibrate with drums from West Africa and lessons in throat singing from a Mongolian band.

(Soundbite of throat singing; festival music)

BAKKALAPULO: People are listening to music from all over the world, including the raspy Afro-Cuban vocals of Colombian singer Petrona Martinez. She is sitting poolside with her daughter and band members at her hotel overlooking the sea.

Ms. PETRONA MARTINEZ (Singer): (Through Translator) Here there are many, many things that remind me of my home. We have the same flowers and the same sea. It is the sea that makes it the Caribbean. In my house I have animals and many of the same flowers like I see here.

BAKKALAPULO: The women of her family have sung this traditional bullerengue music for generations.

Ms. MARTINEZ: (Singing in foreign language)

BAKKALAPULO: Martinez says she remembers singing along with her mother in the womb.

Ms. MARTINEZ: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of festival music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

BAKKALAPULO: Another highlight of the event is the spine-chilling vocals of Pakistani qauwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz. This passionate form of Sufi devotional music usually ignites the crowd into a frenzied dance at concert halls back home in Lahore. Faiz hopes he can inspire that same energy here.

Mr. FAIZ ALI FAIZ (Singer): (Through Translator) Yes, when we are on the stage and during performance, we don't want our listener to sit like statues. We want them to move and dance in the mystic dance and whatever they want--just express their love for us, or love for themselves, even. But for us, just to--when people stand on their feet to dance, I think we have given our message.

(Soundbite of festival music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

BAKKALAPULO: There is no doubt that the message got through. The entire crowd was in motion at the Rainforest Music Festival. For NPR, I'm Maria Bakkalapulo in Sarawak, Borneo.

(Soundbite of festival music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

KAST: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Sheilah Kast.

(Soundbite of festival music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

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