Malaysia’s Rainforest World Music Festival Thrives in the Heart of Borneo

The Malaysia Rainforest World Music Festival Thrives in the Heart of Borneo. The Sarawak Cultural Centre hosts the world-class musical festival originally dreamed up by two Canadians.

Via Magic Carpet journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George.
 Rainforest World Music Festival celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2007 Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by M. Maxine George
 Rainforest World Music Festival celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2007 Sarawak, Malaysia.

A rare discovery in a Vancouver junk store, set musician Randy Raine-Reusch off on a quest that led him to far off places around the globe. During this quest he made an immense difference to the original people in one part of the world. The rare find was a discarded, indigenous, musical instrument. As he himself said, “I was getting tired of hearing the same type of music all the time at home in Canada, so I began to go to libraries to find out about the music of other countries.” Armed with this knowledge, he recognized his find. It was not long before he began to want to play the music of the other countries himself. He started to travel to those countries to study the music of their original people. He became particularly interested in Eastern and Southeast Asia. Randy told us that a man named Sulam Ishmael told him about Sarawak music. He told Randy that the music played by the Orang Asli (or original peoples) of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the Island of Borneo, was disappearing. Randy set out to find the music and record it, not realizing that he would become involved in a much larger project, one that has made a very beneficial impact on the lives of those people.

Randy Raine-Reusch performs on aboriginal instrument. Photo by M. Maxine George
Randy Raine-Reusch performs on aboriginal instrument

In Sarawak, Randy met Robert Basuik, a Canadian expatriate, who was then the marketing head of the Sarawak Tourism Board. Together they dreamed up the idea of having a musical festival for indigenous music from around the world. They used the music festivals held in Vancouver and Winnipeg, Canada as their models. With the help of two brothers from Kuching, Edric and Edgar Ong, they brought the concept into reality. In November 1997 the first Rainforest World Music Festival was held.

The "Black Umfulosi" relax between performances at the Rainforest World Music Festival
The “Black Umfulosi” relax between performances at the Rainforest World Music Festival
Musicians from Rainforest World Music Festival Sarawak.
Musicians from Rainforest World Music Festival Sarawak.

The first year Randy put the organization in place. At the time little support was available. That first year 1,500 people attended the event which was held in the Sarawak Cultural Village, in the midst of the lush, green, tropical rainforest. By the second year, the people realized they had something good going for them, so Randy had lots of volunteers to help with the multitude of tasks required to pull off the event. They all learned. By the third year, Randy only acted as an advisor. According to Randy, “It had taken on a life of its own! When we saw people out in the rain dancing – politicians and everyone, we knew we had a success!”

Rumah Oran-ulu building at the world music festival in Borneo Malaysia
 Traditional longhouse at Sarawak Cultural Village, Malaysia. Photo by M. Maxine George

A renowned instrumentalist and composer, Randy left to continue his quest for indigenous music throughout the world. He now has a collection of over 700 world instruments. He did not return to the festival again until its tenth anniversary. He returned to find a thriving three-day event taking place with musicians from all over the world performing. Coming from such diverse places as Lebanon, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Poland, Madagascar, the United Kingdom (Scotland, England and Ireland), Italy, Russia, Vietnam, South America, Tuva, the United States, Canada and various Malaysian states, the people all found a common bond in their music.

Workshops held in traditional long-houses, lectures relating to ethno-music, jam sessions and concerts took place at varying venues throughout each day. As we walked along the paths of the village, we occasionally recognized some of the musicians taking in the scenery themselves. They were friendly and welcomed conversation, posing happily for pictures.

Enthusiastic audience listens to performance at Rainforest World Music Festival Sarawak, Malaysia
Enthusiastic audience listens to performance at Rainforest World Music Festival Sarawak, Malaysia
Students enjoy an afternoon at the World Rainforest Music Festival, Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by M. Maxine George
Students enjoy an afternoon at the World Rainforest Music Festival, Sarawak, Malaysia.

In the evening two large separate stages with their high-tech lighting and sound systems came alive as the sound of music swelled throughout the secluded rainforest. Large screens erected in the vicinity also carried the pictures. The audience, many seated on a grassy hill under the trees, clapped and swayed to the music, as a curious Malaysian Gliding Colugo swung through the trees overhead. (This rare creature looks something like a small monkey or flying squirrel.) The group that really “brought the house down” though was one from Africa called Umfulosi, with their rubber boots and chains.

An afternoon concert at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by M. Maxine George
An afternoon concert at the Rainforest World Music Festival

Now, as the festival is well recognized throughout the world, many sponsors are available. Workshops that ten or 12 people once attended, now may hold 500 or more. Numerous vendors throughout the village provide a variety of Malaysian and Asian cuisine. Soft drinks were available, as was beer, with Heineken a major sponsor of the event. Despite the availability of beer, I must note there did not appear to be much drinking taking place. Good security was noted as we came through the entrance and throughout the village it was visible, but unobtrusive, during our visit. 

On the edge of the rainforest, the cultural village is a magical setting for the Music Festival. It is a well planned and executed historic village, with traditional longhouses, showing the differences in those used by the various indigenous tribes of Sarawak. As we later learned similar longhouses are still being used in tribal villages today. The cultural village allows the visitor to experience the people, the environment; the plants and trees of this old rainforest; and sometimes even the animals and birds show up; while situated less than an hour’s drive from the thriving, modern city of Kuching.

 Rumah Melayu traditional Malaysian House located in Sarawak Cultural Village. Photo by M. Maxine George
 Rumah Melayu traditional Malaysian House located in Sarawak Cultural Village.
Skulls hang from the peak of the thatched roof in what might have once been home of a head-hunter! Photo by M. Maxine George
Skulls hang from the peak of the thatched roof in what might have once been home of a head-hunter!
Thatched roofed hut in the Sarawak Cultural Village
Thatched roofed hut in the Sarawak Cultural Village
thatched roof. sarawak cultural village

My friend, Lenora Hayman gave me some background of the Mah Meri, one of the 18 ethnically defined tribes of the Orang Asli living along the Malaysian Selangor coast including Carey Island. These fishermen and woodcarvers believe in ancestral spirits. Dressed in bark cloth, grass skirts and magnificent masks they performed their sacred dance honoring their ancestors for the first time in public on the final evening of the Rainforest World Music Festival.

Mah Meri dancers perform their sacred dance for the first time in public.
Mah Meri dancers perform their sacred dance for the first time in public. Picture by Lenora Hayman.

The festival has injected a welcome financial boost to the area. The indigenous music will survive for future generations. Young people have grown up with the festival and are carrying on their musical traditions. It just goes to show how a few dedicated people can make a real difference in our world. As a Canadian I am very proud to know that two of my fellow countrymen provided this wonderful legacy for these people. They made a real difference in this far off land, once known as the wilds of Borneo, home of the notorious head-hunting tribes. Congratulations Randy Raine-Reusch and Robert Basuik. 

Article and pictures by M. Maxine George. Mah Meri picture courtesy of Lenora Hayman.

Last updated March 19, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster


Return to Malaysia

More Stories From: