Music in the Jungle

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Asia » Malaysia » Sarawak
July 14th 2009
Published: July 13th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Jamie Wilson from AkashA (KL, Malaysia)Jamie Wilson from AkashA (KL, Malaysia)Jamie Wilson from AkashA (KL, Malaysia)

Hosting the guitar workshop

Getting to Kuching

Sarawak's annual music festival is massive. The three-day festival is so popular that all of the airline schedules get rearranged to allow more people to fly into Kuching. Indeed, our mid-afternoon flight has been altered to fly at the crack-of-dawn.

Miss out on breakfast? No way! The airline kindly agrees to switch us to an early evening flight. That is OK. But it means that we don't get to a hotel and finish dinner until 9pm. We are the last customers at a Chinese Malay restaurant. But the staff don't seem to mind. They also ignore us climbing over and through their lattice walls.

Into the groove

Oops. I missed a note. Doh! Fluffed another one. Not a great performance. I hope nobody noticed. I am playing Guitar Hero on Dad's mobile phone. But it's not easy in the back of a van on a bumpy road. The road looks smooth but it sure is a bouncy ride. It's too uneven to play a guitar game well.

We passed lots of diggers earlier and got stuck in traffic for a while. But this main road has no works. And traffic flows along fine.
AkashA in concertAkashA in concertAkashA in concert

Malaysian fusion band
We are earlier than most of the crowd.

At the foot of Mount Santubong

After forty minutes on the road from Kuching we arrive in the shadow of Mount Santubong. This is the venue for the Rainforest World Music festival. The three-day festival is held once a year within the grounds of the Sarawak Cultural Centre.

We are starving. So we settle down in a tall, shady restaurant and order everything on the menu. That is easy because there are only four food items to choose from. But they seem to suit our family. Except my chicken vegie dish is not to my liking.

My brother has a rice dish. Then he declares the chicken vegie dish to be the best chicken ever. Yes - he is eating the same food that I just rejected.

Mind you, the apple juice is OK. Anything with ice in it is always welcome here. It's another hot day. Dad raves about the local dish called Sarawak laksa. It doesn't appeal to me - even if you take the prawns out.

Cultural Centre exhibits

As ticket-holders, we are free to wander around the grounds of the Sarawak
Mount SantubongMount SantubongMount Santubong

View from the Sarawak Cultural Centre
Cultural Centre. This includes full-sized reproductions of Iban and Bidayah longhouses. They are fun to explore. It is a bit strange seeing them plastered with slogans from sponsors such as a satellite TV company. Anyway, there are plenty of cultural artefacts on display.

Some of these traditional buildings serve as venues for music workshops each afternoon of the concert. Singing voices boom out of an Iban building.

Everybody wants to cross a bamboo trestle bridge, which is not really designed for two-way people traffic. A log ladder is popular with kids of all ages. The whole place is a great setting for exploring and enjoying music.

Guitars of the world

We settle down right near the stage for the workshop called "Guitar, oh". There are seven countries represented here. Each guitarist has a turn explaining how to play one type of guitar, then play a short tune. Then they all have a jamming session. Here are some of the guitars featured:

* USA - 6-string Banjo
Greg Schochet talks about frets and plays some ragtime music.
* France - Swing rhythm
Alexandre Morier plays some up-tempo swing music originally played by gypsies.
* Morocco -
Guitar jammingGuitar jammingGuitar jamming

Playing solos, then harmonies
Larbi Amehal plays some Berber music on his traditional instrument.
* Spain - Flamenco
Olivier Dambezat plays a classical guitar with rhythmic movements. He does lots of fancy plucking moves.
* Cuba - Cajon
A Cuban guy adds some "groove" with a cajon box drum.
* Australia - Rhythm guitar
Greg Henderson explains how he has modified his acoustic guitar to play rhythm music.
* Chile - Electric guitar
C├ęsar Jara plays South American airs.
* International - Acoustic guitar
Jamie Wilson is originally from Australia but is now based in KL. He explains how to play different regional styles of music on an everyday guitar. He also talks about how to combine instruments in a band.

Then a New Zealander strolls onto the stage. He has been asked to step in at the last minute. He tells a few stories and plays a mixture of styles on an electric guitar - from reggae to rock. He even makes violin sounds and trumpet noises with the guitar. That's a neat trick!

My fingers get itchy just watching these guys. But my guitar is back at home in Australia.

Highly strung

We stick around for the
Range of stringsRange of stringsRange of strings

Mandolin (Italy), cajon (Cuba), violin, sape (Sarawak)
next workshop featuring instruments that have high tension strings. Again, the musicians play a short tune and describe their instruments. Greg Schochet (USA) explains that the mandolin originally came from Italy but is now widespread around the world. Despite the fact that it often sounds out of tune.

Jake Schepps (USA) plays a six-string banjo. He has cone-shaped picks on three of his fingertips. The three-pick style is popular nowadays but he explains there are many other styles played in southern USA.

A West Malaysian band called Asika showcases the violin, electric bass and a Sarawak traditional instrument called the sape. Nowadays, it has four strings. That is one more than original instruments.

A local guy plays the cajon drum. It just looks like he is banging on a box. But he reveals that there are actually strings inside the box. And he moves his hands with a plucking motion.

An Indian guy, Kumar Karthigesu, from the Malaysian band AkashA plays scales on a sitar. He explains that a sitar has 20 strings, including seven on top. He can make up to five notes with a single string. Whenever a sitar player changes key, they need
Explaining the world of guitarsExplaining the world of guitarsExplaining the world of guitars

Getting to know instruments
to adjust the tuning for 13 strings. Ouch!

Into the rhythm

This workshop is held in a large theatre just before the dinner break. It is absolutely packed - a full house! There are drummers showing how to start and hold a rhythm. The cajon player puts in another performance. Taiwanese drummers play in a pair. The crowd loves them all. They don't want the show to stop.

Wild men of Borneo

Fire below! I notice flames coming from a sponsor's tent underneath the restaurant area. A Sarawak man is going crazy with a flame torch. Acrobats spring past. He swallows the flame and makes one helluva tribal scream. Then he ropes in a "birthday girl". Another Sarawak man with a feather headdress presents her with a layer cake. Then the other guy "scorches" her with his fire stick. She will remember this day for a long time.

Another local guy is roped in from the audience. He opens his mouth wide and pokes out his tongue like a Maori. His tongue is "sizzled" by the flame. But he survives OK.

Evening concert - The main event

What a stunning backdrop! Rainforest trees
French and Spanish guitaristsFrench and Spanish guitaristsFrench and Spanish guitarists

Swing rhythm and traditional acoustic guitars
right beside the stage. And the outline of Mount Santubong hovering in the distance. It is not surprising that musicians come from far and wide to perform here.

The first band is AkashA from KL. Jamie is the "front man". We recognise him from the guitar session he led earlier. He describes the one-year old band as multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. They have members who are Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Neo-pagan. But they all get along. And the crowd loves them. Somehow, they sum up the whole of Malaysia beautifully.

They play unusual combinations of music in an interesting way. They play an Irish Malaysian jig with Indian instruments. They switch instruments and play an Indian / Latin song. What on Earth is that? But it all sounds good. Then they play a medley of music from different parts of Malaysia. For an encore, they play a "Brickfield" tune with a chunk from Michael Jackson's "Beat it". The crowd goes crazy! They have cranked up a party vibe.

On the next stage a Canadian band called Red Chamber starts up. They play acoustic music from China. They have unusual stringed instruments with duck-shaped necks. The music tells
Chilean guitaristChilean guitaristChilean guitarist

South American tunes on an electric guitar
stories of girls picking flowers and taking them to market. It is peaceful and relaxing... quite a contrast to the high energy of AkashA.

There is plenty more music to come - the grand finale is at midnight. But that is way past my bedtime. Meanwhile, the crowd is still flooding in. Reluctantly, we leave and catch a shuttle bus back into Kuching.

In the news

I pick up a copy of the Borneo Post the next day at breakfast. Of course, the rainforest festival is front-page news.

Officially, 8000 people turned up on the final day. There is also an article about the concert stages being too high for good photography. That is partly true. But a strange topic for an article. The newspaper also has a feature article about the music workshops. It is illustrated by a nice group photo of musicians jamming in the first guitar workshop. But the photo caption doesn't match the picture. It is describing a completely different workshop. There are several other errors in the article. I guess the journalist must have stayed up past midnight, then filed the report to meet a deadline when half-asleep. Maybe next time
Guitarist not performing todayGuitarist not performing todayGuitarist not performing today

Checking out a range of guitars
they should have an afternoon nap before going to the concert.

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


Cornetto microphoneCornetto microphone
Cornetto microphone

Rohan putting on a show
NZ guitaristNZ guitarist
NZ guitarist

Showing off tricks on an electric guitar
Notched log ladder Notched log ladder
Notched log ladder

Steep but steady
Kumar  hosting "Highly strung" workshopKumar  hosting "Highly strung" workshop
Kumar hosting "Highly strung" workshop

He explains how to play the 20 strings of a sitar
More stringsMore strings
More strings

Banjo to sitar
Beer goes with anythingBeer goes with anything
Beer goes with anything

Corn fresh from the barbecue
Mixed sataysMixed satays
Mixed satays

We love them
Fierce with fireFierce with fire
Fierce with fire

Sarawak man does fire tricks
Burn on the armBurn on the arm
Burn on the arm

The fire left a black mark on a volunteer
Eating fireEating fire
Eating fire

An audience volunteer tastes the flame
Michael Jackson tribute by AkashAMichael Jackson tribute by AkashA
Michael Jackson tribute by AkashA

Playing "Beat it" in a new style
Red Chamber in concertRed Chamber in concert
Red Chamber in concert

Playing traditional Chinese music
Rohan dozes off - in a bumpy vanRohan dozes off - in a bumpy van
Rohan dozes off - in a bumpy van

Saving energy for the evening concert

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