Rainforest World Music Festival Puts Sarawak on the Map

By Mallika Naguran

Kuching, 9 July 2009. There were some frowns on the brow of Benedict Jimbau as he shared with the media some of the problems faced in getting Sarawak’s – and perhaps Asia’s – most famous World Music festival organized. The organizing chairman of the festival was addressing a group of international media one day before the start of the three-day festival.

The H1N1 epidemic nearly derailed the event, we were told. But as the festival had over the years built a reputation for itself as “Sarawak is Rainforest and Rainforest is Sarawak” (in Benedict’s own words), it would be a State-level disgrace not to carry on.

From left: Randy Raine-Reusch, Gracie Geikie and Benedict Jimbau.

So the show must go on.

Concert-goers will be greeted by medics with fever scanners at the gates and be handed with a surgical mask and some alcohol-based hand sanitisers. This is for prevention sake. In case there were people feeling ill, there was also the medical centre, even at the Santubong Resort where media stayed.

“But not for those with hangovers,” quipped Letitia Samuel, to the guffaws of media, some already guilty of intoxication even before the festival had begun.

Another cause for anxiety was the new performer stage! It turned out that the new stage made of cement, replacing the old wooden ones, was inadequate. “It had no fittings for lights, sounds,” said Randy Reine-Reusch, the festival director.

Just three weeks into the concert itself, the mistake had to be rectified. Along with a new design, a brand new stage had to be built. “The stage gave us the jitters. As of last night, they were still welding the railings,” said Benedict. “We tested it last night, and it’s ok,” said a visibly relieved Randy. Even the planting of the lawn grass was just completed late last night.

New stage for Rainforest lovers. Pix by Ariel of Virtual Malaysia.

New stage for Rainforest lovers. Pix by Ariel of Virtual Malaysia.

Gracie Gelkie, CEO of Sarawak Tourism Board said that with the Minister’s go ahead with organizing the concert just four days ago, ticket sales surged. In just two days, 15,000 tickets were sold.“We are hoping to sell 20,000 tickets this year. Last year, we sold 22,000,” she said.

“We can accommodate 10,000 a night, but we decide to cap it at 8,000 daily,” said Gracie, who added, “It’s not just about the numbers; we just want to make sure we are comfortable and have space.”

But these were just technical hiccups. There are real attractions for people to attend the concert this year, from the range of international artistes performing, to the music workshops held in the afternoons daily, to the fancy knick-knacks that can be bought at the World Craft Bazaar (there are 72 booths, so bring along your piggy bank!). And of course, delicious food kiosks for a picnic.

Sarawak’s Rainforest World Music Festival began 12 years ago was not without pain and anguish. It started with just an audience of 300; and half were compelled to go! Even the media refused to go as it required them to travel for more than 20 mins. This year, there were 260 media from around the world attending the event.

“We got better and better, and over the years the Rainforest World Music Festival product survived as a paying festival that is more successful than any others in Malaysia,” said Gracie, who is stepping down as CEO end July after four years of service with Sarawak Tourism Board. “We’ve grown in numbers, culture, value, and also saw the development of local talents,” she added.

“The Rainforest World Music put Sarawak on the world map,” declared the festival’s patron YB Datuk Michael Manyin ak Jawong at the launch ceremony in the evening. He is also the Minister for Urban Development and Tourism.

In spite of all the challenges faced, it is certain that the organisers will get stronger with each passing year. And with the top quality artistes dazzling each night, the problems that had plagued the organisers will soon be a distant memory.

See related articles on Gaia Discovery: Interview with festival director Randy Raine-Reusch on 2009 surprising finds; world music themes at 12th Rainforest World Music Festival.