Seeking Identities and Cultures in World Music

Rainforest World Music Festival 2009 demonstrates that time can stand still as old instruments make a comeback. Perhaps it has to do with our need to connect with the past.

By Mallika Naguran

Horomona with a Maori horn.

Kuching, 10 July 2009. So what about World Music then? If you were out there at the heart of Santubong dancing away in the tropical rain at the 12th Rainforest World Music Festival to the chimes of old and new musical instruments, you probably have a clue. Unless you were just out to have a good time, never mind what music, drenched in wine and mirth.

Every July, pilgrims of World Music from all over the world descend on the shores of Kuching, Sarawak to pay homage to possibly life-changing music. How else can you describe the transformation that may occur when you see and hear ancient instruments pitted against modern ones, tugging at soul strings?

Horomona plays the flute.

What is interesting about the World Music festival in Sarawak (yes it used to be called Borneo, yes, it is part of East Malaysia, and no they are no longer headhunters) is that kids were bobbing to the tunes, and not oldies. In fact there weren’t that many oldies (sorry... seniors) forming the 20,000 odd audience, revealing that merry makers in their 20s and 30s want to have a good time, and they want have it with a dash of tradition and style.

So why this interest in tradition? Shouldn’t these youngsters be screaming their heads off at a rock concert? I wondered if there was a desire for them to revel in World Music or was it just an excuse to have fun? After all, Kuching is a quiet town, and Sarawakans are always in the need for a good party. Many concert-goers hailed from Peninsular Malaysia though, having to catch a flight to get to the venue. Many more flew in from Singapore, Australia, Europe and even the US of A.

I had my suspicion that even as we prosper in the nuclear age, we are still in search of our true identities. And listening to age-old music may hold the key to that house of wisdom.

Lan E-Tuyang brings ancient sape to the spotlight.

That is certainly the story behind some of the musicians who performed at the three-day concert. For Moana & The Tribe, a 12-member band from New Zealand, their songs and music are a way of protecting what their ancestors had and their way of life. Their heritage was threatened during the period of Colonisation. “Instruments that were played at festivals were taken away from the 1800s,” explained Horomona Horo, a Taonga Puoro specialist and performance artist.

Horomona, who started playing classical and rock music, then researched and reenacted some of the instruments that were long gone.Because they were no longer being played, he decided to bring them back to life by performing with them in musical bands, and in particular with Moana & The Tribe.

(fr left) Sompoton, turali & bungkau from Sabah. Pix: Mallika.

The putatara is a conch shell with a wooden piece attached to it. Horomona explains that it was used as a horn to announce a visitor. “It was used to acknowledge visitors and the people behind their eyes, that is their parents and grandparents.” The horn signaled the birth of a new arrival, with different compositions for boys and girls. “You can also play it as a flute,” he smiles, then deftly demonstrates. 

The sompoton hails from the Karen tribe of Sabah (neighbouring state to Sarawak, part of Borneo) with 8 bamboo pipes stemming from a common base. Part of the music ensemble of the Kinabalu Merdu Sound, the instrument was said to have come originally from China and later modernised into a typical Chinese mouth organ. Though quaint, such instruments are still a hit with young players like Asmiah Madais Jinin, who also plays the turali and bungkau.

Asmiah plays a Sabahan flute.

Another instrument that can be a dying breed if not for the efforts of Matthew Ngau and the late Pak Uchau is the stringed sape. It’s an authentic Borneo relic played for centuries that still makes a debut with tinkles, as pure as purity can be.Lan E-Tuyang of Sarawak has been instrumental in reviving the sounds of this vanishing instrument. “We have a hard time in promoting sape as most of the students like to play rock,” says Matthew. This winds him up to play the “real, original sape tunes to preserve the truth”.

Portuguese bouzouki - half bass, half guitar.

Portuguese bouzouki - half bass, half guitar.

Dealing with evolving identities from Europe, the band Dazkarieh fuses Portuguese music with influences from other cultures, played with contemporary as well as original instruments.One of which is the bandolim (mandolin). “We see ourselves as Portuguese and citizens of the world” said Vasco Ribeiro Casais, who plays the nyckelharpa, bouzouki and gaitas-de-foles (Portuguese bagpipe).The band was a winner with its version of music, a combination of puristic to rock, and acoustics to electric sounds.

Zawose Family with chizeze.

The Zawose Family Africa was a high-energy finale, rousing the audience to shake all they’ve got. Drums, chants, strings were as infectious as the electric smiles. Instruments such as the 3-string chizeze, 14-string kubwa zeze, njuga (ankle bells), nyoma (drums) and muheme (women’s drums) are part of the Tanzanian tradition that the late Hukwe Zawose preserved through music and dance.

Zawose Family enthralls.

As musicians recapture lost glories by popularizing traditional instruments, audiences lap up new sensorial experiences that help define where they come from. There’s an inkling of what their forefathers were up to, and hey, they didn’t sound too bad, and can be fused with modern strains of choice: pop, rock or jazz.

This is why World Music, they way I see it, is a celebration of cultures – dead or alive.

Concert photos courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board

Chilimba played by Zawose Family Africa. Pix: Mallika

Next up, a Gaia Discovery exclusive with Rauno Nieminen, founder of Jouhiorkesteri band from Finland, a musical instrument maker and author, and his experience in reviving the jouhikko, the oldest bowed instrument of Europe.