MInah Angong became an overnight sensation after performing in Sarawak (photo courtesy of Rafique Rashid)
Antares reports from the 1998 ‘Rainforest World Music Festival’ in Sarawak
MAK MINAH strolled along the white sands, her hunter-gatherer eyes scanning the beach for little sea crabs and edible molluscs. She glanced up at the luminous clouds clinging to the evocative peak of Mount Santubong. So this was the Land of Hornbills. Beautiful, postcard views – but not a single hornbill in sight.
A few hours earlier, the 68-year-old Temuan ceremonial singer had boarded a Boeing 737 jet at the cyclopean KLIA for the brief, bumpy flight to Kuching. Her first ever airborne experience. As usual, Mak Minah was amazingly cool about it: “No big deal,” was her verdict. However, she had prepared herself for the big gig “overseas” – at Sarawak’s First Annual Rainforest World Music Festival – by getting her hair permed a whole fortnight before the event.
When Dr Wan Zawawi (songwriter-anthropologist who’s now Dean of the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts at UNIMAS) invited Akar Umbi to join his Anak Dayung group for this two-day “World Music” festival (August 29-30, 1998), I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Back me up on a couple of numbers and you get to perform one of Mak Minah’s songs,” the affable academician had said. Well, I’d never been to Sarawak, and this promised to be an idyllic musical junket. Now, we only needed to check if Rafique was game for this gig. Miraculously, he was, even though the monetary stipend was modest. As it turned out, we were rewarded with four memorable nights in a musician’s heaven.
Joey Ayala with ‘hegalong’ (Rafique Rashid)
I didn’t know who else was on the festival bill until we received our souvenir programmes. The only name familiar to me was Joey Ayala, whom I’d met 13 years ago at the first Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival. It was a blast to see Joey Ayala again, accompanied by his immensely lovable and vivacious band. When I finally saw them in action, Joey and his dazzling group simply blew me away.
“O mighty eagle, my true king, I want to fly in the sky like you,” Joey Ayala intoned, lamenting the plight of latter-day eagles who – not finding any more tall trees to build their nests – were in captivity, or in hiding, wings folded and flightless. “May there always be tall trees in the forest for us to build our nests, so that like the mighty eagle, we too can fly.” Eagles, hornbills, emblems of freedom and nobility.
For an instant a small frown furrowed Joey’s brow. Then he called out to the sound booth: “NO SOUND! I want to play my guitar!” (Yes, there were LOTS of problems with the sound, mainly due to the understandable confusion of a technical crew who had never experienced a concert of this scale and variety.)
And there was sound. What a monstrously beautiful, powerful, towering, ecstatically transcendental sound – earthy as a Filipino folk tune, funky and spunky as celestial angel come. No one embodied the spirit of the Rainforest World Music Festival more musically, more poetically, more sincerely than Joey Ayala. And when his band let rip, everyone just soared like an eagle – or a hornbill – riding the joyful musical airstreams.
Joey’s line-up? Cynthia Alexander (Joey’s “baby sister”) on electrifying bass guitar, an impish, science-fiction elf-princess, flying sorceress, and a highly gifted award-winning musician to boot. Malou Matute, wholesome piano teacher turned diabolical percussionist (she played gamelan-like tuned gongs called kulintang). Renato Tengasantos, dynamic powerhouse on a runaway drum kit (it took two stagehands to hold down his bass drum!); Alex De Paz Tupaz on exotic “marimba tree” (for want of an actual name); Francis Reyes on highly effective “effects” guitar; and Joey Ayala himself, switching from rhythm to lead guitar, to a lizard-like two-stringed beast called a hegalong that spewed forth smouldering, soul-satisfying riffs.
Take the down-to-earth, folksy approachability of Country Joe and the Fish… throw in the mesmerizing, messianic charisma of Bob Marley… add a dash of Frank Zappa’s wizardly wit and musical competence… serve with a generous dollop of Pink Floydian rock concert theatricality… and you have the Joey Ayala group! We found ourselves swept away by the typhoon of pure musical excitement they unleashed. Rafique shared my view that this was the absolute high point of the festival. And, judging by the eager mob that swarmed around Joey and his group after their performance, almost everyone else thought so too.
True, the Celtic jazz quartet, Lammas (flown in by the British Council) served up a stimulatingly virtuoso performance – salvaging the first night from being generally lacklustre – but it was Joey Ayala on the second night who captured the heart of Puteri Santubong (legendary princess of the mountain, whose story no one would relate to me, because it was too complicated or too tragic). I’m sure Joey’s inspiring performance made the Spirit of the Sacred Mountain smile and weep for joy.
Lammas delivers a heady fusion of intelligent, progressive jazz, flavoured with Irish, Scottish, and Portuguese folk melodies. Co-founded by Don Paterson (on guitar and bodhrán) and Tim Garland (on concert flute and saxophones), the Lammas sound was exquisitely augmented by Karen Street on accordion, whose sensitive coloring turned her instrument into a synthesizer, fiddle, bagpipes – in a performance that was both an epiphany and a revelation. The husky allure of vocalist Christine Tobin’s pitch-perfect and soulful voice was at once earthy and heavenly (everyone fell instantly in love with her, or at least, I did). Garland and Paterson write (or arrange) much of the Lammas material: intricate pieces of invigorating originality and verve, performable only by master-class musicians. As a guitarist, Don Paterson is a worthy successor to fellow Scotsman John McLaughlin; while Tim Garland is technically on par with Jan Garbarek, the great Norwegian blower he so admires.
B’tutta – a Sydney-based, conservatorium-trained, highly cerebral percussion combo consisting of Graham Hilgendorf, David Hewitt, Cameron Gregory and Leigh Giles – put on a pyrotechnic display of precision teamwork on an impressive array of tuned and untuned instruments (e.g., marimba, xylophone, handsaw, open plastic canister in a tub of water, and so on).
The boys’ energy and enthusiasm were infectious, but as the set wore on – and the music stayed strictly above the waist, never venturing into the visceral and scrotal zones, even when they were impersonating a Caribbean steel-drum band – their cleverness began to irk a little. At times B’tutta (meaning “to strike” in Italian) came across as a somewhat Beatle-ish bunch of factory workers, banging about on idle machinery just to amuse themselves in the absence of the supervisor. There might have been some serious dancing in the aisles or on the lawn under that hot, sultry, starry night sky – if only B’tutta had loosened up and let fly.
The first night’s program also featured Safar Ghaffar, a singing, dancing, pop shaman from Kuching (with the fashion designer’s flair for style over substance); the fresh-faced, chirpy-toned and utterly innocuous BM Boys (a best-selling Chinese vocal group presumably from Bukit Mertajam, near Penang, who struck a resonant chord with the Mandarin-speaking section of the crowd); Andrewson Ngalai (a big-time Iban pop crooner with “fourteen albums to his credit” who really captivated Mak Minah’s romantic, rustic soul); Electro-Acoustic Group UNIMAS (comprising students and lecturers from the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts); a Bidayuh Group, Sape Ulu, and Voice of the Usun Apau (representing Sarawak’s Bidayuh, Kenyah, and Penan tribes).
Much as I would have liked to sample the tribal offerings slotted early in the evening’s schedule, they were over and done with by the time we arrived at the Sarawak Cultural Village, venue of the Rainforest World Music Festival – whose patron, the Sarawak Tourism Board, organizing committee, and consultant Randy Raine-Reusch, deserve a huge round of applause for a job very well done.
No mike fright for Minah (W. Tarman)
Excitement fairly crackled on the second night – from my perspective, not least because Akar Umbi was scheduled to perform with Dr Wan Zawawi’s Anak Dayung group. But around noon that same day, Rafique and I had been roped into backing Zuriani – with approximately 44 minutes to learn and rehearse two of her songs, Alhamdulillah and Candle Dance. And we’d only just met, at dinner two evenings ago!
Well, we had two other last-minute recruits: Anak Dayung’s trusty gambus and tabla player, Yahya Ibrahim (on loan from the Army Band, Orkes Tentera Darat), and Johari Morshidi, a spirited gendang player with Tuku ‘Kame’ (the Sarawak Cultural Village’s resident “ethnic fusion” orchestra led by flautist Narawi Hj Rashidi; Tuku Kame’s star asset, however, appears to be Jerry Kamit, Jeff Beck of the electrified sape and a thoroughly urbane young Iban).
Wait, make that THREE daredevil recruits: adorable Ainal, Johari’s nine-year-old true-blue trooper son, was game enough to back us up on auxiliary percussion. And what a natural-born show-stopper young Ainal turned out to be!
Now, you may ask: who is Zuriani Khalid? And rightly so, for this enchanting and talented singer, songwriter, record producer, and multi-instrumentalist has been living and working in the U.S. for the last 16 years. Within months of her return to Malaysia, Zuriani was busy producing big-name local artists like Siti Nurhaliza, Ella, Ziana Zain, Fauziah Latiff, Farra and KOOL.
“It’s been two years since my last public performance,” Zuriani confessed. “And I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself.” The symphonic orchestral backing she had earlier envisaged for her songs wasn’t working out. Zuriani felt that a smaller, tighter back-up group might just about pull through, if she did only two numbers instead of six.
I guess we all need anecdotes that can be passed on to our grandchildren. The night of dangerous living. We got on stage, checked out the mikes… Zuriani glided confidently to stage centre as the emcee introduced her. And it went down like ice cream on a hot day. The audience loved Zuriani. We all loved Zuriani, the Queen of Malaysia’s nascent World Music Scene!
Minah Angong belting it out (Wayne Tarman)
[This little incident precipitated a two-day sulk from another Queen: Mak Minah was somewhat miffed that her two musical Knights Errant were publicly championing another diva, and refused to talk with Rafique and me until we were airborne on the flight home.]
As it turned out, Mak Minah stole the show as soon as she began belting out Hutan Manao (a big hit when she first performed it four years ago at the Shah Alam Stadium). And when she did the joget with Wan Zawawi during the instrumental breaks, the crowd went wild. Young men rushed the stage showering her with flowers plucked from nearby shrubbery. Cameras flashed and whirred furiously throughout the Akar Umbi number.
Antares on Balinese flute (Wayne Tarman)
Fortunately, Wan Zawawi’s two songs from his debut Dayung album were very warmly received – including the spontaneous “hologram video clip” I inserted in the middle of Mencari Amerika when, after prancing sweatily around for a couple of minutes, I was inspired to sniff my armpits and announce the “New World Odor.”
The Nuradee Brothers’ Kuching fan club let out a roar of appreciation when Wan gave over the stage to these phenomenal singing siblings from Singapore. Their hit Diam (“Silence”) met with noisy applause. After the set everyone was grinning broadly, especially Ken Linang – a soulful blues guitarist unearthed in Kuching by our anthropologist friend and concert facilitator, good old Dr Wan.
Earlier I had been absolutely enthralled by Badan Budaya Melanau and the powerful, ritual trance dance performed by their shaman. I was told by some locals that this was indeed a rare treat, to be witnessing an authentic Melanau ritual on a concert stage. As the ancient-sounding “court orchestra” played, I was transported back a thousand years to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bali in Indonesia, Pagan in Burma, and Palenque in Central America… then the shaman entered deeper into his trance and began stomping on bits of broken ceramic. The musicians seemed really charged by the ritual. The Badan Budaya Melanau troupe even had “special helpers” on standby, just in case the shaman failed to emerge from his trance in the time allotted!
The MIA Traditional Orchestra (in this instance, MIA stands for “Malaysian Institute of Art” – NOT “Missing In Action”) performed a scientific synthesis of Asian and European chamber music arranged by ace flautist Yii Kah Hoe. Adventurously combining the sounds of the Sarawakian sape with the Malay rebana and serunai; and the Chinese pipa and dize with the more familiar cello, saxophone, violin and piano, the hardworking ensemble impressed with their meticulous discipline. Even a 3-minute blackout in the middle of their set failed to deter them from completing their performance with a flourish. The MIA contingent was extremely diligent in recording audio samples and making detailed notes all throughout the afternoon workshops held in conjunction with the festival. So the outing for them was also a field research expedition.
While waiting to go on, I was able to catch only snatches of various other performances like the UNIMAS Gamelan Group and the Kumpulan Gendang Melayu Asli. The Sarawak Cultural Village seems to have become the unnatural habitat of traditional groups who now earn their keep playing to tourist audiences. While their musicianship remains at a high level, one cannot help but sense that for many of these players, music is now essentially just a job.
Qiu Xia He – pipa virtuoso (Wayne Tarman)
ASZA, a crafty and inventive Vancouver-based acoustic quartet, was the last featured act on the festival bill. With Qiu Xia He (pronounced “Chu-sha”), a Chinese pipa virtuoso lending her Oriental charm and grace and consummate skill; Uruguayan percussionist extraordinaire, Joseph “Pepe” Danza, contributing his wild Latin exuberance and wonderful rhythm; Quebecois flamenco-jazz ace guitarist Andre Thibault adding a stylish dash of Gallic flair, passion and humor; and master musician and multi-instrumentalist, Randy Raine-Reusch (who claims aristocratic Flemish descent) providing the musical navigation and networking – ASZA is the quintessential, multi-ethnic embodiment of World Music, which Randy defines as “the music of, or resulting from traditional or indigenous cultures.”
“Which means that World Music is not a new musical genre,” Randy points out in his program notes as Festival Consultant, “but one as old as humanity itself. Yet World Music CDs have been outselling Rock, Classical and Jazz CDs in the West for a number of years, and this trend is now starting to appear in Asia.”
Randy is an old hand in the music business with heavy-duty connections to a wide selection of top players around the world. As a musician he has “been there, done that” – and now delights in his precious collection of weird musical instruments. “Between Pepe and me, we have over 700 instruments in our warehouse,” Randy says matter-of-factly. (His collection of personal anecdotes is equally impressive: “John Cage cooked lunch for me two days before he died.”)
Pepe Danza – ace percussionist (Rafique Rashid)
What about ASZA’s music? Well, I thought they were a perfect music festival item. The group offers a very palatable mix of musical innovation with occasional displays of superb musicianship, a mature theatrical sense, an easygoing, humorous rapport with their audience, and the ASZA sound is guaranteed to stimulate the most stultified musical imagination. It was great to hear the Canadian group “ASZA-fy” a well-known Dayak ditty. During the intro, Randy bowed his sape like a viola to delightful effect, inspiring fresh options for contemporary as well as traditional musicians.
When it came time for the Grand Finale, all the performers were invited on stage for an impromptu jam session conducted by “Pepe” Danza. Usually, these are somewhat cacophonous affairs, but so high and happy was the entire ensemble that, for over twenty minutes, everyone played and sang in perfect, magical harmony. Even the solemn-faced Melanau drummers were grinning, and the shaman flashed me a small, knowing smile when our eyes fleetingly connected.
And, midway through the finale, we all did a countdown for Merdeka. Never has the word “freedom” rung truer than on that unforgettable night, when performers and audience joined their spirits in uninhibited, euphoric celebration, under the ancient and benign gaze of Mount Santubong.
[An abridged version of this article was published in the November 1998 issue of Men’s Review]