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The show will go on – this iconic world music festival launches a virtual showcase in pandemic times

Launched in 2014, PhotoSparks is a weekly feature from YourStory, with photographs that celebrate the spirit of creativity and innovation. In the earlier 535 posts, we featured an art festival, cartoon gallery. world music festivaltelecom expomillets fair, climate change expo, wildlife conference, startup festival, Diwali rangoli, and jazz festival.

The annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) will be coming to computer and smartphone screens this month. Usually held on a July weekend at the Sarawak Cultural Village near Kuching, eastern Malaysia, the award-winning festival was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic.

First held in 1998, the organisers this year have decided to go online with a virtual showcase from June 18-20. The theme of the virtual experience this year is Get ‘Entranced, Liberated, Immersed’ (see promo video here).

“With COVID-19 hampering world travel, it’s important for us to remember the iconic Rainforest World Music Festival during the pandemic,” explains Sarawak’s Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister, Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah.

“Our online musical showcase this year attempts to recreate a virtual experience for those who are missing the excitement and merriment of our annual RWMF, and build up their anticipation for RWMF 2022,” he adds. The 2022 edition is tentatively scheduled for 17-19 June.

Suk Binie

Innovations and impact

Some of the hundreds of bands from around the world showcased at earlier editions of RWMF include Shooglenifty (Scotland), Layatharanga (India), Inka Marka (South America), Cimmaron (Colombia), Kelele (South Africa), Swara Samsara (Indonesia), Romengo (Hungary), Okra Playground (Finland), Ba Cissoko and Sona Jobarteh (West Africa).

I first attended the festival in 2008, and covered over ten editions, as captured in earlier editions of PhotoSparks and showcased in my archive photographs in this article. Each year, the organisers have raised the bar with creative programming and innovations like a new indoor stage, World Crafts Bazaar, seafront attractions, competitions to choose local bands, and festival previews in local venues.

Indonesian percussion troupe Dol Arastra Bengkulu

The programing has included workshops, jam sessions, cultural visits, wildlife trips, and tree planting. The grand finale is a favourite highlight, with all performing bands (sometimes more than 25 groups) coming up on stage on the last night.

The festival serves to increase awareness about musical instruments, forms, languages, and cultures from around the world. It also increases pride in local musical styles and heritage, and is a significant boost to the local cultural and tourism industry. A commemorative book on the festival’s highlights was released on its 20th anniversary.

2021 Virtual Showcase

2021 showcase

The online musical showcase this year will feature a retrospective of past RWMF performances and new pre-recorded sessions with homegrown acts. The entire performance will be streamed from RWMF’s official website from 6:00-7:30 pm (Malaysia Standard Time) each day from 18-20 June.

The flashback segment Fastest Fingers features string instrumentalists from the bands Kenwy Yang Qing Ensemble (Malaysia), Victor Valdez (Mexico), Teada (Ireland), Cimarron (Colombia), and Kimura Ono Duo (Japan).

Outstanding vocalists in the flashback titled Notes include Duelling Yodels, Sangpuy (Taiwan), Mamak Khadem (Iran), Krar Collective (Ethiopia), and Dahka Braka (Ukraine).

Registration is already open, and the entire programme for the 2021 edition is free. Local featured artists will include Alena Murang, Kemada, Sang Rawi, At Adau, Tuku Kame, Suk Binie’, Nading Rhapsody, and Mathew Ngau.

Sang Rawi

Malaysian performers

Based in Sarawak, Malaysia, the group AT ADAU was formed in 2014. It blends traditional sape (Sarawak lute) tunes and percussion from the different tribes in Borneo such as Bidayuh, Iban, and Orang Ulu – along with drums and guitars. Their music reflects reflect peace, serenity, harmony, and appreciation for nature.

The group Sang Rawi explores frontiers of experimental music, combining guitars, drums, clarinet and classical Malay cultural forms. There are elements of psychedelic, folk and rock music as well. The band members are Suffian, Apris, Rafiq, Acai, and Zul.


Suk Binie (‘young seedlings’ in the Bau Bidayuh dialect) consists of seven members. They played in urban venues before winning the Waterfront Music Festival competition in 2017. Their compositions are based on the traditions of ethnic communities in Sarawak.

With a twin focus on cultural preservation and environmental conservation, RWMF has secured a unique position in the lineup of world music festivals. It has certainly kept up with the changing times and taken on a digital avatar as well, as a symbol of resilience and reinvention.

Now, what have you done today to pause in your busy schedule and find new avenues to harness and rejuvenate your creative core?

Sona Jobarteh, the first female kora virtuoso

Saing Waing Orchestra from Myanmar, featuring the 13-stringed Burmese harp

Epi (Dandarvaanchig Enkhjargal) from Mongolia, on the morin khoor – or horsehead fiddle

Okra Playground with the kantele

Auļi from Latvia with one of the largest drums in the Baltics

Genet Assefa from the Ethiopian group Krar Collective

Maori instrumentalist Horomona Horo with the tiny koauau horn stuck in his pierced ear

Pareaso from South Korea, with the geomungo zither

Ana Alcaide (Spain)

Mehdi Nasouli (Morocco)

Mauravann (Mauritius)

Workshop – strings of the world

Book – 20 Years of RWMF

See also the YourStory pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups,’ accessible as apps for Apple and Android devices.

(Image credits: Madanmohan Rao and Sarawak Tourism Board)

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