Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Searching for the Perfect Beat in Borneo


If you want to hear live music in the city of Kuching —located in the state of Sarawak, in the country of Malaysia, on the island of Borneo — your best bet is to take a nocturnal stroll along the city’s undulating waterfront promenade — aka “The People Place” — alongside the Sarawak River.

Amid hawkers of cat-themed souvenirs (the Malay word kucing means cat), glowing plastic toys and tasty street food (but no alcohol, Malaysia being a relatively liberal Islamic nation), you’ll find buskers aplenty.

Some play the sapeh lutes indigenous to the Sarawak region’s Orang Ulu people. Others strum acoustic guitars while singing original American-sounding indie-rock in Malay. And if you’re fortunate enough, as I was, you’ll stumble across a plucky and charismatic little girl, accompanied by her beaming father on electric guitar, belting out what sounded to my severely jetlagged ears like old American show tunes.

Your second best bet would be to attend the Borneo World Music Expo (BWME), which took place mid-June in the Kuching Hilton as a sort of industry appetizer prior to the Rainforest World Music Festival a few days and a hundred kilometers later.

The BWME showcased nine mostly regional artists while negotiating a path around the complicated issues of music and tourism in this still-developing nation. Where the Rainforest festival offered a romantic vision of how local acts might be integrated into the existing “world music” industry, the BWME was a nuts-and-bolts affair that featured remarkably intimate performances that should have attracted a larger local audience.

The two and a half million residents of Sarawak comprise a cultural melting pot of some 40 ethnic groups, each with its own language and way of life. These include Malays, Melanaus, Chinese, Indians, Ibans and Bidayuhs.

Sarawak regional music is a similar stew of influences. The Gendang Melayu Sri Buana, who provided a musical welcome to the first of three nights of showcases, is a large multigenerational family group. The “Gendang” part of their name means large drum, and Malay music is rooted in drums, gongs, metallophones, and other percussion instruments. And like nearly all these acts, their music is so old that it sounds resolutely new again.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics & Vids) at: Searching for the Perfect Beat in Borneo
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