Sarawak may be Malaysia’s most musical state — here’s why

Dramatic rainforest, pristine beaches and rare wildlife are all reasons to visit Sarawak — but it’s also a place where jungle beats play long into the night. Every year Sarawak hosts the Rainforest World Music Festival, start planning a visit now.

Saturday, March 21, 2020,
By Sarawak Tourism
Batang Ai is the best place to spot orangutans, as well as to spend time with ...
Batang Ai is the best place to spot orangutans, as well as to spend time with the Iban tribe who believe the spirits of their ancestors live on in these great apes.
Photograph by Getty

Blanketed in dense rainforest, with 45 national parks, five wildlife sanctuaries and 15 nature reserves, there’s ample opportunity to get out into nature, both inland and on the coast, in Sarawak. Kayak down the Semadang River, hike up Mount Murud to spot proboscis monkeys, or don a wetsuit and dive beneath the waves for myriad marine life.

Culturally and linguistically diverse, Sarawak is home to 27 ethnic groups, including the Iban tribe, which has long since ceased headhunting but still maintains many of its traditional customs and ways of life. Orangutans are sacred to the Iban, and their jungle home of Batang Ai is the best place to spot the great ape. In the east, meanwhile, the temperate highlands are home to the Kelabit people, and intrepid travellers can hike from longhouse to longhouse throughout the region.  

And then there’s the Rainforest World Music Festival. As with so many events around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the cancellation of this year’s festival. However, the world will, of course, open up again — and now is the time to dream and to plan.

Next year, the musical extravaganza is set to be bigger and better than ever before. Set in thick jungle just 20 miles from Kuching, and held in the summer when the tropical climate is drier, the event will play host to a range of eclectic artists from across the globe. Read on to meet a few of the bands who will be taking to the stage and learn what this wonderful celebration of music and culture is all about. 

Saufi played on the opening night of the 2017 Rainforest World Music Festival, along with 19 other sape players.

Photograph by Saufi Sape’star

Meet the bands

It’s the local talent that makes the Rainforest World Music Festival unique. Here are three of the musical acts bringing their traditional dance, chanting and array of inimitable instruments to the stage this summer at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

Saufi Aiman Yahya
Performer, Saufi Sape’star

What is the sape?
The sape (pronounced SA-peh) is a traditional musical instrument of the Orang Ulu community that has been used for more than 400 years. It was originally designed for healing rituals and it went on to be used for traditional dance.

What kind of music do you perform?
Since the year 2000, we started to develop a new music style called contemporary sape, where we change the tuning of the sape so that we can play it along with certain guitar techniques and modern instruments.

What does music mean to you?
I’m a classical guitarist so I love how music can conjure up emotions. The sape is one of the most soothing instruments I have ever heard, and we use modern technology to add ambience, then place new melodies on top.

What’s the best thing about the Rainforest World Music Festival?
I played the opening of the 2017 festival along with 19 other sape players in a group called Sape Sarawak. It’s great to see people come from all around the world to this tiny village to enjoy the music and jungle ambience. There’s a lot of cultural activity, not just Malaysian culture but also international performances and workshops. It’s a great place for music lovers, especially those who stick around for information and to learn about global cultures.

What kind of activities can visitors do at the festival?
There are a lot of music and dance workshops so you can learn to play almost anything. Plus, everything is taught by rainforest performers, including myself.

What else should travellers try while in Sarawak?
The most memorable thing about Sarawak is the food. We have sours, meats and endless local delicacies. If you love olives you should try the dabai, which are huge and sour. The most interesting thing is that we eat them with salt or soy sauce — it’s quite different.

Any festival tips?
Try to learn everything on offer because it makes for one great experience. I hope sape music will inspire people — not just entertain them, but also make them fall in love with the cultural music of Sarawak.

Leo Mua Moko and his four bandmates in Suku Menoa are connected through Sarawak’s Iban tribe.
Photograph by Suku Menoa

Leo Mua Moko
Leader, Suku Menoa


If there’s one thing that will truly bond the members of a band, it’s shared ancestry. Leo Mua Moko and his four bandmates in Suku Menoa are connected through Sarawak’s Iban tribe, also known as Sea Dayaks or the headhunting tribe of Borneo. It’s this shared heritage they want to continue through their music, and the Rainforest World Music Festival presents the ultimate opportunity to meet with other indigenous peoples over great music. The best thing about it, he says, is “the gathering of tribes, no matter where on the planet they’re from, to share, tell, preserve, dance, play, bless and unite.”

The band formed in 2019 with a focus on traditional ritual music, dancing and chanting about their tribe and the land. Their name combines two words: suku meaning ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ and menoa meaning ‘land’ or ‘island,’ Between them they play a mixture of instruments from small and large gongs to traditional drums, lute string, jaw harp and brass percussion. Suku Menoa may not have been together long, but they have big dreams and hopes for the future: “We want to preserve our culture and carry on tradition,” says Menoa. He hopes to visit other places that have their own tribal festivals someday, such as New Zealand or any South Pacific Island.

Meldrick Bob
Drummer, percussionist and band leader of At Adau


When in Sarawak, Meldrick Bob says, it’s essential to get a tattoo — namely, the ‘bunga terung,’ a distinctive coming-of-age symbol that’s seen on the skin of locals and visitors alike. It’s not just about marking the self with ink, but connecting cultures. “When people come here, they always want to get a tattoo. Afterwards, they celebrate it and that’s where friendships begin.” Those with the urge will find Sarawak’s most gifted tattoo artists at the Rainforest World Music Festival, where Bob will play together with tattooed sape player Ezra Tekola and their four bandmates.

Bob and the other members of At Adau all hail from different tribes, including Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu. They bonded over music and a shared mission. “We want to involve more traditional elements in our band and make it cool again.” They fuse instruments such as sape with drums, electric guitar and bass, and are playing at the festival for the fourth time. “Two years ago, we were so excited to introduce everyone to the sound of At Adau. People started to realise that traditional music can mix with modern sounds, something that’s more accepted nowadays. We’re honoured to perform again this year.” While at the Rainforest World Music Festival, he says music lovers shouldn’t miss out on the local rice wine, Sarawak laksa, kolo mee noodles and a dish of chicken cooked in bamboo called ayam pansuh.

Guinean singer Djeli Moussa Condé (left) and his band performing at the Rainforest World Music Festival 2018.
Photograph by Alamy

Cultural insights

Sarawak is a cultural melting pot — a country made up of scores of different ethnic groups, each with their own musical and artistic traditions. The Rainforest World Music Festival brings all these together under one jungle canopy, with ample opportunity for visitors to get involved. Set to return next year is the Rainforest World Crafts Bazaar, where festivalgoers will be able to try out batik painting, a popular artform across Malaysia and Indonesia in which wax is melted onto cloth in distinctive patterns and then dyed in myriad colours. Beaded necklaces and headpieces have long been favoured by tribes throughout Sarawak, passed down through generations and worn for special occasions — with the opportunity for visitors to be able to try their hand at jewellery making at the festival. The Sarawak Biodiversity Centre sets up a stall every year, too. There, travellers will get the chance to attend exhibitions and demonstrations on the many uses of the flora from Borneo’s rainforests by its indigenous people, with products ranging from perfume to medicine.

Traditional Malay dancers will tke to the stage both nights during The Rainforest World Music Festival.
Photograph by Alamy

A cuisine to savour

Sarawak’s food scene is second to none, with thick, creamy curries and fragrant rice dishes taking centre stage. No visit would be complete without a laksa, a popular local dish of spicy chicken- or shrimp-based broth containing rice vermicelli, shredded omelette and laksa paste (made with shallots, garlic, lemongrass, dried chillies, coriander seeds, cumin, star anise, cardamom, clove and nutmeg). Other stars of the show include nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia and a meal typically eaten at breakfast, which sees rice cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in a pandan leaf. Visitors to the Rainforest World Music Festival will find that food options abound, with offerings from traditional eateries such as AwahCafe and Nasi Lemak Rasta, both of which have branches in Kuching and are firm favourites among local Sarawakians.

Hotels for every budget

With more than 20,000 festival goers set to descend on the Rainforest World Music Festival in 2021, getting a feel for the kind of accommodation on offer is always prudent. Here are three hotels to suit every taste and budget:

£ Culvert
Nestled in a jungle setting in Santubong, 1.6 miles from Damai Beach, cosy eco-style rooms are actually pods made from sections of concrete pipe.

££ Damai Beach Resort
Just five minutes’ walk from Sarawak Cultural Village, this 242-room resort overlooks the beach. Facilities include restaurants, a gym and spa.

£££ Cove 55
This boutique hotel has just 15 rooms, and is a five-minute drive from Mount Santubong and the festival. Facilities include an infinity pool, fitness centre, and library.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Malaysia Airlines flies from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Kuching. Average flight time: 16h

When to go
The Rainforest World Music Festival will announce its 2021 dates later in the summer. It will be held in the grounds of Sarawak Cultural Village, a living museum less than an hour’s drive north of Kuching. For more information, go to rwmf.net

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