All you need to know about Sarawak’s Rainforest World Music Festival

Dramatic rainforest, pristine beaches and rare wildlife are just some of the reasons to visit Sarawak — it’s also hosting the Rainforest World Music Festival this July, where infectious jungle beats will play long into the night.Saturday, 21 March 2020

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.  

One of the best times to visit is in July, when the tropical climate is drier and it’s possible to coincide a trip with the Rainforest World Music Festival. Set in thick jungle in the Sarawak Cultural Village, just 20 miles from Kuching, the event now hosts more than 23,000 festival goers. Launched over 20 years ago, this event plays host to eclectic artists from across the globe. This year, it’s being held from 10-12 July, and whether you want to stay by the beach or in the capital, be sure to book your ticket and hotel early — and extend your stay to explore the rest of this diverse, culturally rich country.

Meet the bands

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

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 RWMF, 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.

What to see & do

Drum Circles @ RWMF: The audience can participate in these popular daily sessions, which are led by 1Drum.org.

DJ late night parties: The adrenalin rush from the evening shows continues into the early hours with world music DJ sets from a range of different personalities playing music from Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and India.

Rainforest World Crafts Bazaar @ RWMF: Browse a myriad of arts and crafts on sale from furniture to paintings and wander through art installations. There’s also the opportunity to try everything from Batik painting to bead stringing.

Cultural snippets @ RWMF: Insights and glimpses into what lies behind the music, arts, crafts and stories of Sarawak and other cultures with film screenings and demonstrations by some of Borneo’s indigenous artists.

Sarawak Biodiversity Centre @ RWMF: Exhibitions and demos on the many uses of the flora from the rainforests of Borneo by Sarawak’s indigenous people, with products including perfume and medicine.

Top five bands to catch this year

At Adau (Sarawak): This popular experimental band is known for playing pop rock ethnic fusion, mixing ancient melodies and rhythms using the sape and the perutong, (a bamboo zither) before blending them with contemporary beats and tribal drums.

Elephant Sessions (Scotland): An award-winning progressive indie-folk band from the Scottish Highlands, Elephant Sessions combines traditional, funk and electronica. Band members include Euan Smillie on the fiddle, Alasdair Taylor playing the mandolin, Mark Bruce and Seth Tinsley on guitar and Greg Barry on drums.

Mariana Baraj (Argentina): Having played in various jazz, folk and rock music groups since her childhood, Mariana now performs solo combining singing and percussion, adding new elements to Argentine folkloric music.

Monsieur Doumani (Cyprus): This multi-award-winning three-piece Cypriot band blends traditional Cypriot music with modern genres. Monsieur Doumani is made up of Antonis Antoniou on the tzouras (a Greek stringed instrument), Angelos Ionas on the guitar and Demetris Yiasemides on a variety of wind instruments.

Seth Lakeman (England): Seth is a folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, playing fiddle, tenor guitar viola and banjo. He released his first solo album back in 2002, and spends much of his time touring the globe.

What to eat & drink

Awah Cafe: Local dishes include laksa, a 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).

Nasi Lemak Rasta: This stall serves up the national dish of Malaysia, nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, and a meal typically eaten at breakfast.
Suukee The Original Hainanese Chicken and Rice: This Chinese restaurant based in Kuching serves up whole roast chickens and sides, as well as typical Malaysian meals like chicken porridge.

Where to sleep

£ 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 takes place from 10-12 July 2020. It’s held in the grounds of Sarawak Cultural Village, a living museum less than an hour’s drive north of Kuching. For tickets go to rwmf.net

This content is created for our partner. It doesn't necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller (UK) or its editorial staff.

Follow National Geographic Traveller (UK) on social media 

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram