“I don’t know if you have any idea who I am, besides this weird looking ‘orang putih’, but I keep telling the people of Borneo that I’m not ‘orang putih’, I’m an ‘Orang Utan’, just without the suntan,” laughed Randy Raine-Reusch.
Born in 1952, this Canadian musicologist is the co-founder of our beloved Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) and has returned to work on it in celebration of its 25th year.
We had the chance to sit down with other writers and representatives from Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) for an intimate chat via Zoom from where he is currently residing, in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
“I met Malaysian ethnic musicologist, Sulong Ismail when I was in Australia, and we got to chatting about bamboo mouth organs,” he said, showing us his own instruments. After stopping in China for some research the following year, Randy decided to make his way down to Kuala Lumpur (KL) to meet his friend as he wanted to see these mouth organs. His friend replied, “You’ll have to go to Sarawak.”
“So I did, and my eyes are opened to a whole new world!” he said excitedly. He then spent a couple of years in the state, recording traditional music and that is when he discovered ‘gold’. Sarawak is probably one of the richest places in the world. This place has magic, the environment, the place, the people and this ‘gold’.”
This ‘gold’ he keeps referring to? Our traditional music.
“I have worked with top musicians in the world and recorded with major artists, I have organised and performed in festivals, and what I can hear in Sarawak was something that no one else was hearing,” he said. He started going around and talking to musicians about the possibility of putting together an annual music festival.
He also talked to Robert Basiuk, who was Deputy Chief Executive Officer of STB at the time, about Winnipeg Folk Festival, which is what the Rainforest World Music Festival is modelled after.
“I said to him, if we can get international artists to Sarawak, to perform on stage alongside traditional artists, that would blow their minds! This would bring exposure to longhouse musicians to the world and grow Sarawakian artists. However, the main reason for this festival is that I want to share that ‘gold’ I’ve been talking about, I want to share it with the world and I want everybody to get excited about it, and 25 years later, the world HAS heard of Sarawak.”
In 1997, Randy was asked to bring some Bornean musicians to that year’s World Music Expo (WOMEX) in Marseilles, France, namely Erang Lahang, Uchau Bilong, Asang Lawai and Tegit Usat. Before the trip to Europe, the group first performed in the city of Kuching. The crowd was at first sceptical at the thought of bare-footed primitives performing in front of thousands of people.
Sape Performance at WOMEX 1997
Despite the feedback from own countrymen, the group went forward and played the sape as well as performed a traditional dance in front of the massive crowd, packed with international media and European agents, managers and festival directors.
“The audience were in tears. I was shocked and when I asked why everyone is crying, the head of WOMEX said to me, “We thought that this kind of music is gone from the world. This is the music that we long for in our soul. We thought that this no longer existed but here it is.””
What was once considered primitive was now pure and the amateurs became authentic. This is the sound of Sarawak, which still exists today, according to Randy.
With advancing technology, Randy pressed on the importance of keeping up with the times. A whole new generation of musicians have been born and emerged since the very first RWMF, who have rediscovered their own heritage and putting a fresh spin on traditional music, elevating it to the 21st century. The hybrid manner of this year’s RWMF also means that anyone in the world could take part or perform in it.
“This festival will get stale if we don’t get new blood in. My generation needs to step back in the future. That is why I’m training Alena Murang and Meldrick Bob Udos to do what I do, but this is what I’ve always done. I’m hoping that they could revitalise the sense of what Sarawak is for the years to come.”
It is one of the reasons why Randy is so very passionate about the whole festival, as he has been there for its inception, and RWMF has always been driven by artists like himself, instead of a corporate group only bringing in whoever’s popular.
Randy built RWMF from the ground up on its first year in 1997, and partially ran the festival on the second year. On the third year, he handed over the reins to STB, which undertook the task of consolidating and financing the annual event. The first year saw an audience of only 300, but has grown to 23,650 in 2019 and 402,865 during its first fully virtual show in 2021.
One of the best parts about RWMF is the lowered barrier between performers and the audience, according to Randy. Artists aren’t sequestered into a small space, hidden away. Once they get off-stage, they’re with the audience, and you can mingle with them throughout the rest of the festival, maybe even during workshops and other performances.
However, daytime workshops are easily Randy’s favourite part of the festival, especially now that the festival is going to be physically staged again. He gushed about the sight of musicians jamming with each other, doing what musicians do best, creating a genius piece of music right then and there, despite being strangers mere minutes ago.
“I bring artists that enlighten, that bring fresh ideas, to introduce something new and different. I bring artists that spend their whole life on a single instrument to the point of such mastery that a single note will bring you to tears. Another note will put a giant grin on your face. These are the kinds of musicians that I’m bringing, some with instruments that you never even heard of,” said Randy, calling the whole experience a voyage on pure, unadulterated discovery.
He even gave some sly hints as to the kinds of artists that we can expect to see at this year’s RWMF, some who have never performed at the festival before, some coming back especially for this year, some truly interesting virtual performances, as well as artists that just want the chance to contribute to RWMF.
“People come to RWMF not to see other artists from other countries, nor is it simply a collection of international performers here to have a party. It is something more unique; it’s putting together an already diverse conglomeration of many cultures of Sarawak with international cultures. It is something that you can’t find anywhere else.”
The 25th anniversary of RWMF will take place at Sarawak Cultural Village, Kuching from June 17 to 19, 2022. For more information or booking, check out https://rwmf.net/.
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