KUCHING: As guests tuck into a dinner spread of dishes made from bamboo shoots, banana heart and jungle ferns, a young group of performers take to the stage at Telang Usan Hotel.
The group Det Diet Ensemble begins by singing a traditional piece titled Ateklan. It is a song performed to welcome visitors into the longhouses of the Kenyah people of Sarawak, and it is rarely heard outside of their remote villages.
But this week, it will be about welcoming visitors not to Sarawak's jungles but to its capital city, as it comes alive with a festival showing there’s more to the East Malaysian state than just kek lapis, orangutans, and longhouses.
The inaugural Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF), which opened on Jul 7 and runs until Jul 16, comprises exhibitions, performances, screenings, talks and a crafts market that highlight the place’s rich culture and heritage.
It also serves as a prelude to the annual Rainforest World Music Festival, the popular three-day event held at the Sarawak Cultural Village, located 35km from Kuching.
While the long-running music event has been bringing together groups from all over the world into the heart of the rainforest, the RFF will instead be held in the city itself and focus on what Sarawak has to offer, festival director Joe Sidek told Channel NewsAsia.
“The music festival is 45 minutes away and many locals don’t feel a part of that, because it’s too far and expensive for some. One of my objectives is to link what locals would feel for their own culture,” said the 58-year-old Johorian, who is best known as the brains behind Penang’s own George Town Festival.
He added: “It wasn’t hard to dig out interesting content – the history, the nature, the people, the food. When I looked at the Rainforest World Music Festival, it was mainly a musical event in the middle of the forest and that’s it. But where else would you find a place with underground caves, so many indigenous groups, and the story of White Rajahs? It felt fascinating.”
One of the two Malaysian states in the island of Borneo, Sarawak is known for its deep history, and ethnic and biodiversity – elements that the festival organisers are tapping into.
Music still forms an integral part of the RFF. Among the highlights this weekend is Sunday night’s Sada Kamek concert. The title means “our music” in colloquial Sarawak Malay and Iban, and it will feature contemporary and traditional Sarawakian performers, such as actors Tony Eusoff, music collective At Adau, singers Dayang Nurfaizah and Noh Salleh, and Mathew Ngau Jau, a master of the Sarawak lute called sape.
“I’ve invited the big names from Sarawak, from your mainstream pop singers to your indie bands to contemporary Sarawak music, which hopefully parallels the World Music Festival,” said Sidek.
On Saturday night, a fashion event titled Sarawak: Theatre of Clothes will feature designs that incorporate ethnic motifs from the likes of Edric Ong and Datuk Tom Abang Sauf, as well as Singapore-based Priscilla Ong Shunmugam.
There are also ongoing exhibitions from photographers Jimmy Nelson, Chien C Lee and the late Wong Ken Foo, as well as young artists such as Alena Murang and Kendy Mitot.
The RFF will also delve into the place’s history, with talks on two seminal British naturalists whose names and work have long been intertwined with Sarawak’s natural and ethnological history: Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Hose.
Sidek hopes to turn the RFF into an annual event. “I have enough material for the next three years. I’ve never felt like this for a place, but there’s so much storytelling that comes out from here,” he said.
Sidek added that he also plans to bridge the rainforest culture in Sarawak with others around the world.
“People in Sarawak belong to this amazing rainforest belt stretching from Africa to New Guinea. If you look at the cultures found there, you’ll realise just how similar some of the imagery is, especially on textiles and fabric.”
But beyond the rainforest, the festival in Kuching also has echoes of his other, more prominent, festival up north in Penang, said Sidek.
In fact, right after RFF comes the annual Penang affair. The George Town Festival, which begins on Jul 28, will also include its relatively new satellite two-day fringe event at Butterworth.
“They're small festivals compared to others in the region, but they're both very place- and people-centric,” said Sidek, who is also thinking of linking up with similar festivals in the region to form a fringe festival network. For now, he is looking at linking Kuching and Butterworth, along with Australia’s own Adelaide Fringe Festival.
“I’ve lived my life abroad and in peninsular Malaysia. But there’s something about Kuching that makes you feel very welcome. I fell in love with it during my second visit. It’s like a small village, like Penang, and it feels intimate. The fabric of the city calls you.”