Searching for the Perfect Beat in Borneo

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 08.20.14 in Features
‘The Borneo World Music Expo was a nuts-and-bolts affair that featured remarkably intimate performances that should have attracted a larger local audience.’

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.

‘ It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world begins exploring the Sarawak sound.’

As far as recordings go, Sawaku – Music of Sarawak (1999), with its assortment of instruments, styles and ethnicities, is still the best overall introduction to the region’s diverse sounds. For pure vibe, however, it’s hard to top Ariel Kalma’s Osmose, which folds ethnomusicologist Richard Tinti’s chirping, tweeting and clicking field recordings from the middle of Borneo’s rainforests into the composer’s droning horns and keyboards. With OOIOO introducing alt-rockers to the joys of Javanese gamelan, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world begins exploring the Sarawak sound.

Malaysian popular music sounds a lot like Western music — only sung in Malay. It sounds nowhere near as “modern” as a band like Geng Wak Long, the seven-piece family group that won my heart with its gamelan-like rhythms and its singer’s angular dance moves and particular fury on the bongos. And the Madeeh quartet from Padawan, about 30 miles north of Kuching, played hypnotic, minimalist patterns on the Pratuokng, a tubular bamboo zither carved from a single piece of bamboo. The Bidayuh musicians live together in a longhouse, the increasingly rare large, single-room communal houses inhabited by jungle occupants. “People in our village call this very slow and very boring music,” group leader Arthur Borman said. “But it’s played all the time.”

At one point, Borman remarked that he’s often asked if his people still practice headhunting, which was outlawed in the 19th Century but practiced as recently the Dayak/Madurese ethnic battles of 2001. “Not with machetes,” he replied, “but with pen and paper.”

The stars of the region’s traditional music, Tukú Kamé — Malay for “our rhythm” — are employed by, and perform regularly at, the Sarawak Cultural Village, which is the site of the Rainforest Music Festival. The stylistically flexible family group has toured Europe and can expand to 23 members when necessary. It specializes in beautiful sapeh-focused tunes that might remind you of mellow and melodic ’70s Southern California folk-rock, although the instrument’s resonant strings add a subtle Indian vibe. Tukú Kamé’s beautifully decorated instruments sported designs verging on psychedelic exotica. They looked and sounded like tomorrow people.

Malaysian culture is tinged with a subtle futurism. You can see it in such local architectural marvels as a city hall resembling a spaceship and a parliament building resembling a fractal lotus blossom. Its food is a deliciously complex foundation of Asian fusion. And the colorfully trippy indigenous designs of the Orang Ulu, to take just one example, is an art meme waiting to explode. In its proto-minimalism, righteous rainforest vibe, and radically syncretic blend of Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian styles, Malaysian music likewise often sounds right around the corner from now. It’s a small world unto itself still awaiting discovery.