In 1997, the idea of Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) was proposed by a Canadian musicologist after witnessing a traditional Sape lute performance.
It didn’t take long to organise the first festival, which took place in 1998 after the approval of the Sarawak Tourism Board. A total of 300 people attended the event at the time.
Fast forward to today, the three-day festival is now a major annual event and likely the most anticipated festival in Sarawak with approximately 20,000 attendees from all around the world!
This prestige was why I was excited to volunteer for RWMF in 2022. However, my experience with the festival left much to be desired.
The (good) experience as a RWMF volunteer
The RWMF isn’t just a music festival. Asides from the concerts and performances, you can browse many of the local cultural and arts and crafts booths during the day.
This is how my friend and I ended up volunteering at RWMF by managing at an art booth.
This meant getting up everyday before 7AM to make the 45 minute drive from Kuching all the way to Sarawak Cultural Village where the event was being held.
Breakfast was purchased on the way, usually McDonalds or some other fast food of sorts because we had to reach the location around 9AM.
Even when we reached on time, we weren’t guaranteed a good parking spot, because every other booth had to make a similar journey. This meant the carpark was usually almost full by the time we got there.
Being at RWMF meant that there were tons of people from all around the state. We were able to meet so many people from other booths and made a lot of friends despite being chained to our booth from 9AM all the way to 7PM.
The first day and mornings in general were always slow, with hardly any people coming and going. It was only around 3PM on the second and last day did it finally start to get busy, considering it was the start of the weekend.
Our customers ranged from all around the world from Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and England. It was really nice to finally be able to see other nationalities after the long pandemic period.
However, the good experience we were having did not last the whole festival.
The (not so good) experience as a RWMF volunteer
During the festival, my friend and I were not being paid for our time. Instead, we were promised to be able to use our volunteer passes to enter the festival and watch the performances.
Imagine our shock when we tried to watch the concert on the very first night only to be held back by security and requested to leave. Volunteers are NOT allowed in the main performance area.
When we complained to the group we were volunteering for, even they were surprised because previous years always allowed volunteers to enter and enjoy the performances. Suddenly, the year 2022 was an exception.
It wasn’t just us as many other volunteers from other booths voiced their disappointment to the management. Yet the organisers remained ironclad and did not evoke the ban for the entire music festival.
We even heard rumours that supposedly the first contract that was sent out to booth participants included the previous clause that allowed volunteers in the performance area, but this detail was missing in the final signed contract. (We personally can’t confirm this ourselves, though!)
The broken promises, combined by our increased fatigue from the long hours spent volunteering, ultimately left us feeling dejected.
One night, we even resorted to sneaking past the security to watch the performance. But deep down, it felt terrible and wrong to know that you’re not wanted there. That you’re not allowed to be there even though you had a small part in making the festival a little livelier.
While my friend and I received access bands from our friends during the final day, I gave mine to someone else to enjoy the performance because I just wasn’t feeling up to it.
According to my friend who stayed behind, the encore and screams were endless when the live performance ended at midnight with all musicians bowing on stage. Supposedly there was also a wild after-party on the beach too.
How the next RWMF can be better
My volunteer experience at RWMF was a mix of good and bad. Personally, this is likely something I wouldn’t ever do again considering how unfair volunteers were treated.
Like I said earlier, RWMF is far from just a musical concert. It is a chance to experience the local art and culture through the scenic location of Sarawak Cultural Village and the many local businesses that set up shop during the festival.
What would happen if RWMF had no volunteers from going back on the 25-year tradition of allowing them to participate? What would this internationally recognised festival become if it was restricted to merely the night concerts?
I understand that RWMF is unlikely to fail, but the possibility is there. There has to be more transparency regarding the rules imposed on volunteers. If you’re going to change something that has been there for years; communicate it.
Other than that, I also heard of many bad experiences regarding the shuttle transportation to the event. Apparently some people were demanded to pay a hefty amount that was much higher than what other visitors were charged.
Ultimately, RWMF represents an opportunity for the world to learn about the culture of our state, which is why it is important for the quality of the festival to be upheld.
Here’s a piece of advice to any prospective volunteer at RWMF: Read the terms and conditions carefully.