Rainforest music fest's mastermind of magic

Jun Lin has served as artistic director of the Rainforest World Music Festival for most of its 20 years. — Malay Mail pic
Jun Lin has served as artistic director of the Rainforest World Music Festival for most of its 20 years. — Malay Mail pic

KUCHING, July 23 — The Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) has evolved greatly over the years.

From its humble beginnings in 1998 with some 300 people in attendance — it’s now firmly entrenched among the world’s great music gatherings.

One name synonymous with RWMF is artistic director Yeoh Jun Lin.

She was there from the start and has masterminded the appearance of over 500 international acts.

On top of of being artistic director of RWMF from 2001 to 2007, and returning to the fore since 2012, she is also credited for establishing Penang World Music Festival, Genting International Jazz Festival and Borneo Jazz.

We sat down with Jun Lin following the 20th anniversary of RWMF to get a taste of the effort involved in choreographing such a stunning, soulful and musically diverse festival.

Malay Mail: So, Jun Lin, explain the year long process of securing the acts.

Jun Lin: There’s a lot of listening to CDs and DVDs sent to me or collected by me. Then I start meeting with agents, managers and musicians and start developing a short list, which is more like a long list. Various times of the year I go to festivals and showcases and watch the acts live. I then fit together the jigsaw puzzle of who I want and what would add up to a diverse programme. Sitting on the jury of festivals and conferences also helps as I have access to a large range of music.

MM: How often are you on the road and how has your process varied over the 20 years given the rise of technology?

JL: I’m away for perhaps five months of the year. The Internet search and research is more each year, but at the same time the networks and connections have grown, too. The end result is still a diverse programme, covering five continents and finding something that will appeal to different personal tastes.

When asked what makes RWMF so unique, Jun Lin said it’s the individual touch during these gruelling months.

“I believe it’s the personal element that is the glue that bonds the festival — for the musicians as well as the audience and for the team. I don’t want to lose that.

“It gets harder and harder but I watch myself like a hawk that I don’t get detached from the really important things that make up the fundamental spirit of the festival in the first place.

“I have a great team that are under strict instructions that they are to nudge me any time they see me wandering off the path.”

MM: So, is there a criteria for selecting particular artistes?

JL: Apart from producing wonderful music, they must have stage presence, be in the sphere of “world music” genre, have weird and wonderful ethnic instruments and be able to invoke, provoke and connect with the audience.

MM: The festival has grown enormously over 20 years — even in the five years since I have been coming — shifting towards a commercial product. How has this shaped things from your end?

JL: It’s a question of balance and trying to see both the close-up details and the overall picture at the same time, managing as best we can, having to make the hard calls, and always trying to keep the spirit of the festival. I don’t think we want to go back to crackling sound production problems and vague band selections as it might have been in the early years.

She added they have learned from their mistakes and have worked towards producing the best possible spectacle for musicians and fans.

“Starting the theatre stage was probably one of the best things we did three years ago to keep the balance of the festival so we could have the acoustic and more classical bands in the repertoire while having the more non-acoustic bands on the outside stages at night.

“Now we have another pleasant problem in that with the popularity of the festival, the venues for the daily workshops are too small to accommodate the fans, so that’s the next thing I have to fix.”

Jun Lin’s journey to reach festival date each year is truly remarkable. Much thought, preparation and liaison between the Sarawak Tourism Board and the respective artistes takes place.

And while she admits there’s total neglect of social and family life, and struggles to maintain the physical, mental and emotional stamina to continue serving up such an amazing show each year, she concludes: “Each year is a journey for us. And I hope it continues to be like that.

“It would be terrible if we think that we’ve already arrived at the destination and we don’t need to travel on anymore.”

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