Bluegrass and banjos in Borneo

Ace banjo player Jake Schepps sent along this fascinating report from his recent trip to Borneo with the Jeff and Vida Band, along with some photos and a video.

The Jeff and Vida Band at the 2009 Rainforest World Music Festival in Borneo - Greg Schochet, Jake Schepps, Jeff Burke and Vida WakemanTwo weeks ago, the Jeff and Vida Band performed at the 12th annual Rainforest World Music Festival. The festival is on the northwest tip of the island of Borneo, outside of Kuching, the capital of the Sarawak region of Malaysia. They host just one string band each year, and we were fortunate enough to be selected for this year’s festival.

Jeff Burke and Vida Wakeman have performed and toured actively as a duo for the last 8 years and most recently they recorded Selma Chalk, (to be released 10/1/09) with a Colorado-based band. The group includes myself on 5-string banjo, Justin Hoffenberg on fiddle, Greg Schochet on mandolin and archtop guitar, and Will Downes on bass.

The festival takes place at the Sarawak Cultural Village, an interactive center with exhibitions on the more than 20 local Borneo tribes, and over 20,000 attendees came to the festival. We were the only group from the US, while the rest came from Chile, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, China, Korea, France, Tanzania, Morocco, Finland, Indonesia, and Malaysia

The band made the 36-hour journey to Borneo, flying from Denver to Los Angeles to Taipei to Kuala Lumpur to Kuching and a bus to Santubong Resort. At the end of this journey we enjoyed the sunset while swimming in the South China Sea (still oblivious to the numerous stinging jellyfish in the area), a dinner of unpronounceable and unrecognizable local dishes, and a few pints of Tiger beer.

Members of the Jeff and Vida Band at a Rianforest Wold Music Festival workshopThe festival begins each afternoon with a series of workshops, and each band member was placed in eclectic settings ranging from 10 guitarists in one group, or 12 women vocalists, or all the tiniest instruments at the festival (including a mandolin, a Brazilian cavaquinho, a Chinese pipa, an Andean charango, and more). “Funsionistas” was my first workshop and included a local tribesman playing a sape, a Malaysian percussionist, a Moroccan on Stratocaster, an Aussie guitarist, and a Korean man playing a clangy cymbal. We each discussed the history of our respective instruments, either in English or using a translator, and played a short solo piece. Then we tried to make music as an ensemble.

While the potential for disaster was close at hand, most of the four workshops I participated in had some genuine moments of cohesiveness and fun. In the “Strings with Energy” workshop, Jeff and I played 9 lb Hammer over a Moroccan percussionist followed by a traditional Chinese melody entitled Kangdang Quingge with two members of Red Chamber (I was familiar with the tune from Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet album of 2008). One of the best moments was watching Vida sing Take This Hammer at the “Women’s Voices‚Ķ..” workshop and with 2 of the Zawose sisters (from Tanzania) clapping and dancing along.

The group Red Chamber, a quartet of Chinese women living in Vancouver, performs a variety of Chinese and other music from around the world on traditional Chinese instruments.  On their recent album Red Grass they adapted the traditional American fiddle tune Katy Hill and recorded it with John Reischman and the Jaybirds. We worked up the tune and performed it with them during their Friday evening set.The Jeff and Vida Band’s Saturday evening performance was met with remarkable enthusiasm. The crowd listened, learned the words as we played – singing along with verve – and then formed a long conga line that snaked across of the festival grounds. Afterwards we had many people telling us, “You play amazing ‚Äòcountry and western!'” If they only knew.As a performer and attendee of many bluegrass festivals, it was endlessly fascinating to hear our own music come across as “world music.” In this setting rhythmically, harmonically, and aesthetically, we had just as little in common with some of these bands as the Korean ensemble Noreum Machi that played percussion and bamboo flute (check them out on YouTube!).

Not to discount the notion that music as a universal language, as the workshops illustrated. As did the late-night jamming. Groups from 5 continents found much musical common ground and shared tunes to the wee hours. We played Polish tunes in 7/8, Hungarian gypsy tunes played traditionally, and then jamming on them through the gypsy jazz filter with the French band Poum Tchack’s, alongside our Big Sciota and Y’all Come.

One of the highpoints was getting to hear Kumar Karthigesu from the Malaysian group AkashA take a sitar solo on Lady Be Good. Though maybe the Maori tribesman singing Harper Valley PTA takes the cake, yet the Finns and Poles attempting to sing the Star Spangled Banner as we climbed on the bus to make the 36-hour journey home was quite hilarious.

Sunday’s grand finale was a spectacle beyond belief. The Zawose Family from Tanzania laid down a drumbeat, and each of the 17 bands came out one at a time and performed a short piece over their groove. I think I can safely say there has never been a Muleskinner Blues performed quite like that. The extravaganza culminated with all 17 bands on stage playing and jamming for a solid 20 minutes of pure unadorned rhythmic dance party.

One of the most moving moments of the weekend happened during the final moments of the finale, and is an image that sums up the experience. At the front of the stage was a Moroccan man in traditional dress, a New Zealand Maori man in a grass skirt, a New Wave Korean percussionist, and a Tanzanian woman, all unabashedly dancing and gyrating together with 100 musicians from all over the planet behind them, and 10,000 adulating fans in front.

Jake Schepps