JUST TWO WEEKS after the celebration of Aidilfitri, Music Press Asia is once again clad in a festive spirit. This week, we feature one of Southeast Asia’s indigenous festival. Celebrated by over four million people, Gawai Dayak is a celebration of life. And each year, the celebration takes place right at the hearth of their homes; welcoming guest, cooking up a feast and performing religious rituals all in the name of giving thanks for the harvest they have reaped over the last year. Gawai Dayak as a celebration is as significant as what Sarawak is to the rest of us and cannot be indulged unless it is mentioned a little more precisely than what our brains can muster in the next 3 minutes. So here goes the cultural talk.
ANNUAL FESTIVAL: GAWAI DAYAK, an annual rice harvest festival, is celebrated on June 1 by the Dayak community that represent the indigenous peoples living in the interior of Borneo in Sarawak and Kalimantan, Indonesia. A celebration known to bring the community together, it is a festival that truly expresses the gratitude for the harvest accumulated in the season. Marking the end of the rice farming cycle, it is also the beginning of the season to plant new crops. The many rituals in this one celebration alone represent the core of its diversity and importance as a community in this region: consisting of dances performed by men and women, welcoming guests, fun and games, and feasts of which are culinary displays of traditional recipes shared with friends and family.
Due to the pandemic, the festival this year in Sarawak will see a decreased number in ritualistic ceremonies. According to TheStar, after having received sources directly from the state disaster management committee of Sarawak, announced that the celebration will only be allowed for one day (June 1). And that strict standard operating procedure released on May 21 will be ‘limited to family members from the same household, while those in longhouses can only celebrate with their immediate families within their own ‘bilik’. Over the last 12 months, as the world continues to battle the spreading pandemic, traditional celebrations involving rituals and gathering of its community are just some of the activities seeing an adverse effect for the social norms, of which we had to abandon and dismiss altogether.
The Dayak Gawai celebrates the rice harvest participated by over 4 million people from the Dayak community in Malaysia and Indonesia –Music Press Asia. [Image first published on TheStar.com.my.]
Today, its many traditions and culture continue to be the main attraction for local and international – boosting its economic and tourism sectors that continues to support its community. The Dayak Gawai, albeit it being an indigenous festival, is still being celebrated by over three to four million people in this region. And has become a symbol that unites, aspires and gives hope to the Dayak community since being officially celebrated in 1965. Kuching, the capital of Sarawak (Malaysia) begins the celebration a week before with street parades and cultural activities held at cultural institutions and tourist hotspots.
HABITAT & ECONOMY: SOUTHEAST ASIA, like many other regions, is still a diverse region populated by over 655 million people. With over 2.6 million in population, Sarawak has an equatorial climate with a tropical rainforest adorned with diverse plant species and recorded over 2,000 tree species to date. Other plants include over 1,000 species of orchids, 757 species of ferns and 260 species of palm. Bako National Park is still the oldest national park in Sarawak; known for its 275 proboscis monkeys and Padawan Pitcher Garden.
Sarawak has always been a tourist destination, popular for its activities curated to enjoy nature. People flock to this region to watch the animal world thrive in its habitat; from bird watching, jungle expeditions in the rainforests, diving in pristine waters to attending cultural celebrations that happen almost every month of the year. According to Sarawak Tourism Board’s annual report in 2018, the state alone hosted around 4.4 million tourist in 2018, with Brunei (1.3 mil), Indonesia (418,000), Philippines (58,000) tourist at the top of the list — bringing with them RM7.95 billion in terms of tourism receipts generated towards the State’s Gross Domestic Product.
In the air, the state collaborated with Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA) and Wings Air, while tapping into the South China markets via Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. The Sarawak Tourism Federation, over the years, has formed a China Consortium and worked with the Malaysian Association of Travel and Tour Agents (MATTA) to put Sarawak on the world map — among many other collaborations.
With the entertainment element being one of its tourism’s largest driving force, it is beginning to see the impact of such music festivals, namely, the Rainforest World Music Festival and Borneo Jazz Festival, have had within its local communities. Borneo Jazz Festival (May, Miri) is one of the longest running Jazz festivals in the region. With performaces from both regional and international recognised jazz musicians, joined by local school brass bands, while the Rainforest festival was held at the Sarawak Cultural Village since 1998, Malaysia’s first ‘living museum’.
PEOPLE IN MUSIC: ALENA MURANG is a Borneo-born Dayak-European, who sings in the endangered language of Kelabit and Kenyah. Being recognised as one of the first women to play the sape’, a lute instrument native to Borneo, usually reserved for male healers only, Murang is deeply influenced by the lives of her ancestors, as well as the the rock and folk world. Her performances are expressions of journeys of the past and present of the mighty Aram river that runs from the coast to the highlands of Borneo — an area where the world’s oldest rainforest thrives today.
Alena was part of the revival movement of the sape’, 20 years ago, in the first batch of students from sape’ master & living heritage Mathew Ngau Jau. Over the last few years, she has performed in festivals across the world — including SXSW (USA), Colors of Ostrava (Czech Republic), Paris Fashion Week (France), Rudolstadt Festival (Germany), OzAsia Festival (Australia), and Rainforest World Music Festival (Malaysia).
Since then her self-produced music videos in collaboration with like-minded artists, have been selected for film festivals in different corners of the world. She was also a youth representative a the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, and UNESCO Asia-Pacific for her work in intangible cultural heritage.
In her latest album release titled “Sky Songs”, the track ‘Put Burui’ is a rendition by graceful female dancers, whose steps ‘emulate the flight of the mighty hornbills in the sky’. In the credit notes, she plays her part as an ambassador of wildlife, saying ‘…hornbills were believed to be messengers between the earth and the heavans.’ Today, hornbills in Sarawak are now protected under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance (1998).
PEOPLE IN CONSERVATION: AFTER BEING appointed as CEO of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) in January 2020, Zolkipli Mohamad Aton now leads the team in its next phase fighting new frontier and challenges while embracing biodiversity conservation. Being the official Controller of Wild Life and Controller of National Parks and Nature Reserves, Aton is truly a wildlife ambassador.
Having joined the Sarawak Forestry Corporation Sdn Bhd’s (SFCSB) management over twenty years ago, his role in tackling some of today’s critical issues regarding climate change will remain a steadfast commitment tasked only for those equipped for it.
At the heart of it all, he and his team are now focused on caring for the wildlife within its sixty-six protected areas: 46 national parks, 15 nature reserves and 5 wildlife sanctuaries, all in accordance to the Wild Life Protection Ordinance of 1998. Its latest awards and accolades include the World Excellence Tourism Awards 2020, the Malaysia Tourism Council Gold Awards, and the Sarawak Hornbill Tourism Awards.
While the pandemic has greatly decreased physical interaction with the wildlife in Sarawak, SFC is now reaching out to us through five of its programs to increase awareness as well as support for the wildlife:
- Orangutan Adoption Program
- Bring Bach the Rainforest Project
- Heart2Heart with Orangutan
- Sea Turtle Adoption Program, and lastly,
- Sea Turtle Conservation Program
We leave our wildlife and parks in his capable hands.
FUTURE OF TOURISM OF SARAWAK: THE GOOD news is that Sarawak is moving fast into the future. Last year, the Sarawak Tourism Online Ecosystem Fund (STOEF) was introduced with the objective to expand the state’s tourism digital footprint, and at the same time facilitate the tourism industry dealing with covid-19. Funds allocated by STOEF are now ready for its second phase beginning September this year.
Creating more efforts to support and create opportunities, virtual two-day conference, the International Conference on Responsible Tourism & Hospitality (ICRTH2021) beginning tomorrow will see participation from over 80 international speakers from UNWTO, UNESCO, PATA, government bodies, business organisations, associations and universities from 28 countries.
YB Datuk Haji Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah (Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture of Sarawak, Malaysia will be officiating the virtual event. No registration fee will be charged for this. To register, click here. For more information about the conference, please click here. Alternatively, you may also email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although our initial idea about the feature was to find out about the music of the Gawai Dayak, nevertheless, it was the beauty of its nature that has interwoven with so many of its local culture that attracted us here. Having some of the world’s oldest rainforests and cave systems at its doorstep, no wonder it is a prime destination for so many. It is difficult to untangle each celebration and culture into one story because its many facades have been interwoven over decades and century. And that’s where you come to a mix so diverse there’s no way to untangle them again.