Malasimbo Festival

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Jon Maloney asks if this is the best music festival you’ve never heard of…

A young man poses naked and defiant as he attempts to catch singer Mishka Adams’ eye before being bundled somewhat leisurely away by security. It’s a lighthearted moment that brings the crowd of roughly 4,000 who are here to see headliners Roy Ayers, The Robert Glasper Experiment, and Jose Gonzalez, to laughter and scattered cheering. Moments like these are frequent, with different sections of the crowd breaking into applause at someone else’s comical moment or when dancers Frankie and Zoe from Australian Afro-beat-reggae band Kooii dive into the crowd and get half the entire festival in an impromptu group line dance. It’s intimate moments like these that separate Malasimbo from every other festival I’ve been to: Glastonbury, Roskilde, Summer Sonic and even Hong Kong’s own Clockenflap included.

A picturesque drive in a hired jeepney, costing just over HK$40, takes you on a return trip up Mount Malasimbo and back. The journey meanders up a fairly steep hill that occasionally leaves you breathless with the view and the sheer scale of logistics that must go into putting on an international music festival at the top of a hill on a small island off the Mindoro coastline in the Philippines. When the local mayor’s office hesitated over coastline venues large enough to accommodate upwards of 3,000 people, landlords Hubert and Ara d’Aboville promptly decided to host the festival in their own 40 hectare backyard sprawled over the summit of Mount Malasimbo. And what a stunning decision that turned out to be.

Along the way up, we pass a smattering of settlements too small to call villages and a horse farm with rangy looking foals milling about in the cool, dry breeze. We pause several times to allow returning jeepneys to pass by, taking in the views of the gorgeous White Beach and Sabang Bay.

Bricks are used as a rear brake when traffic gets congested on steep turns. The driver’s assistant hops off the rear fender to slide a brick or two behind each rear wheel to prevent the jeepneys from sliding back back down the incline into oncoming vehicles. We arrive at a small hilltop to be greeted by a young girl teasing us with offers of free drinks if we sign up for a nightlife guide smartphone app. Drinks are cheap in Philippines, so it’s no surprise when there aren’t many takers. Most seem more excited that the entrance to Malasimbo is now within skipping distance.

Illuminated coconut trees surround the stepped natural grass paddy field amphitheater that makes up a large part of Mount Malasimbo’s summit. Hubert and his daughter Olivia, along with boyfriend Miro Grgic, came up with the madcap idea to hold an international music festival in their backyard after local authorities were unable to agree on a suitable venue near the azure waters of the Puerto Galera coast.

Giant soft coloured light fixtures hang from coconut trees as the odd friendly festival puppy roams sheepishly picking up leftover chicken kebabs and delicious chunks of adobo; a local friend nods his head appreciatively while praising the chef’s work, adding it’s pretty close to the real thing. A whole lechon, or suckling pig, is on offer here too, juicy squares of pork with crunchy skin and mildly piquant sauce on top. Delicious, and better than any festival food I’ve ever tasted. Lukewarm, undercooked burgers this is not.

Music-wise, the lineup at Malasimbo 2014 is perhaps one of the strongest and yet most eclectic found in Asia this year. Setting a music festival in the Philippines is a challenge for any performer, coming from a nation where singing is almost a national pastime. The festival featured the likes of jazz master Robert Glasper and his ensemble that make up the extremely talented Robert Glasper Experiment, soul legend  Roy Ayers (Lonnie Liston Smith sadly didn’t make an appearance despite appearing on the lineup), acoustic maestro José Gonzalez, the aforementioned reggae-funk Kooii, Jordan Rakei, and not to mention the amazing vocal talents of many of the local acts such as Mishka Adams and June Marieezy, a promising young singer with a stunning voice and ethereal onstage personality. Aside from the superlative live acts there are some genuinely inspiring DJs as well, Afro-funk producer and DJ Osunlade headlining the electronic lineup alongside talented locals Mikhail and Similar Objects.

While the lineup may not raise eyebrows for those used to festivals in Europe or the USA, in this part of the world it’s a rarity. The atmosphere is one that makes you wonder if all the great festivals, Glastonbury, Burning Man, and Roskilde, once all started out with the same level of intimacy. It makes you gasp that there’s just one single stage and that toilets are only five minutes’ walk away. And convenience – oh, the convenience of not having to queue for 25 minutes only to fumble inside a portaloo that has definitely seen better days. Did I mention the festival wristbands that double up as Octopus-like cashless wallets? Let’s just say it was pleasant surprise to see how well-organized it all turned out to be.

And should for some bizarre reason this five-day mixed event festival of music and art seems too much for you (there is also the raucous Malasimboat held on the Saturday and Sunday for the particularly adventurous), just a short jeepney ride away is White Beach, arguably more beautiful than the touristy Sabang Bay, with restaurants serving dishes from local food to surprisingly authentic Italian thin crust pizzas and bars pumping out Xtina once the sun goes down. Judging by the quality of guest houses and hotels, it’s clear the majority of guests are either young Filipinos from Manila or globe trotting backpackers. It all makes for a very, very beautiful, chilled weekend. The perfect escapist holiday for music lovers. In Miro Grgic’s words, ‘the process of growth will not be forced. Everything so far has been organically grown – and we want to keep it this way.’

I’ve got my plane tickets booked for next year already.