Beats Working

Beats Working

As a sound engineer, filmmaker and photographer, Niall Macaulay’s work schedule is nothing if not diverse. We catch up with him at a music festival in the rainforest.

It’s 2am and we’re on a breezy hotel balcony overlooking the South China Sea. While many people have long entered the land of dreams, Niall Macaulay is still winding down. The sound engineer has just finished another long day at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia, so it’s time for a Tiger beer and a relaxed debrief with his wife, photographer Maria Bakkalapulo, who is checking the images she shot from the photo pit. She’s got a good one of a Korean dancer mid-cartwheel.

Macaulay’s home base is Glasgow, but it’s not somewhere he and Bakkalapulo spend a lot of time. Last week they were trekking through sleet in the Scottish Highlands. This week they’re in the Borneo rainforest. Another day, another continent.

For the past 10 years, Macaulay has been the live mix engineer with folk bank Shooglenifty, worked for the BBC and designed and overseen music events in the UK, Canada, Asia, Europe, Russia, Cuba, the USA and South Africa. He’s recorded live concerts and produced albums for the likes of Tuvan throat singers and English folk artists. He met Bakkalapulo in the rainforest – at this very festival, in fact – back in 2005. “Maria was working for [US radio station] NPR, seeking to plug in her Marantz recorder to grab some of the show while I was mixing the sound,” explains Macaulay. “We clicked, and kept in touch online. After a year in separate hemispheres, I finally travelled to Bali where we had our first free time together.” Journalist and ethno-musicologist Bakkalapulo was house-sitting a veritable Shangri-La there – infinity pool, moat, staff, the works.

The pair married five years later, and has been on the road almost constantly. The lack of routine and sometimes challenging assignments have helped them refine a travel routine – well, almost. “We tend to leave a trail of items behind us, not all of which we manage to recover,” says Macaulay. “We store bags of cables, extra shoes, toiletries, motorbike helmets, coffee makers and boogie boards in various places awaiting our next visit. Our journalism work can be fast-moving and unpredictable, and the kit bag for each event or interview can vary wildly. Keeping track is difficult and long-haul flights can make you incredibly fuzzy-headed. Last year I left a brand new laptop on a self check-in machine in Heathrow. Thankfully, it was still there 10 minutes later when I noticed it missing.”

Macaulay calculates he has clocked up 110,000 kilometres in the air in the past year (he offsets the carbon emissions through Climate Care), but as any traveller is well aware, you can’t fly everywhere. “We had a recent experience with a Jakarta taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel and running into the kerb, thankfully going too slowly to cause serious whiplash,” Macaulay recalls. “We once also had to abandon our tiny car that couldn’t make it up the steep sides of Mount Kinabalu. And Maria was practically dragged up the side of Bali’s Mount Batur by an extremely fit Coca-Cola vendor, if that counts as a mode of transport.”

Between work gigs, Macaulay takes time for inspiring side trips. In Gunung Mulu National Park near Sarawak it was treetop walks, exploring caves and observing orangutans, insects, bats and birds. On the nearby Talang Talang Islands, he and Bakkalapulo participated in the Turtle Conservation Project. “Having friends in many countries gives you an off-the-beaten-track experience,” he says. “The general chaos of humanity rushing past can be overwhelming; the unpredictable is always happening. Sitting for hours waiting to see teenage girls in a trance balancing on 20-foot-high poles one day, buying overpriced cocktails at a swanky city jazz club to fit in with the crowd the next. We are truly blessed with a wealth of experiences.”

Often, though, these don’t happen spontaneously. You have to be open to all the possibilities on offer. “Follow your own nose,” advises Macaulay. “Forget guidebooks. The time spent reading them is better spent asking a local. You’ll likely find out more and faster, and make a friend in the process. You never quite know who you’ll meet or what connection they’ll lead you to. Be kind and polite to everyone along your way and tip good service. Your taxi driver or bellboy could one day be your prime ‘fixer’ to meet a local celebrity or find a great restaurant.”

As well as their independent projects, Macaulay and Bakkalapulo also work together on a number of assignments. In 2014, 10 years after the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 275,000 people in Asia, more than half of them from the Sumatran province of Aceh, the couple completed a documentary about Aceh’s punk scene. Hard-line Sharia law had grown post-tsunami, with an ongoing crackdown driving punks, whose work includes social activism and fundraising for orphanages, further underground. During one interview, the filmmakers attracted the attention of police and military and were taken in for questioning. But it’s all in a day’s work.

Back at the rainforest festival the next day, artists dance and jam together for the finale. After final bows are taken, Macaulay sends Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family’ through the speakers. It’s become something of a tradition to play this song at the event’s end, and the punters cheer, embrace and dance on. What will be best about getting home to Scotland? “Not grovelling inside a suitcase to find things, cooking our own food and having reliable high-speed internet,” says Macaulay without hesitation. “After two weeks of that, the feet start to get itchy again.”

Get Informed

The Rainforest World Music Festival takes place at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Malaysia each July. Head to the website for confirmed dates and more details.

Words Chris Lambie

Tags: Asia, malaysia, music, travel job

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