Penang Island Jazz Festival: Malaysia, December 2-5, 2010
December 2-5, 2010
There was talk of bringing in a bomoh, or witchdoctor, to chase away the ominous-looking black clouds that hovered over the beachside gardens of the Bayview Hotel, home to the Penang Island Jazz Festival. The south-west monsoon that feeds the lush tropical growth of the island ended in September, but rain had battered down for the previous few days and it looked like more could well spoil the party. The mysterious figure of Richard LaFaber was drafted in to weave his powerful magic, drawing on his knowledge gathered in the deepest jungles of Malaysian Borneo where, they say, he learned to talk to animals, commune with spirits, divine the future and, in a stroke of luck for the festival organizers, control the weather.
As dark clouds gathered and rain fell softly and teasingly, LaFaberdressed in colorful tribal costume designed to chase away malignant spirits and clutching a sorcerer's stick in his right handled the crowd in jampi, an ancient mantra in whose powers many still believe in Malaysia. The effects were almost immediate. The rain stopped, and although the dark clouds hung around no more rain would fall. Periodically, over the two days of the main festival program on the Jazz By The Beach Stage, LaFaber appeared on stage, stony faced, deep in concentration, and ceremoniously released his mantras into the cool evening breeze wafting in from the Straits of Malacca.
The Penang Island Jazz Festival has weathered a few storms over the years, yet in spite of world economic downturn and a reduced budget for the 7th edition of the jazz festival, director Paul Augustin and his loyal team defied the odds and succeeded in putting on the biggest, most ambitious festival to date. Bands from Norway, Germany, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Holland, Australia, South Korea and an encouraging number from Malaysia exhibited a diverse range of styles, many of which flirted around the fringes of jazz but whose common denominator was the creative spirit.
The number of main-stage bands had increased from last year's five to six, and an extra fringe stage gave fourteen Malayan bands, many from Penang itself, the chance to gain some exposure. In addition, the festival staged an impressive Big Band jazz program for the first time in its history. With workshops running from 9.30 am and after-hours jam sessions in the Bayview Hotel's Celsius Bar running well into the wee hours this was a festival of non-stop music and fun.
The first six editions of the Penang Island Jazz Festival has been an experiment in finding the right formula for the festival, a road which director Paul Augustin describes as "bumpy." Supporting activities ranging from photo exhibitions, workshops and talks have been introduced over the years, and Augustin acknowledges that some ideas have worked and others haven't. Nevertheless, it seems as though Augustin and team have got the formula pretty well spot on, with a program where no two bands are alike.
Augustin is also prepared to take a few risks, testing the audience and challenging it with some left-field programming choices and the odd surprise. In the 6th edition, Augustin took a chance and opened the festival with the Island Palm Beach Boys, veterans of the Hawaiian music wave that took root in Malaysia in the 1940s and '50s. The choice was an inspired one, and the dreamy music of the septuagenarians delighted the crowd. This year, Augustin's ambition was to begin the festival with a classical orchestra, "something completely different" as he put it, "to surprise the crowd." The 35-piece Penang Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Penang-born Conductor Woon Wen Kin certainly provided something different, putting on a performance of modern classical pieces, and appropriately, a brief medley of Duke Ellington numbers. Oddly though, the Philharmonic's date at the Penang Island Jazz festival was not mentioned at its official website among the other December appointments and it clearly missed an opportunity to help promote the island's premier music event.