Borneo Jazz, May 12-15, 2011
The closing act on Friday night was French gypsy jazz outfit, Les Doights de L'Homme, a four-piece inspired by the music of Belgian gypsy Django Reinhardt, whose centenary in '10 saw a resurgence of interest in his music, almost 60 years after his death. Reinhardt's influence on musicians though, has never waned; like Jobim, many of the mercurial guitarist's compositions have provided jazz with standardsand inspirationwhich keep Reinhardt's flame very much alive. The slightly unusual configuration of three guitarists and a bassist made for a powerful sonic offering. Olivier Kikteff and Benoit Covert shared lead duties while Yannick Alcocer provided buoyant rhythm, often accompanied by Covert. Bassist Blum Tanguy had to work hard to be heard in the midst of the exuberant, foot-to-the-floor virtuosity going on around him and the powerful, twin guitar rhythm machine.
Les Doights de L'Homme dedicated its performance to the gypsies of Europe, and the band also played a song which remembered the persecution of the gypsies at the hands of the Nazis. There was no political statement, and if there was a message it was simply a reminder of the rights of all people. As governments in Europe look to regulate the gypsy communities and end their nomadic existence, so too in Borneo, a similar process of resettlement has all but ended the nomadic way of life of the jungle tribes. Though no firm statistics exist, it is believed that no more than a few hundred people of the Penan tribe continue a nomadic existence in the dense jungles.
As with all resettled peoples, a process of acculturation has taken place in Borneo in the course of a couple of generations; knowledge and use of the medicinal properties of jungle plants has dwindled, vocabulary of millennium is gradually replaced, and convenience has largely trumped versatility and creativity. The Evangelical church has rewired and rechristened those convinced by the sign above the church door proclaiming the message: "No one goes to the father except by me." The sounds of Malaysian TV soaps coming from the traditional long houses vie with the song of the cicadas, the barking monkeys and croaking frogs. The tribes supplement their income selling knick-knacks to camera-toting tourists. In return for renouncing the nomadic way of life, the Penan have access to mainstream education and health clinics, as well as access to diverse job opportunities.
On more than one occasion Kikteff said how fortunate he felt to live in a mufti-cultural country such as France. This melting pot has influenced the bands' music, and in the past it has employed cajon and banjo in a broad approach to making music. The only other instrument employed in this performance other than guitars and bass was the oud; Kikteff gave a wonderful solo oud recital on the intro to "Identite National," which was brooding and poetic. When the other three musicians joined Kikteff the tempo was raised a notch, and fast intricate lines flavored by flamenco dominated this potent song. Besides the lightening runs and the chopped chords executed with vigor and unerring precision, there were also nice changes in tempo, like the beginning to the old English staple "St. James Infirmary," which saw the quartet engaged in a delightful slow blues. However, the body of the song, and indeed the set, was the unique brand of devil-may-care jazz purveyed by Django Reinhardt.
Les Doights de L'Hommecarriers of Django's torch and quiet champions of the marginalized---went down a storm with the Borneo crowd and provided a definite highlight of the festival.
Day two began with a question from two young Miri women: "Where is the jazz?" The two women, who had come to the festival from neighboring Brunei where they work, had been scratching their heads after the first day. "We love jazz, that's why we came here, but there's no jazz," one of the women complained. No doubt the festival organizers would respond with another question: So, what is jazz exactly? The festival promotes Brazilian jazz, electronic nu-jazz, the progenitor of jazz in the form of the blues, fusion music and Latin jazz-rock. And straight ahead jazz? Yes, that too, but only one concert out of 11 over the course of four days, the Japanese band, Yuichiro Tokuda's Ralyzz Dig, could really satisfy the purists.