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Interviews

Paul Augustin: Putting Penang On The Jazz Map

By Published: November 23, 2013
Lee brought one of the most original bands to play the PIJF, Taiwan's Sizhukong
Sizhukong
Sizhukong

band/orchestra
, whose blend of traditional Chinese and Western instrumentation on original material drawing from Chinese/Taiwanese folkloric tradition and jazz lit up the main stage of the PIJF in 2009. Collaborations with other countries in the region have been less productive: "We've tried to do the same with Singapore and Indonesia," says Augustin, "but it's a little more difficult because they look upon Penang as the little brother."


The exception has been Indonesia's premiere jazz advocacy organization Wartajazz, which has brought the best of Indonesian jazz to Penang on a number of occasions. The trio Boi Akih
Boi Akih
Boi Akih

band/orchestra
—a sort of little Shakti—gave a thrilling performance at PIJF 2010, while trumpeter Rio Sidik did likewise in 2011. Augustin is always looking to forge new relationships with festivals and promoters with the joint aims of bringing new sounds to PIJF and potentially opening doors to Malaysian bands to play abroad. Augustin's growing links to Thailand has seen Thai saxophone legend Koh Mr. Saxman headline the Saturday night of PIJF 2009. For the 10th edition of PIJF Jazz Kamikaze will grace the main stage thanks to Vichart Jirathiyut, who represents Jazz Kamikaze in Thailand.

As the years have passed and the PIJF has firmly established itself in the national and international music calendar, Augustin's programming has been astute and increasingly adventurous: "I've said this before but in the first couple of years people always asked us who was playing the festival," says Augustin, "but after the first few editions people knew that no matter who we put on in the festival it would be good music, even if they'd never heard of the groups."

Increasingly, Augustin fields people's requests and an ever growing number of formal applications from bands: "This year we got over 300 applications and inquiries from groups who wanted to play the festival and there were some really big names. The big names we immediately tell them, look, don't even bother to name a price because there's no way we'll be able to afford it. They might get really irritated with us," laughs Augustin, "but it simply comes down to what we can afford.

"Every artist that gets put into the festival is there for a reason, be it for the audience or because we want to build a relationship with somebody or because we want to create an image of the festival, or because we want to introduce people to new things—an element of discovery." Bands like the avant-rock band Electric Barbarian, the pulsating tuba-led trio PELbO and the heavy jazz fusion of Lithuanian band Dainius Pulauskas Group have certainly asked an open mind of the Penang crowd, which has responded every time.


Augustin clearly loves to see how the festival audience reacts to the innovative and the unknown: "This year it's going to be really interesting to see how people respond to Yoon-Jeong Heo Black String," he enthuses. Geomungo player Heo, guitarist Jean Oh, daegum player Aram Lee and percussionist/vocalist Min-su Kang blend Korean traditional music with a jazz/improvised aesthetic in what promises to be one of the most fascinating concerts of PIJF 2013: "I think they're going to blow people away," grins Augustin.

"We're willing to take risks," he adds. "We like to push people's buttons and see what happens. It's getting easier to program the festival in the sense that we've got a lot more choices, and more challenging in the sense that everybody wants to play."

Augustin is careful not to program two bands of the same genre on the same day, and whilst the budget dictates who PIJF can and cannot afford, there is another all-important criteria: "It also boils down to the attitude of the band," admits Augustin. "We don't want bands that make us bend over backwards to satisfy their strange requests—a bottle of this white wine form that place, a bowl of this type of fruit or that type of fruit," he laughs. "A festival is about having fun and we don't want all those sorts of problems. We work really hard to accommodate everybody but sometimes you can't."

Perhaps for one or more of the above reasons the PIJF hasn't yet secured the services of pianist Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
, but Augustin remains optimistic: "You never know, man. You never know."


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