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Paul Augustin: Putting Penang On The Jazz Map

By Published: November 23, 2013
Kuala Lumpur, on the face of it, may have seemed like the most obvious location for Malaysia's flagship jazz festival, but both the location of Penang and the festival's name made good sense to Augustin and Choo Yeun: "When doing our initial research we realized that a lot of festivals that grew to be big are not held in the main cities; Pori Jazz, North Sea Jazz Festival, even Jarasum is not in Seoul," Augustin notes. "Penang had the infrastructure and all the hotels. It's a tourism island and it's by the beach. You can't find a beach in Kuala Lumpur, man" he laughs. "Also in the main city you have a lot more competition—a lot more people want to do the same thing. Penang made more sense at that time and it gave me the opportunity to go back home every once in a while. I was born in Penang. I grew up in Penang."

The trend among many jazz festivals the world over is to use "international" in the festival name, as though it automatically and magically confers prestige but that was never on the cards for Augustin: "Some people asked us why we didn't we call it a Music Festival or use the name International Jazz Festival but there were three key reasons; one, jazz is relatively safe in terms of getting permits from the government because it's old people's music," he laughs. "Secondly, the Island was a promotional tool and we didn't want to call it International because of the Bird Flu epidemic at a time when people were scared to come to this part of the world. Thirdly, in the early days we thought that if we couldn't get international artists we'd look silly with the name International Jazz Festival."

In the ten years since the PIJF began, numerous other jazz festivals have sprung up in the region in Borneo, Thailand, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Augustin, however, is not entirely sure if this trend signifies a growth in interest in jazz: "Generally, everybody wants to do a festival but different people have different ideas what a festival should be. I think people thought after we started, hey, if they can do it we can too.

"I think the perception many people have of the PIJF is that we must be making a lot of money and they want the same. But making money is the least of our worries at this point in time. It was basically to push the music industry and establish a foundation that we could carry on and develop in many ways," Augustin says. "If we just worried about making money we wouldn't be doing this. We'd be doing something else, because there's no money in this; in the long run maybe."

With each edition of PIJF Augustin has attempted to promote young Malaysian musicians and through talks and workshops to hopefully inspire wannabe musicians and teachers alike: ""It's an educational thing," says Augustin. "You have to get the musicians close to the young people so that's why we have workshops. We give the opportunity to young people to play and get them involved. " The first PIJF in 2004 featured a Young Jazz Talent competition but it soon changed its character after a couple of editions: "I think a lot of young Malaysian musicians were scared of the word jazz and we started losing participants," says Augustin. "They thought they weren't good enough or weren't jazz enough. Once we realized that we decided to do something else."

That something else was Creative Malaysia, which invites and encourages young musicians/groups based not on their jazz credentials but on their creativity. The change from the Young Jazz Talent competition to the Creative Malaysia format was largely inspired by Augustin's frequent visits to jazz festivals in Europe: "When I went to Europe with Choo Yeun, to Norway, Germany, Finland, even Korea, we started to realize that jazz in Europe is not the way that we think jazz is. It's more open. It opened a really big door for us because a lot of people here were very creative but they had no platform. So, we shifted our mode of thinking.

"We decided that our festival would be more creativity-driven so we had to get the creative input of the local musicians." In Malaysia, by and large, that meant Indie musicians because as Augustin points out, "jazz musicians here generally play the same stuff that other jazz musicians are playing—the same standards. They're doing stuff I've heard a hundred times before from different people. The only way they can catch my attention is if it's different" Rather than program staid music, simply because it was jazz, Augustin threw his weight behind Malaysia's young Indie musicians.

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