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Paul Augustin: Putting Penang On The Jazz Map

By Published: November 23, 2013
The tendrils of the PIJF have extended to include other venues in the festival, including the Hard Rock Café Penang, The Parkroyal Resort and the award-winning botanical garden the Tropical Spice Garden, which this year will feature a sunrise concert. It's perhaps something of a surprise that the PIJF has not established a presence in Penang's World Heritage Georgetown—one of the finest preserved areas of the old Far East anywhere in Asia: "Of course we would love to," admits Augustin. "Our initial idea was to have bands playing on the ferries as they cross from Butterworth to the mainland of Penang, bands at the airport and other locations but we just don't have the money so we can't do it. A lot of places are happy for you to use their space but you have to factor in equipment, transportation, payment for the artists, food and drink. Location alone is not support enough. We need greater support."

Loyal support has certainly come from the PIJF crowd, who turn out year after year come rain or shine to enjoy the music. "Festival directors from other parts of the world have been amazed by the crowd," says Augustin. "It's an open-air festival by the sea and everybody's drinking but they keep quiet when the band is playing. They really appreciate the music. It's been a process of education over the years. I think the crowd has learned that this is serious music and they have respect for the artists when they're playing."

The musicians who perform at the PIJF are without exception bowled over by the friendly reception and the warmth of the festival crowd. The PIJF has nurtured an easy-going atmosphere and a large part of the credit for the relaxed air that everybody breathes is due to the volunteer staff that run the festival: "The team and the teamwork is so important," Augustin acknowledges. "I keep saying to everybody that this festival was built on a foundation of friendship and family. They're all volunteers and they have come up and worked for the festival since day one— the people who sell the merchandise, the stage managers, everybody. They even drive up here from KL just to be part of the festival.

"I think they get a sense of ownership," Augustin continues, "because when they talk about the festival they don't call it Paul and Chin's festival they call it "our festival." They know that that if they make a mistake we won't put them down. Yes, we have our problems but if something goes wrong they know they have a backing team who will come and support them. We always impress on them that they are the face of the festival; whatever they do reflects on the image of the festival so we always try to avoid saying no, we say we will see what we can do.

"Everybody knows everybody and it's so much fun. I could not ask for a better team. We've watched people bring their kids and they've grown up and now they're helping in the festival; it's a line that goes on and on. It's amazing. Nobody ever gets angry or mad. There are times, of course, when we have to be firm but always polite."

Strangely perhaps, Augustin feels that the PIJF is better known internationally than locally: "Locally it's like "Oh, it's just the PIJF. It's jazz, it's boring"—that kind of stuff," Augustin laughs, "but we're more respected abroad." In the beginning, Augustin had to court the local media, sending out press releases to every outlet imaginable in the hope that somebody would give the oxygen of exposure to the PIJF. As the festival has grown so has its reputation: "For several years we've had newspapers, webzines, magazines and ex-pat magazines writing to us and asking for information about the festival. We have gained significant media exposure," says Augustin.

The New Straits Times has been a consistent source of local support and now the PIJF has muscled its way into airline magazines too. For PIJF 2013 journalists are coming from a range of foreign countries and for the very first time the Lonely Planet is sending someone to cover Penang's very own jazz festival.

The local and even international media might be making a fuss over the 10th anniversary milestone but Augustin doesn't feel any extra pressure or weight of expectation. In his habitual cool, cheery manner he's just getting on with the job in hand: "I don't feel any pressure, actually. The beauty about getting to number 10 is that you can do what you like because It's your festival and you're running it," he says laughing." I don't think there are extra expectations or pressure this year. Just to put it on and make it happen is already a bloody achievement," he laughs.

The PIJF's growing international reputation is also due to the word of mouth recommendations of people who come from Australia, the UK, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and South Korea, making the festival the centerpiece of a Malaysian holiday.

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