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Paul Augustin: Putting Penang On The Jazz Map

By Published: November 23, 2013
It's also in large part due to the hundreds of foreign musicians who have played the PIJF and who then spread the word: "The bands all play their best regardless of the size of the crowd because they never know who's watching them," says Augustin. "It's like the case of PELbO, they came on did a great set that blew the people away and John Cumming was there and he immediately took them to play the London Jazz Festival."

In a review of PELbO's performance at the 2011 London Jazz Festival , JazzTimes' Sam Spokony described the Norwegian trio as "nothing short of brilliant" and added: "John Cumming has helped one of Europe's great new collaborative talents get one step closer to breaking out." True enough, but Augustin and Choo Yeun of the PIJF probably deserve some of the credit for the chain of events.

Bands are coming to the PIJF from every corner of the world, but it seems that the opportunities for Malaysian bands to play abroad are much more restricted: "For that to happen bands need government support," Augustin says. "The South Korean government is doing a very good job of that. This year we have two Korean bands and somebody is giving a talk. They're also setting up an exhibition. The Korean Arts Management Service group (KAMS) is pushing it.

"It's interesting that they are supporting their musicians to come to Penang because I think they see PIJF as a stepping stone," Augustin ventures. "They're interested to know who are the journalists coming here and they want to meet up with them. It's a door to connections with Europe and elsewhere. Malaysia is starting to do that. If a band gets invited to play somewhere there is a support grant available that you can apply for. This year we took Liyana Fizi to the Jarasum International Jazz Festival."

Photo exhibitions have been a consistent feature of the PIJF, which has attracted two of the world's finest jazz photographers in William Ellis and Ziga Koritnik. Augustin has been inundated with suggestions to gather the best of the PIJF photos to create a 10th anniversary photographic book of the festival. Now is not the right time, however, for one very obvious reason. "It's only nine years," Augustin laughs. Hopefully if we get to the 11th year we have the intention of putting together a book and maybe a CD or even a DVD. Of course there are copyright issues but it's a plan. Or perhaps we could make a documentary," Augustin adds, "called how to survive for ten years with no money."

In actual fact, Augustin is in the process of putting together a book on the history of popular music in Penang with PIJF stalwart James Lockhead: "We've been commissioned to do a book and we're supposed to start now," laughs Augustin. It's going to be a coffee table book and maybe with a CD. Popular music in the 1940s and 1950s was actually jazz—big band dance stuff and swing and bossa nova. Penang was also very well known for its Hawaiian music.

"We've heard recordings that nobody's ever heard, like pianist Jimmy Boyle. This guy was amazing. There's a recording of him playing in 1953. He's like a Malaysian Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
. This guy was way ahead of anybody in Asia," Augustin says. The book, based on a photographic exhibition created by the PIJF will cover the pre-WWII years when there was a vibrant music scene in Penang, largely, Augustin acknowledges, because of external influences.

"In the 1920s and 1930s we were under British rule," Augustin explains. "They commissioned 64 Filipino musicians to come to Malaysia to be part of the Municipal bands in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The Philippines were renowned as good musicians. When the conflict was finished the British said they could stay in Malaya if they wanted. More than 90% of them chose to stay in Malaya and they integrated into the clubs and shows and they would set up bands. The British also brought in musicians from India and Pakistan after the war for the Municipal bands."

Agustin and Lockhead's research into the factors that influenced the development of music in Penang has thrown up a lot of interesting material. Those who can't wait for the coffee table book can get a preview of its central themes during this year's Island Forum when Lockhead, jazzahead!'s Peter Shultze and Ben Mandolsen appear on the panel discussion entitled "Popular Music Heritage Preservation."

The PIJF is dedicated to highlighting and preserving Malaysian jazz history, just as it to promoting the up and coming generation of musicians. Augustin, himself a noted bassist in popular Malaysian bands in the 1970s and 1980s understands that the music of today is founded on the music of the past. In the same way, the resilience and growth of the PIJF is the fruit of all the efforts of the past. Within a decade the PIJF has established itself as one of the very best jazz festivals anywhere in Asia.

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