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Borneo Jazz 2012

Borneo Jazz 2012
Ian Patterson By

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Borneo Jazz Festival 2012
Miri, Sarawak, Borneo
May 10-12, 2012
Borneo Jazz—held in Miri, Sarawak semi-autonomous state, Malaysia—has grown steadily since its inaugural edition in 2005, going from 3,000 spectators seven years ago to over eight thousand today. This growth is a reflection of the successful planning and promotion by the festival organizers and an indication of the Malaysian public's hunger for international music. And on a broader level, perhaps, it's another sign of the growing appeal of jazz festivals in Asia as a whole. Happily, the unpredictable tropical weather followed the weekend's script, bathing festival-goers in warm sunlight in the early afternoon and keeping the rain at bay for both days of the festival.

It's worth putting the success of this festival in a wider context; there are no jazz clubs in Miri and there are no fully fledged Miri jazz bands either. Country and Western music is the norm as far as live gigs go. In Miri, Garth Brooks trumps trumpeter Miles Davis, and John Denver overrides saxophonist John Coltrane. The situation is little different in Indonesian Borneo or in Brunei, the other two countries that share Borneo, the third largest island in the world. So, it's no small feat that improvisational musicians from South Africa, Scandinavia, the USA, Holland, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, France and the Caribbean should converge here and draw such a large, enthusiastic crowd.

The day prior to the festival proper saw local and international media gather to hear representatives of the Steering Committee and Sarawak Tourism Board outline their vision for the festival. Borneo Jazz, said Dato Rashid Khan, the CEO of Sarawak Tourism Board, is designed not only to boost tourism to Sarawak—a province rich in rainforest, biodiversity and stunning national parks —but to promote the economic and social development of Miri. In addition, it is hoped that this signature tourism event will spur national and foreign students to come to Miri to undertake further education. According to the Ministry of Tourism's official figures, Borneo Jazz 2011 saw a growth of 23% over the previous year in terms of attendees, and an increase of 16% in foreign visitors attending the festival, mostly expatriates living in the neighboring semi-autonomous state of Sabah and in Brunei.


Artistic Director Jun-Lin Yeoh—who has returned to the helm of the festival after a gap of four years—explained the idea behind the programming: "Our philosophy at Borneo Jazz is jazz plus," she said. "It has to appeal to as many different tastes as possible." This means that Borneo Jazz presents the full rainbow of jazz, with the occasional blurring of genres. In these challenging economic times, it is perhaps a wise ploy to mix it up, as major festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival , the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the genre-bending trail-blazer, the Montreux Jazz Festival have increasingly demonstrated with the passing of the years.

For the past few editions of Borneo Jazz, the festival organizers have sought to lessen the carbon footprint of the festival by following green initiatives in the day-to-day running. Following the press conference, a tree-planting ceremony was held at Curtin University campus where 100 saplings were given a home. When you consider that trumpeter/percussionist/singer Richard Armstrong's route to Borneo Jazz 2012 saw him fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles, from there to Tokyo, and then on to Kuala Lumpur and finally, Miri, then it's clear that tree planting is no mere cosmetic exercise but rather an increasing necessity to redress the ecological balance.

The official opening of Borneo Jazz 2012 took place on Thursday evening, on the grounds of the festival's home of these past seven years, the Park City Everly Hotel , with a dinner for media, sponsors and guests of honor. A colorful performance of traditional Sarawak dance and music reminded everyone that they were in Borneo, and an animated set from Schalk Joubert's Three Continents Sextet was a reminder that jazz is, and always has been, the result of a confluence of musical traditions and cultures.

It hasn't always been easy for the festival organizers to find Malaysian bands of international-festival caliber, but over the years Borneo Jazz has admirably sought to showcase Malaysian talent whenever possible. Thus it was that Malaysian band F.V.E. got the festival underway on Friday afternoon. Playing just its second jazz festival, this band from Kuala Lumpur gave a confident performance which mixed jazz fusion interpretations of the Beatle's "Eleanor Rigby" and Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" with original material.

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