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Borneo Jazz 2011

Borneo Jazz 2011
Ian Patterson By

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Borneo Jazz
Miri, Sarawak, Borneo
May 12-15, 2011

Borneo Jazz—known as the Miri International Jazz Festival for the previous five editions—has undergone a certain amount of rebranding in an effort to promote its growing stature as one of the leading jazz festivals in the region. This year the festival has increased from two to four days, with the opening night formerly reserved for musicians and media now open to the public. In addition, Borneo Jazz has extended its reach in the city of Miri, by staging Musical Meetings—spontaneous jam sessions—in the Marriott Hotel, and putting on a Sunday matinee concert at the Eastwood Valley Golf Club. These innovations indicate the growing ambition of the organizers to spread the festival in the Miri community. They also show the desire to increase the number of festival goers, with the 2011 edition's stated aim to attract 10,000 people—a large jump compared to last year's 7,000.

What hasn't changed from previous years was the variety of music on the program—jazz and its many splinter genres, and blues, was performed by veterans from the United States such as singer Maria Muldaur and singer/guitarist John Hammond, whilst strongly contrasting groups from Japan and China showed that whilst the tradition is still strong, jazz is also taking exciting new directions in Asia. Borneo jazz offers a little of everything, and Brazilian rhythms, gypsy jazz from France and electronic nu-jazz from Holland completed a diverse and mostly engaging set of performances.

Borneo is as stunning a location as it is an unlikely one for a jazz festival. The third largest island in the world, it is unique for being the only island to contain three countries—Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. This lush, tropical paradise boasts a biodiversity practically unmatched in Asia, with National Parks of world renown such as Mulu, with its enormous caves like the Deer Cave, which houses three million bats. The bats exit the cave each day before sundown, weaving snaking patterns against the sky in swarms of thousands, in search of food. It is impossible not to be seduced by Borneo.

"There's no other place like it on earth" says Randy Raine-Rouche, Artistic and Program Director, and the man behind Sarawak province's more famous festival, the Rainforest Music Festival. Undoubtedly, Borneo's extraordinary rainforests, its meandering rivers and rugged highlands, its tremendous ethnic diversity—and its legend as an island formerly of headhunter tribes—are all factors in the renaming of the festival. And Borneo Jazz is aiming high; for Dato Rashid Khan, Sarawak Tourism Board's Chief Executive Officer, the aim is clear: "We hope Borneo Jazz will become an iconic jazz festival in the region, just as the Rainforest Music Festival in Sarawak is an iconic festival. "

Miri has a population of 300,000 people. Malay, Chinese and expats employed in the oil business make up the majority of the population, though several of Sarawak province's 27 linguistically distinct tribes live in or close to the town, sending their children to the Chinese schools in the hope that they can emulate the success of the Chinese population with its drive and business acumen. Although it seems unlikely that Borneo Jazz will outshine jazz festivals like those held in Montreal, Holland, London, France, Spain, or any number of prestigious festivals in America and elsewhere, it's not beyond the realms of possibility, after all, 20,000 people travel to Sarawak, Borneo from all over the world each July for the Rainforest Music Festival. This world music festival is a unique event which has built its name on the quality of its music as much as its exotic location, without resorting to big-name world music artists to promote it.

The large crowds which enjoyed quality music over the course of four days suggest that the same strategy might well produce similar results at Borneo Jazz.

Borneo Jazz got underway on the Thursday in the magnificent Marina Bay Restaurant, a spectacular wooden cathedral of a building, whose veranda offers the perfect vantage point to take in the sunset over the South China Sea. Two dozen women, beautifully attired in the traditional dress of the Kelabit, Melanau, Kenyah and Lun Bawang ethnicities, as well as the Indian community, provided a colorful greeting. On the stage, two traditional Kenyah musicians performed the sape, a long-bodied string instrument common to the region. Afterwards, the two musicians, who had impressed with their virtuosity, expressed their admiration for the improvisational qualities of much jazz, and told how they are inspired by the musicians of this jazz festival to explore the possibilities of their own instrument.

The opening band of the festival program to take the stage was C'Quence, a local band comprised of British, Dutch, Malaysian, Colombian and Venezuelan musicians who ran through an enthusiastic set of Latin standards. The inclusion of an amateur local band in the festival reflects the ethos of the festival organizers as Raine-Rouche explains: "We try to give a helping hand to young, up-and-oming artists." Hopefully, the example of C'Quence will encourage amateur musicians in Miri and throughout Malaysia, to strive for a slot on future Borneo Jazz programs. In previous years the Marina Bay opening night was more an informal wine-and-dine get together for media, musicians and organizers, but the live performances introduced this year and the opening of the doors to the public is part of the festival's long-term strategy, according to Dato Rashid Khan: "Part of our vision is to grow fringe events. These are seeds that we are planting,"

As Raine-Rouche underlines, Borneo Jazz—like its elder sister the Rainforest Music Festival—offers quality music to festival goers, in spite of the fact that many of the performers may not be household names, as yet: "The festival tries to introduce people that you maybe haven't heard before but you will in the future." The second band to take the stage, Dhruv, gave an electrifying performance of jazz-fusion which provided a highlight of the four days. Guitarist and founder Dhruv Ghanekar is a graduate of Berklee who has performed with giants of the Indian music scene including sarangi player Sultan Khan, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, percussionist Trilok Gurtu, as well as drummer Ranjit Barot and keyboardist Louis Banks. An outstanding guitarist, Ghanekar's fusion is finely balanced between his Indian roots and jazz, with certain rhythmic and harmonic elements adapted from both.

Ghanekar's flawless technique is characterized by a beautifully clear enunciation—every note is clearly defined, and absolutely none sound superfluous or gratuitous. Feather-light chords, occasional veena-like shimmies and hypnotic runs were underpinned by subtle harmonics and seductive melodies. Although it was initially tempting to draw comparison to guitarist John McLaughlin who pioneered the fusion of jazz and Indian music in the'70s, it soon became clear that Ghanekar is a singular guitarist who has developed his own vocabulary and style. This is a band of equals, however, and the poly rhythmic drummer Gino Banks, bassist Sheldon Dsilva and keyboardist/saxophonist Ramiandrisoa all excelled. That these four musicians have been playing with each other in various bands for around a decade was apparent in the band's discipline and in its freedom. There was an energy in the compositions which perhaps reflected the environment of hometown Mumbai, as the leader intimated: "Mumbai is like a souped-up New York, made up of families," he told the audience, "it's very intense."

A fine composer, Ghanekar's tunes covered a lot of ground in tempo and intensity. Southern Indian carnatic music was given a rocked out treatment as Banks kept up hypnotic poly rhythms of great intensity and Ramiandrisoa supplied a less-is-more approach to the keyboards; his percussive dabs and bursts of color adding much to the overall effect of the music. The beautifully spare architecture of the quietly strummed ballad "If Only," was dedicated to Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Ghanekar's ruminative chords and Dsilva's sympathetic bass carried the melody while Bank's brushes swept the tune along ever so gently. By way of a nice contrast in dynamics, Ramiandrisoa's lovely keyboard solo danced along at a pace which seemed to outstrip his companions but which was emotionally spot-on.

Ramiandrisoa doubled on soprano sax on a couple of numbers and displayed fine chops. Dsilva was a revelation on bass, wowing the audience with dazzling runs the length and breadth of his six-stringed instrument. A self-taught musician, Dsilva played with Trilok Gurtu for two years, and is as impressive a bassist as any, in an age of staggering post Jaco Pastorius bassists. Based on the evidence of this jaw-dropping performance it seems a dead cert that we are going to be hearing a lot more of him in the future. However, it may be a little unfair to single out Dsilva, as all the musicians were simply phenomenal, and Dhruv—a relatively new quartet—could yet take the world by storm.

Most of the assembled media was left wondering why this sensational band wasn't on the main stage program.

The main stage program began on Friday with SIU2, a band from Hong Kong which blends traditional Chinese instruments with drums, bass and Hammond organ. The letters in the name stand for Sheng It Up, a reference to founder and composer Yin Ng Cheuk's 5,000 year-old instrument, the Sheng, composed of a series of vertical bamboo pipes in cylindrical form which produce a sound akin to a mouth organ. Billed as a progressive jazz band, SIU2 create a modern fusion where improvisation is really only heard in the drums of Tsui Hip Lun, the bass of Chan Hok Ming and the Hammond organ on which Ng Cheuk doubled. The sanxian of Lam Tin Wai—a long-necked, guitar-like instrument—the zheng of Lau Shui Chung—a finger-plucked zither—and the Sheng, brought overtly Chinese melodies to music which was highly rhythmic and dynamic, despite the lack of improvisation.

"Full Moon" began with a quietly yearning sheng intro; even amplified, the sound of this ancient instrument is not strong, though its harmonic possibilities lend it a depth of expression which Ng Cheuk fully exploited. The piece built in intensity with the arrival of the stringed instruments and suddenly burst into an Oriental hillbilly stomp, with pumping drums and bass. Lam Tin Wai's trilled notes resounded as Ng Cheuk's sheng blurred the line between improvised and composed performance, which is part of the mystery and appeal of SIU2's music.

Pianist Fan Kwok Hung's classical European training brought another spice to the pot, particularly on "Western Tune," though his sharp little embellishments and percussive touches lent an angularity to the tunes, in contrast to the more melodic approach of the Chinese instruments. Ng Cheuk's tight arrangements were characterized by brief melodic statements, unison riffs and strong juxtaposition between bold group statements of some intensity, and quiet, meditative passages. Walking bass ran through "Flower Party" and a waltzing rhythm imbued the upbeat set closer "Goodbye Walls," recognizable jazz vocabulary in a performance where the language, whilst dramatic, was not always easily identifiable.

Ng Cheuk and SIU2's singular approach to Chinese and western music makes for fascinating listening, and the enthusiastic crowd gave its seal of approval to the band's first performance outside China. SIU2's dynamic yet soulful composed music offered ample proof that progressive, exciting fusion is not necessarily synonymous with improvisation.

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