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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.

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