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Borneo Jazz Festival 2010

Ian Patterson By

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Miri International Jazz Festival
Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo
May 14-15, 2010

The Miri International Jazz Festival in Sarawak province Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, can lay claim to being the only jazz festival on the South China Sea. A long line of tankers and cargo ships stretches across the horizon like buttons sewn on a vast blue cloth and attests to Miri's century-old history as an oil town. Located in the lush grounds of the ParkCity Everly Hotel, the stage facing the sea was the scene for two days of music, drawing artists from Thailand, Indonesia, the USA, Brazil, Holland and Switzerland. Now in its fifth year, the MIJF is the cultural jewel in the crown of the Sarawak Tourism Board, whose stated aim is to use the festival as a magnet to draw tourists to the province.

Viewed from this point of view the festival has proven to be a success, with the attendance growing from two thousand in 2006, its inaugural year, to six and a half thousand in 2009. Over forty percent of last year's festival-goers came from abroad, with many expats making the relatively short trip from neighboring Brunei.

Although many attending MIJF came to Sarawak to explore the dense tropical rain forest that covers two thirds of this part of Borneo, or to venture into some of the most spectacular caves in the world, for increasing numbers of peninsular Malaysians, locals and visitors from neighboring Brunei and Indonesia, the music itself is the main attraction. This year, visitors also came from as far as the UK, Australia and Japan. As festival programmer Randy Raine-Reuche put it: "Jazz fans are nuts; they are very devout." The faithful, nuts or not, were certainly satisfied with the offering served up by the musicians over two days, and it is fair to say that from humble beginnings the festival has grown and gained a deserved reputation for throwing up good bands.

The quality of the program, which was musically quite diverse, is down to Raine-Reuche, co-founder as well of the highly successful Rainforest Music Festival, also staged in Malaysian Borneo. Getting the balance of bands right is no easy task but what was immediately striking about this year's program was the complete absence of Malaysian bands, something which was equally baffling to Raine-Reuche: "There are four hundred applications for eight spots. There's a spot here for a Malaysian band every year, but if they don't apply like everyone else, I'm not going to chase them. It's the same process at every other festival in the world." The general consensus however, among both organizers and journalists alike, was that, with the exception of a few top names, Malaysian jazz artists are not quite of the caliber to play in an international jazz festival. Greater exposure to quality jazz, it is hoped, will have a knock-on effect in the future.

The opening act at MIJF '10 was Mellow Motif from Thailand. Mellow Motif is not quite the smooth brand of jazz that Thailand generally favors, taking more risks and stretching out a little. Although the set consisted entirely of non- originals the band played an upbeat set which swung from first note to last. Led by charter members Natasha Patamapongs on vocals and Eugene Ang on piano, the band kicked off with "Lemon Tree" and then glided through a samba-tinged "The Lady is a Tramp," the Rodgers and Hart tune receiving a tasteful solo from Sarit Tanpensuk on flugelhorn. The Gershwins' rarely heard "Little Jazz Bird" and a fast and breezy "Happy Talk," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, saw the rhythm section of drummer Chantur Techatana-Nan, double bassist Ponchart Viriyapark and Ang inject real verve into the music.

Patamapongs introduced Joao Gilberto's "O Pato" explaining how a duck invites his friends to dance with him, highlighting the beauty of the message contained in the lyrics. The Bruneian in the disha dasha dancing animatedly may have been dancing alone but the music had got to him. A faithful but impressive rendition of the jazz standard associated with Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, "Airmail Special," featured the notable scatting abilities of Patamapongs; an undeniably talented singer, her delivery brimmed with confidence, and she transmitted her bubbly personality into the music. An encore of "Night and Day" included the most extended solo of the set from the flugelhorn of Tanpensuk, sealing an enjoyable performance emphatically—a perfect festival-opening act.

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