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Paul Augustin: Putting Penang On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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Increasingly, Augustin fields people's requests and an ever growing number of formal applications from bands: "This year we got over 300 applications and inquiries from groups who wanted to play the festival and there were some really big names. The big names we immediately tell them, look, don't even bother to name a price because there's no way we'll be able to afford it. They might get really irritated with us," laughs Augustin, "but it simply comes down to what we can afford.

"Every artist that gets put into the festival is there for a reason, be it for the audience or because we want to build a relationship with somebody or because we want to create an image of the festival, or because we want to introduce people to new things—an element of discovery." Bands like the avant-rock band Electric Barbarian, the pulsating tuba-led trio PELbO and the heavy jazz fusion of Lithuanian band Dainius Pulauskas Group have certainly asked an open mind of the Penang crowd, which has responded every time.


Augustin clearly loves to see how the festival audience reacts to the innovative and the unknown: "This year it's going to be really interesting to see how people respond to Yoon-Jeong Heo Black String," he enthuses. Geomungo player Heo, guitarist Jean Oh, daegum player Aram Lee and percussionist/vocalist Min-su Kang blend Korean traditional music with a jazz/improvised aesthetic in what promises to be one of the most fascinating concerts of PIJF 2013: "I think they're going to blow people away," grins Augustin.

"We're willing to take risks," he adds. "We like to push people's buttons and see what happens. It's getting easier to program the festival in the sense that we've got a lot more choices, and more challenging in the sense that everybody wants to play."

Augustin is careful not to program two bands of the same genre on the same day, and whilst the budget dictates who PIJF can and cannot afford, there is another all-important criteria: "It also boils down to the attitude of the band," admits Augustin. "We don't want bands that make us bend over backwards to satisfy their strange requests—a bottle of this white wine form that place, a bowl of this type of fruit or that type of fruit," he laughs. "A festival is about having fun and we don't want all those sorts of problems. We work really hard to accommodate everybody but sometimes you can't."

Perhaps for one or more of the above reasons the PIJF hasn't yet secured the services of pianist Keith Jarrett, but Augustin remains optimistic: "You never know, man. You never know."

Kuala Lumpur, on the face of it, may have seemed like the most obvious location for Malaysia's flagship jazz festival, but both the location of Penang and the festival's name made good sense to Augustin and Choo Yeun: "When doing our initial research we realized that a lot of festivals that grew to be big are not held in the main cities; Pori Jazz, North Sea Jazz Festival, even Jarasum is not in Seoul," Augustin notes. "Penang had the infrastructure and all the hotels. It's a tourism island and it's by the beach. You can't find a beach in Kuala Lumpur, man" he laughs. "Also in the main city you have a lot more competition—a lot more people want to do the same thing. Penang made more sense at that time and it gave me the opportunity to go back home every once in a while. I was born in Penang. I grew up in Penang."

The trend among many jazz festivals the world over is to use "international" in the festival name, as though it automatically and magically confers prestige but that was never on the cards for Augustin: "Some people asked us why we didn't we call it a Music Festival or use the name International Jazz Festival but there were three key reasons; one, jazz is relatively safe in terms of getting permits from the government because it's old people's music," he laughs. "Secondly, the Island was a promotional tool and we didn't want to call it International because of the Bird Flu epidemic at a time when people were scared to come to this part of the world. Thirdly, in the early days we thought that if we couldn't get international artists we'd look silly with the name International Jazz Festival."


In the ten years since the PIJF began, numerous other jazz festivals have sprung up in the region in Borneo, Thailand, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Augustin, however, is not entirely sure if this trend signifies a growth in interest in jazz: "Generally, everybody wants to do a festival but different people have different ideas what a festival should be. I think people thought after we started, hey, if they can do it we can too.

"I think the perception many people have of the PIJF is that we must be making a lot of money and they want the same. But making money is the least of our worries at this point in time. It was basically to push the music industry and establish a foundation that we could carry on and develop in many ways," Augustin says. "If we just worried about making money we wouldn't be doing this. We'd be doing something else, because there's no money in this; in the long run maybe."

With each edition of PIJF Augustin has attempted to promote young Malaysian musicians and through talks and workshops to hopefully inspire wannabe musicians and teachers alike: ""It's an educational thing," says Augustin. "You have to get the musicians close to the young people so that's why we have workshops. We give the opportunity to young people to play and get them involved. " The first PIJF in 2004 featured a Young Jazz Talent competition but it soon changed its character after a couple of editions: "I think a lot of young Malaysian musicians were scared of the word jazz and we started losing participants," says Augustin. "They thought they weren't good enough or weren't jazz enough. Once we realized that we decided to do something else."

That something else was Creative Malaysia, which invites and encourages young musicians/groups based not on their jazz credentials but on their creativity. The change from the Young Jazz Talent competition to the Creative Malaysia format was largely inspired by Augustin's frequent visits to jazz festivals in Europe: "When I went to Europe with Choo Yeun, to Norway, Germany, Finland, even Korea, we started to realize that jazz in Europe is not the way that we think jazz is. It's more open. It opened a really big door for us because a lot of people here were very creative but they had no platform. So, we shifted our mode of thinking.

"We decided that our festival would be more creativity-driven so we had to get the creative input of the local musicians." In Malaysia, by and large, that meant Indie musicians because as Augustin points out, "jazz musicians here generally play the same stuff that other jazz musicians are playing—the same standards. They're doing stuff I've heard a hundred times before from different people. The only way they can catch my attention is if it's different" Rather than program staid music, simply because it was jazz, Augustin threw his weight behind Malaysia's young Indie musicians.

In the past 2 editions since Creative Malaysia got up and running dozens of young Malaysian bands have been given a platform by the PIJF, playing on the fringe stages. The initiative has thrown a little spotlight on some very promising musicians/groups. Augustin offers food for thought for aspiring groups: "A lot of bands are into making the audience happy and giving them what they want. When you do that you compromise your creativity. I keep telling them, Malaysia has got something that nobody else has; we have different rhythms like joget, ronggeng, asli, or krongjong so why don't you use them? Put them in jazz; that will immediately make you stand out from the rest of the world."

Another side of the PIJF that has grown over the years has been the Island Jazz Forum, which brings together important players from the international jazz world to share their knowledge and opinions on contemporary jazz-related issues: "The first forum we had was basically a local forum," says Augustin. "We got somebody from the television station, somebody from the newspaper and somebody from radio and it was jazz from the perspective of the media. We realized that we had people like Peter Lee and JJ Inn coming here so we decided to do something on a regional level. We had jazz in the education system, and then we had the creative economy of jazz. It's about an exchange of ideas and the people who come learn something. This year it has escalated to four topics. I don't know if anybody will come," jokes Augustin "so I told Ben Mandolsen to bring his ukulele just in case."

Mandolsen, a fine musician in his own right is founding Director of WOMEX (World Music Expo), the world's largest and most important networking conference and showcase for World Music. Augustin was invited to WOMEX in October 2013 where he gave a paper entitled "Crossing Borders: Programming World Music Artists in Asian Jazz Festivals." Naturally, it raises the questions as to the status of the relationship between jazz and World Music and the programming considerations of the PIJF.

"I think the boundaries are slowly being erased," Augustin says. "I submitted the paper because I could see that WOMEX was getting more into jazz. They have a small jazz program now in WOMEX. Mandolsen has also been invited to give a talk at EJN [European Jazz network]," adds Augustin. "WOMEX is accepting jazz as part of its program and jazz is also looking at World Music, though I think it's easier for a World Music musician to be programmed in a jazz festival than it is for a jazz musician to play a World Music festival."


The PIJF has staged a number of bands that are much more World Music than jazz but there have been very few complaints from anybody: "In the past nine years we've just had one guy who walked in and said "you call this a jazz festival?" and then walked out," says Augustin. "If we program just straight ahead jazz like [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis, with all the bands playing the same stuff then after two bands the crowd are just listening to one long song. We try to strike a balance and offer discovery. We hope our audience will grow to learn that the term jazz is actually bigger than just swing music, fusion or funk. The music has evolved so much."

One constant in an ever-evolving festival has been the location of the PIJF. Situated right by the beach, the Bayview Beach Resort is a delightful environment to stage a jazz festival and the continuity has been an important factor in the smooth running of the festival: "In terms of logistics it's very, very important," emphasizes Augustin. "Even before we go in we already know what we want and what we need.
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