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Paul Augustin: Putting Penang On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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"Some hotels might change the manager every few years but the policy of the Bayview Beach Resort is to keep the same manager and the same staff as long as possible. That stability is very important," acknowledges Augustin. "The GM of the Bayview Beach Resort, Edwin Young liked the idea of a jazz festival and supported us. He felt that the PIJF could grow to be big. So every year we go there it's the same people and the system is well set. The hotel loves us because when we go in we basically know what we're doing. Let's not fix what's not broken."

The tendrils of the PIJF have extended to include other venues in the festival, including the Hard Rock Café Penang, The Parkroyal Resort and the award-winning botanical garden the Tropical Spice Garden, which this year will feature a sunrise concert. It's perhaps something of a surprise that the PIJF has not established a presence in Penang's World Heritage Georgetown—one of the finest preserved areas of the old Far East anywhere in Asia: "Of course we would love to," admits Augustin. "Our initial idea was to have bands playing on the ferries as they cross from Butterworth to the mainland of Penang, bands at the airport and other locations but we just don't have the money so we can't do it. A lot of places are happy for you to use their space but you have to factor in equipment, transportation, payment for the artists, food and drink. Location alone is not support enough. We need greater support."


Loyal support has certainly come from the PIJF crowd, who turn out year after year come rain or shine to enjoy the music. "Festival directors from other parts of the world have been amazed by the crowd," says Augustin. "It's an open-air festival by the sea and everybody's drinking but they keep quiet when the band is playing. They really appreciate the music. It's been a process of education over the years. I think the crowd has learned that this is serious music and they have respect for the artists when they're playing."

The musicians who perform at the PIJF are without exception bowled over by the friendly reception and the warmth of the festival crowd. The PIJF has nurtured an easy-going atmosphere and a large part of the credit for the relaxed air that everybody breathes is due to the volunteer staff that run the festival: "The team and the teamwork is so important," Augustin acknowledges. "I keep saying to everybody that this festival was built on a foundation of friendship and family. They're all volunteers and they have come up and worked for the festival since day one—the people who sell the merchandise, the stage managers, everybody. They even drive up here from KL just to be part of the festival.

"I think they get a sense of ownership," Augustin continues, "because when they talk about the festival they don't call it Paul and Chin's festival they call it "our festival." They know that that if they make a mistake we won't put them down. Yes, we have our problems but if something goes wrong they know they have a backing team who will come and support them. We always impress on them that they are the face of the festival; whatever they do reflects on the image of the festival so we always try to avoid saying no, we say we will see what we can do.

"Everybody knows everybody and it's so much fun. I could not ask for a better team. We've watched people bring their kids and they've grown up and now they're helping in the festival; it's a line that goes on and on. It's amazing. Nobody ever gets angry or mad. There are times, of course, when we have to be firm but always polite."


Strangely perhaps, Augustin feels that the PIJF is better known internationally than locally: "Locally it's like "Oh, it's just the PIJF. It's jazz, it's boring"—that kind of stuff," Augustin laughs, "but we're more respected abroad." In the beginning, Augustin had to court the local media, sending out press releases to every outlet imaginable in the hope that somebody would give the oxygen of exposure to the PIJF. As the festival has grown so has its reputation: "For several years we've had newspapers, webzines, magazines and ex-pat magazines writing to us and asking for information about the festival. We have gained significant media exposure," says Augustin.

The New Straits Times has been a consistent source of local support and now the PIJF has muscled its way into airline magazines too. For PIJF 2013 journalists are coming from a range of foreign countries and for the very first time the Lonely Planet is sending someone to cover Penang's very own jazz festival.

The local and even international media might be making a fuss over the 10th anniversary milestone but Augustin doesn't feel any extra pressure or weight of expectation. In his habitual cool, cheery manner he's just getting on with the job in hand: "I don't feel any pressure, actually. The beauty about getting to number 10 is that you can do what you like because It's your festival and you're running it," he says laughing." I don't think there are extra expectations or pressure this year. Just to put it on and make it happen is already a bloody achievement," he laughs.

The PIJF's growing international reputation is also due to the word of mouth recommendations of people who come from Australia, the UK, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and South Korea, making the festival the centerpiece of a Malaysian holiday.

It's also in large part due to the hundreds of foreign musicians who have played the PIJF and who then spread the word: "The bands all play their best regardless of the size of the crowd because they never know who's watching them," says Augustin. "It's like the case of PELbO, they came on did a great set that blew the people away and John Cumming was there and he immediately took them to play the London Jazz Festival."

In a review of PELbO's performance at the 2011 London Jazz Festival , JazzTimes' Sam Spokony described the Norwegian trio as "nothing short of brilliant" and added: "John Cumming has helped one of Europe's great new collaborative talents get one step closer to breaking out." True enough, but Augustin and Choo Yeun of the PIJF probably deserve some of the credit for the chain of events.


Bands are coming to the PIJF from every corner of the world, but it seems that the opportunities for Malaysian bands to play abroad are much more restricted: "For that to happen bands need government support," Augustin says. "The South Korean government is doing a very good job of that. This year we have two Korean bands and somebody is giving a talk. They're also setting up an exhibition. The Korean Arts Management Service group (KAMS) is pushing it.

"It's interesting that they are supporting their musicians to come to Penang because I think they see PIJF as a stepping stone," Augustin ventures. "They're interested to know who are the journalists coming here and they want to meet up with them. It's a door to connections with Europe and elsewhere. Malaysia is starting to do that. If a band gets invited to play somewhere there is a support grant available that you can apply for. This year we took Liyana Fizi to the Jarasum International Jazz Festival."

Photo exhibitions have been a consistent feature of the PIJF, which has attracted two of the world's finest jazz photographers in William Ellis and Ziga Koritnik. Augustin has been inundated with suggestions to gather the best of the PIJF photos to create a 10th anniversary photographic book of the festival. Now is not the right time, however, for one very obvious reason. "It's only nine years," Augustin laughs. Hopefully if we get to the 11th year we have the intention of putting together a book and maybe a CD or even a DVD. Of course there are copyright issues but it's a plan. Or perhaps we could make a documentary," Augustin adds, "called how to survive for ten years with no money."

In actual fact, Augustin is in the process of putting together a book on the history of popular music in Penang with PIJF stalwart James Lockhead: "We've been commissioned to do a book and we're supposed to start now," laughs Augustin. It's going to be a coffee table book and maybe with a CD. Popular music in the 1940s and 1950s was actually jazz—big band dance stuff and swing and bossa nova. Penang was also very well known for its Hawaiian music.

"We've heard recordings that nobody's ever heard, like pianist Jimmy Boyle. This guy was amazing. There's a recording of him playing in 1953. He's like a Malaysian Ahmad Jamal. This guy was way ahead of anybody in Asia," Augustin says. The book, based on a photographic exhibition created by the PIJF will cover the pre-WWII years when there was a vibrant music scene in Penang, largely, Augustin acknowledges, because of external influences.

"In the 1920s and 1930s we were under British rule," Augustin explains. "They commissioned 64 Filipino musicians to come to Malaysia to be part of the Municipal bands in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The Philippines were renowned as good musicians. When the conflict was finished the British said they could stay in Malaya if they wanted. More than 90% of them chose to stay in Malaya and they integrated into the clubs and shows and they would set up bands. The British also brought in musicians from India and Pakistan after the war for the Municipal bands."


Agustin and Lockhead's research into the factors that influenced the development of music in Penang has thrown up a lot of interesting material. Those who can't wait for the coffee table book can get a preview of its central themes during this year's Island Forum when Lockhead, jazzahead!'s Peter Shultze and Ben Mandolsen appear on the panel discussion entitled "Popular Music Heritage Preservation."

The PIJF is dedicated to highlighting and preserving Malaysian jazz history, just as it to promoting the up and coming generation of musicians. Augustin, himself a noted bassist in popular Malaysian bands in the 1970s and 1980s understands that the music of today is founded on the music of the past. In the same way, the resilience and growth of the PIJF is the fruit of all the efforts of the past. Within a decade the PIJF has established itself as one of the very best jazz festivals anywhere in Asia.

It's no easy task to choose highlights of the first nine editions of PIJF: "For me, what's most memorable are not so much the performances themselves but more managing to put them on and seeing the reaction from the audience," says Augustin. "There are many standout memories: the Bob Aves Jazz Group featuring Grace Nono—that was a sort of world premier for his music, a fusion of Filipino traditional kulintang music and contemporary jazz where he played the Philippine octavina guitar."
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