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Penang Island Jazz Festival: Malaysia, December 2-5, 2010

Ian Patterson By

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Saturday's program came to its conclusion with a blast from the past in the form of Carefree, a Malaysian funk/R&B band formed in 1975. Carefree disbanded in'82, but 28 years later the original members were persuaded to reunite for a benefit concert and, based on the success of this comeback, Paul Augustin convinced them to fill the headline slot on Saturday. After a hiatus of close to three decades the band could be excused slight ring rustiness but nevertheless its enthusiastic performance moved a sizeable section of the crowd to boogie on down to the riffing horn section and funky rhythms which echoed the Average White Band.

Attractions other than the music on offer at the Penang Island Jazz Festival included several exhibitions of note. The jazz photography of world renowned photographer William Ellis drew plenty of admirers. Ellis has the same knack of making his subjects comfortable that the late Herman Leonard had, resulting in photos of great intimacy, whether they be live action shots or more composed portraits. Festival goers could also appreciate the ORIS Jazz Legends collection of photos or ponder the artful posters of past editions of the Montreux Jazz Festival from '68 to this year's festival of '10. It would have been nice to have had a list of the artists who participated in each edition, to see how the festival has grown and changed its spots over the years, something for the Montreux Jazz festival and the Swiss Embassy—who supported the exhibition—to consider in the future.

Unfortunately, a photographic exhibition chronicling the development of popular music in Penang in the '40s and '50 to be displayed in the Penang State Museum in the downtown World Heritage site of Georgetown was postponed, although it will run from the December 19 until mid-January, 2011. These turbulent years saw devastating bombing during World War II, vicious Japanese occupation, subsequent British administration—which was not without the rod—and bloody insurrection.. In spite of the political turmoil, and perhaps because of it, these were hugely fertile years for music and the cross pollination of various styles from an ethnically diverse population resulted in a musical scene unmatched to this day. One of the long-term aims of festival director Augustin and his team is to make the Penang Island Jazz festival an island-wide celebration, and if they can achieve this then they will have gone a long way to recreating something of the musical vibrancy of mid 20th century Penang.

The final day of the Penang Island Jazz Festival was a music-packed marathon which ran from 9.30 am with the first workshop of the day until 3am the following morning with the rousing afterhours session and closing party. For the early birds the reward was an infectious drum circle workshop which brought together festival goers from the age of five to 75. Conducted by Paul Lau and Edwin Nathaniel and the enthusiastic members of the Aseana Percussion Unit, the workshop demonstrated the rhythmic pulse inside each and every one. A bonus in a greatly entertaining session was Celso Machado's participation, bringing bags of enthusiasm to the circle.

After the workshops and fringe performances the final evening kicked off with Malaysian guitarist Roger Wang's trio. This premiered and much travelled musician led drummer Peter Lau and bassist Simon Lau through a set comprised of highly melodic covers which highlighted his talent as an acoustic guitarist of refinement, culminating in a heartfelt rendition of Santana's classic "Europa."

Boi Akhi, from left: Sandip Bhattcharya, Monica Akihary, Niels Brouwer

The trio of vocalist Monica Akihary, guitarist Niels Brouwer and Indian percussionist Sandip Bhattcharya—otherwise known as Boi Akih—has been playing together since 2004, and the deep empathy between the three was apparent in a thrilling performance, where the rhythms of India fused with Akihary's Haruku language of the Moluccan islands of Indonesia and some breathless improvisation from all three.

A defining characteristic of Boi Akih's music is Akihary's vocal improvisation: one minute, her voice screeching like car wheels spinning around a corner; the next, evoking tropical bird song, as on the lovely "When Evening Falls." Earlier in the day at Boi Akih's workshop/Q&A session a local classically trained singer asked Akihary how she saved her voice to which Akihary replied: "I don't. I take my voice everywhere I want to go; I try to find everywhere my voice can go."


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