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Penang Island Jazz Festival: Penang, Malaysia, Dec 1-4, 2011

Penang Island Jazz Festival: Penang, Malaysia, Dec 1-4, 2011
Ian Patterson By

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8th Penang Island Jazz Festival
Penang, Malaysia
December 1-4, 2011
For small, independent jazz festivals heavily reliant on private sector sponsorship, it can be a jungle out there. In the case of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, sandwiched between the Straits of Malacca and tropical forest, this is literally true. Monkeys, civet and leopard cats, pangolins, turtles, and a vast assortment of birds, reptiles and amphibians make their home here. Snakes, spiders and scorpions are also indigenous, but so far seem indifferent to the strains of jazz emanating from the festival venue at the Bayview Beach Resort. However, there are signs that the PIJF—celebrating its 8th edition—has perhaps turned a corner and is no longer scrapping for survival. This year, a record number of bands, both local and international, performed on the main stage, and no fewer than five other hotels provided fringe stages, up from last year's four. The program once again boasted an impressive variety of music from artists hailing from Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, Norway, India, Switzerland, Holland, Austria, the UK and America, strengthening the festival's image as a truly international event.

This year was marked, however, by the first appearance of a rare breed, not a slow loris or a flying lemur, but a much stranger, predatory beast altogether—an international media pack. With the growing support of the government, the PIJF was able to invite specialist jazz journalists from New Zealand, Italy, Indonesia, Norway, Canada, Japan, Slovenia and Laos, and jazz festival directors from Japan, Hong Kong and China. In addition to local media, lifestyle/travel magazine journalists and photographers were also invited from Bangkok and Singapore, testament to the island governor's growing recognition of the festival's potential in putting Penang on the map as an international tourist destination. It's an acknowledgment too of the international renown that the Penang Island Jazz festival has garnered in its relatively short existence.

George Town, Penang

The logic is sound. Apart form the beaches, tree-covered hills, and flora and fauna which beguile visitors to the island, Penang is also home to George Town, the vibrant and colorful, UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, thriving Chinese, Indian and Malay communities co-exist harmoniously. The winding back streets are characterized by an architectural diversity which matches its ethnic make-up. Amongst British colonial edifices, Italian buildings perch gracefully, and multicolored, two-toned shop-houses with their famous bamboo-roll blinds proliferate. Elaborate Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques, tea shops, money changers and street eateries rub shoulders.

The smells of delicious hawker food—steaming soups, spicy curries, tropical fruit, and fried rice—blend with the aroma of temple incense. The sounds of Indian bhangra music, the honking of car horns and the bustle of people going about their business provide a pulsating beat to the rhythm of life. A strong sense of the tides of history permeates the brickwork and the different colored faces of this once-famous, spice trading port, now a busy metropolis. Little wonder then, that Penang often features in lists of "places to see before you die."

Chinese temple, Penang

As in previous years, the festival began with a series of concerts at the fringe stages on Thursday and Friday. The established venue of the G-Spot hosted concerts by blues singer Nina Van Horn on Thursday and the Rio Sidik Quartet from Indonesia on Friday, both of whom later performed on the main stage at the Bayview Beach. The innovation this year was the inaugural concert in the Tropical Spice Garden , an idyllic venue carved out of the forest and nestled in the lush green hills overlooking the sea. Visitors to this exotic botanical garden were greeted by monkeys walking the electricity cables, but thankfully these were not of the camera/sunglasses-thieving variety.

Over 500 species of tropical flora, fauna, spices and herbs cover four and a half acres, an area which also houses a cookery school and restaurant with views of the sea. It's well worth taking a guided tour, though signs denote just about every plant, identifying which leaf is medicinal, which leaf is hallucinogenic and which leaf is potentially lethal—essential knowledge for the ill, the adventurous, and those plotting revenge or seeking life's ejector seat. The media pack was none of the above, and followed a path which wound its way up gently through a wall of bamboo, knotted vines and giant ferns to the venue, an open-sided dome bedecked with lights suspended like stars. After a superb meal, courtesy of the cookery school—rich, buttery curries laced with fresh herbs and spices—the concert got underway for a pleasingly full house.

Three Malaysian bands were showcased. The Az Samad Duo blended Samad's acoustic guitar wizardry with Zalila Lee's bubbling percussion. Samad is a well-traveled musician, having performed in the United States, Europe and Asia. Technically impressive, Samad has performed on record and in concert with Texas accordion legend Flaco Jiminez, utilizing the percussive potential of the guitar to great effect, something in the vein of guitarist Andy McKee. However, impressive though Samad's technique undoubtedly was, the pop/world compositions which drew inspiration from Irish and Spanish wells lacked narrative, to a degree. Pianist Thelonious Monk's jazz standard "Blue Monk" and a pretty Malaysian tune suggested that Samad is, for the time being at least, a more accomplished interpreter of songs. The crowd, it has to be said, greeted the performance with warm applause.

From left: Az Samad, Zalila Lee

Next up, vocalist Bihzhu provided one of the few genuinely jazz-flavored performances of the fringe festival. Possessing a strong, sultry voice, Bihzhu displayed an inherent sense of time and imbued swing into a set of mostly originals. Clarinetist David Ling—who stood in with only an hour's notice—deserves credit for some fine playing. The one cover, singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones' gorgeous "The Moon is Made of Gold," capped a well received performance and one which earmarked Bihzhu as a potential leading light in Penang's emerging jazz scene. The final act saw established singer/songwriter Liyana Fizi ease her way stylishly through folk and bossa nova-flavored fare. With the falling of heavy rain that had forgotten the monsoon season was over, the charming, stage-savvy Fizi had the crowd singing along to one of her hits as she sounded the final note on an enjoyable evening.

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