“Jazzical” Borneo Jazz Festival 2014

Borneo jazz fest had its extreme interpretative moments apart from cultural expositions. Mallika Naguran revelled in the fiesta of sound, dance, food, art and fun that can only be had in Miri, Sarawak. 

The "sampe" in YK Samarinda.

Miri, 10 May 2014. Fans were treated to a mixed bag of musical genres at Miri’s jazz festival, with jazzy elements being played as the constant denominator throughout.

The Borneo Jazz Festival 2014 featured eight rather varied but acclaimed music bands from different parts of the world, sourced by the festival's artistic director, Yeoh Jun Lim.

There were ethnic sounds offering cultural perspectives, reminiscent of the Rainforest World Music Festival, Sarawak's upcoming famous gig. There were also funky rhythms to get youths dancing, three-piece-suit crooners to get feet a tapping and jazz-pop fusion (plus good looks) to complement fine Whiskey pouring.

At Borneo Jazz Festival 2014, there was also good ‘ol piano finesse to help raise a glass, a toast to fine musicianship.

Jazz is hard to describe, but once experienced, it is unforgettable.

YK Samarinda - Kalimantan jazz.

It could portray heritage.  YK Samarinda from Kalimantan, Indonesia opening with the rather tribal “sampe” instrument (Sarawakian version of the “sape”) but soon contrasted its delicate, ancient twangs with heavy metal of modern times before branching off to “fusion jazz”.  The audience loved it, but the metal mania gave my ears a pounding.

Iriao saturates Georgian polyphonic sounds with jazz.

Ethno-jazz by Iriao introduced Georgian polyphonic vocals was arresting.  Chakrulo uses metaphors and complex ornamentation in its polyphonic music, dating back to the 12th century. The different voice segments that range from yodeling to melese (often compared to Indian classical singing) were accompanied by instrumental virtuosity.

The distinct sounding Georgian polyphonic music has been given a UNESCO status as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage. What a treat.

The above two acts came on during the second day of the festival, thankfully rescuing what appeared as a most incredulous performance by the Cuban sextet the night before.  Vocal Sampling all-male artistry of a capella roused the crowd with their Latino songs and vocal imitation of musical instruments, but quickly dissipated into boredom as they sang (or hummed) classic rock numbers such as “Hotel California” by The Eagles and “Blowin in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.

Hotel California? Wrong station, guys.

Elvira and Russell revived funk with big band backing.

Junkofunc’s high velocity performance anchored by the sonic powerhouses Elvira Arul and Russell Curtis should have been the last gig on the first night, as they got the placid picnicking audience to rush to the stage,  grooving away to “Ain't That Peculiar” by Chaka Khan & Rufus, “Things I Do” by Jackson 5, “Talking Loud” by Incognito and “Lean on me” by Bill Withers, “Talking Loud” by Incognito, “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, and “Signed, Sealed Delivered” by Stevie wonder.

The West Malaysian band also performed three songs by Tower of Power: “Diggin on James Brown”; “Attitude dance”; and “Soul with a Capitol S”.  Take it away, dudes.

Diana Liu backed by an all star Christy Smith, Lewis Pragasam and Greg Lyons cast.

Equally impressive with heartfelt rendition by Diana Liu with her own compositions as recorded in her Sunny Days album: “I Can”, “Fly”, “Someone Like You”, “If You Want Me” and “6/8”. Southeast Asian hues describe her style in her “Sunny Days” original, while “Whisper” was composed by Idang Rasjidi of Indonesia. The Sarawakian born vocalist was accompanied by an all-star musical cast with Christy Smith on the bass and double bass, Lewis Pragasam on the drums and Greg Lyons on the sax.

This quartet was the starting gig of the two-day festival and a great sounding one too, with a rather impressive performance by all, with accentuated interpretation and animated tones by Greg Lyons.

Sax ruled the day with Greg Lyons.

The saxophonist lives in Singapore, jams with 10-piece Omniform and Greg Lyons Trio, and runs a regular Groove Works workshop often held at BluJaz café. He released an album in 2009 called “Smoke Signals”.

Mario Canonge from Martinique/France showed how cultural vibes can be woven with jazz seamlessly. The accomplished pianist and vocalist performed creole jazz with West Indies accents.

So good was he on the piano that he was dubbed “The Flying Fingers” by emcee Jazzer. And indeed he was, indefatigable, even well after midnight, jamming with fellow musicians at the Riau Club of Park City Everly Hotel where all the action took place.

Mario "flying fingers" Canonge. Photo by Andy Kho.

His album Mitan is proof of the best of Caribbean with sparkling “jazzistic” nuances, all in ten fingers.

Anthony Song will put a smile on your face.

Singer, pianist and songwriter Anthony Strong, described as “a major new talent” by UK newspaper Metro, was a major hit at Borneo Jazz Festival 2014 as well. Wit interlaced with melodic tunes is what I appreciate about his compositions as recorded in the “Stepping Out” album, launched in 2013.   And his videos are a must watch.

Stomping to a grand finale, BrassBallett from Germany took the house down with rare showmanship. Energy, panache and flamboyance threaded the brass musicians together as they covered the entire floor with smooth dance steps and amazing choreography. They showed how jazz can be fun, yes, on your feet, classy, brassy and even spunky.

Let’s not forget that red tie and dark glasses, the only constant among flailing arms and floating metal.

Who says jazz is boring, quaint or fuddy duddy? Borneo Jazz puts such innuendos to rest.

BrassBallett jazzed up the scene with cool dance tricks.

Surprise is the constant element at this international music festival, organized by the tourism board of Sarawak with support from federal government and national aircraft carriers Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia.

Plus with the festive food fair on the grounds coupled with tented marts peddling souvenirs, fabric, jewellery and handicrafts, it was simply, jazzical!

But less ethno (save that for the Rainforest World Music Festival), less Latino and more traditional and smooth jazz should take this festival a notch or two higher on the regional jazz charts.

Photos by Mallika Naguran

Air Asia flies direct from Singapore/Kuala Lumpur to Miri, Sarawak. Check out Miri’s other events and festivals at Sarawak Tourism Board’s website regularly. While in Miri, stay at the ParkCity Everly Hotel for the best view of festival grounds and the sea. Upcoming, Rainforest World Music Festival 20-22 June 2014 in Santubong, Sarawak.

Read previous articles on this festival by Gaia Discovery here.

Borneo Jazz 2014 festival lineup

Tree planting at Borneo Jazz 2014 - green or greenwash?

New DJ to get the audience dancing at Borneo Jazz 2014.