Jazz-ing it up in Miri

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Borneo inspires YK Samarinda's own brand of East Kalimantan JazzBorneo inspires YK Samarinda’s own brand of East Kalimantan Jazz

By Shahjanaz Datuk Kamaruddin

As a fan of live music, this writer was lured by curiosity to check out the Borneo Jazz Fest. Although less famous than the annual Rainforest World Music Festival in the “Cat City” (Kuching) of Sarawak, the Borneo Jazz, previously known as the Miri International Jazz Festival, is already in its ninth year and took place over two days on 9 and 10 May 2014.

Music fans would agree that live music is as much about the surrounding ambience as it is about the musicianship on stage. Hence to savour The Beatles at the Cavern Club would be a dramatically different experience from seeing them live at New York’s Shea Stadium.

Most of us are accustomed to enjoying jazz in intimate settings. In Kuala Lumpur, these settings include well-known establishments such as Mezze, No Black Tie and Alexis. This writer was therefore eager to discover what the Borneo Jazz had to offer.

Following a two-hour flight by Malaysia Airlines from Kuala Lumpur, this writer touched down in Miri on the afternoon of 8 May 2014. After checking into a sea view room at The Everly, ParkCity, Miri, it became audibly apparent that a unique experience was about to unfold. From that vantage point it was easy to eavesdrop on the bands rehearsing as the festival venue was within the resort’s beachfront grounds. A music fan would straightaway feel at home even before the actual festivities had begun. Live jazz music streaming up through the balcony coupled with a scenic vista of the beach marked a welcome start to the weekend of Bornean-inspired jazz.

A very appreciative family-oriented audience

Each day of the festival began at just before sunset with a lively show by a school marching band. This was clearly staged to attract families with youngsters, and a fitting prelude for what was to come after sunset. Although jazz tends to attract a matured crowd, the Borneo Jazz within the scenic and secure ambience of a resort attracts a no less appreciative family-oriented audience.

There were numerous highlights at the Borneo Jazz. Junkofanc did well to represent the host country and got the crowd asking for more on the first night. When the last act for the evening was invited on stage, five ordinary-looking Cubans appeared with not an instrument in sight. As soon as they began to sing, you understood why. Vocal Sampling is an all-male acappella musical group. Through their vocal prowess you could hear the lead guitar, bass, saxophone, trumpet and percussions accompanying the melodic voices. Sensual samba and bossanova tunes got the crowds swaying. Their rendition of The Eagles’ “Hotel California” caught the crowd by surprise, and the electric guitar riffs closely mirrored those from the original classic even though they came from a man’s throat!

The second and final night saw the crowds swell to more than thrice the size it was from the night before. No doubt word had spread and many were sorry for missing out on last night’s excitement. YK Samarinda began the evening with its brand of East Kalimantan jazz. Theirs was a jazz funk style akin to the 1990s hits of Level 42. The lead guitarist donned an Iban headdress and played traditional tunes on his sape, giving their performance an interesting Bornean-inspired twist.

The night continued with Iriao, an eight-piece ethno-jazz band from Georgia, once part of the Soviet Union. Their vocals were inspired by the folk music traditions of Georgia, at times high pitched and melancholic and accompanied by a violin-like instrument similar to the Chinese erhu.

For those among the audience waiting to enjoy classic jazz favourites a-la Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, there was Anthony Strong from the UK. His exuberant style was a unique take on jazz classics with his own feel-good songs. This one-time session musician and song-writer was as comfortable playing the grand piano as he was singing: a lethal combination that mesmerized the crowd. His version of “When I fall in Love” immediately got the audience roaring with approval. Personal favourites were a moody rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and a rapid-fire version of “Cheek to Cheek” made famous by the debonair Fred Astaire.

Ending on a jazz climax

The festival ended on a climax with Brassballet from Germany. They are probably the only musical act in the world whose eight brass players are as adept as dancers as they were as musicians. This was certainly a novelty to the audience and a larger number gathered closer to the stage for a better look. There were interesting versions of classics including of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops keep falling on my Head” and a rather dramatic version of “Hotel California” complete with ballet style choreography. A personal favourite was their tribute to Michael Jackson complete with Panama hats.

The Everly at ParkCity offers a unique venue for guests fortunate enough to be staying there. Guests are free to wonder in and out during the fest as the comforts of the hotel room are within easy reach. According to an informed source, the total number of people attending the two-day fest was close to 6,000. Most were expatriates from within Malaysia and Brunei and the rest Malaysians.

At the end of each night, fans were treated to an impromptu jamming session by the musicians within the intimate setting of the hotel lounge. Others who wanted to dance the night away could adjourn to the Pavillion nearby where the DJs would spin their magic. This helped to enhance the Borneo Jazz experience.

Some observed, including the vendors who were selling food and arts & crafts at the fest, that the attendance was lower than in previous years. A travel trade operator also observed that more hotels in the city should be approached as co-partners to provide not just rooms for the festival fans but shuttle transport as well.

2015 will see the Borneo Jazz celebrate its tenth anniversary. This calls for a bigger and better event than this year, so careful planning must begin now to ensure a resounding success in 2015. The Borneo Jazz offers a music fest with a quaint charm, worthy of another journey to Miri next year. For more information, please visit Borneo Jazz’s website.

The sights, sounds and sensations of the Borneo Jazz 2014.The sights, sounds and sensations of the Borneo Jazz 2014.

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