Global Flavours of Jazz Spice up sixth Borneo Jazz Festival

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The four-day Borneo Jazz Festival — held for the sixth year in Miri, Malaysia – ended in fine style this past weekend with Latin, Asian, European and American flavours! See my 2011 festival preview piece at http://jazzuality.com/jazz-events/borneo-jazz-2011-malaysia/ and my 2010 blogpost at http://music.techsparks.com/?p=143. Pein Lee of Sarawak Tourism Board has uploaded some awesome photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/peinlee/collections/72157626730374708/!

Day One

The Indian jazz-fusion band Dhruv kicked off the festival on a terrific high note on opening night, along with local Latin-cover band CQuence. Dhruv (led by guitarist Dhruv Ghanekar) played a superb set of funk jazz and Indian-inspired fusion, starting with a rendition of the carnatic song Maha Ganapthim. The track Cunning Politics was a dig at the messy politics in our world today; another track was dedicated to the victims of the tsunami tragedy in Japan.

Many of the tracks were taken from Dhruvs recent album ‘Distance.’ Their last song was an African-inspired tune, and represents the group’s new direction of exploration. “I plan to go to Africa and record tracks for my next album there,” said Dhruv in an interview. Sheldon D’Silva delivered superb solos on his six-string electric bass, and drummer Gino Banks delighted the audience with some sizzling rolls accompanied by Indian percussion language scatting (konakol). FA Talaral, a fabulous saxophonist from Magadascar who is also active in Indonesia especially with his group Sarimanouk was in the team too.

The other band on opening night was CQuence, a local band in Miri playing Latin covers, who had the audience on their feet trying out salsa moves.

Day Two

Day Two was a delightful tour of the blending of jazz and world music. Four bands, with Australian jazz DJ Kate Welshman spinning tracks during the intervals, spanned a wide spectrum of Chinese, Brasilian and European gypsy jazz.

Hong Kong’s young Ng Cheuk-yin is a sheng wizard, taking this five thousand year old “mouth organ” well into the 21st century. A tight jazz rhythm section of bass, drums, and piano backed Cheuk-yin and his fellow musicians on two other Chinese instruments: Jason Lau on the zheng and Cass Lam on sanxian. The overall texture was definitely jazz, but the Chinese instruments opened up new sonic spaces. The group has released two albums (Kon-Fusion and Open Door) and tours China as well.

The next act featured bossa nova and sambas by Cunha e Piper, with Fernanda Cunha on vocals and Ray Piper on guitar. The group has released a 12-track CD called Sabor do Rio. Their performance was even better in an indoor setting on the last day of the festival, but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit!

Grammy award winning bluesman John Hammond followed with a superb acoustic set, switching effortlessly between two guitars and harmonica. He has collaborated with the Who’s Who of blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, JJ Cale, Tom Waits, and John Lee Hooker. Regarded as the “quintessential acoustic blues troubadour,” he poured his heart and soul into his set which also served to educate a whole new generation of music fans about the rich and colourful history of blues. Rousing audience applause brought him back for an encore.

The superb tropical night ended in magnificent high-energy style with acoustic gypsy music by France’s Les Doigts de L’Homme. They dedicated some of their songs to the gypsy community which has faced harsh persecution in Europe, especially during the dark Nazi years. The high-energy up-tempo music blended swing and jazz with gypsy melodies and rhythms. The performers on three acoustic guitars and bass were flawless in their coordination and handovers, and the track “National Identity” even featured the oud by Kikteff Olivier. He shared a tight bond with his fellow musicians Alcocer Yannick, Blum Tanguy and Convert Benoit. Their energy, humour and fondness for their music shone through, and DJ Kate kept the crowd on their feet long after the band left the stage.

Day Three

Day Three of the four-day festival was a high-energy climax with bands from Canada, Malaysia, Japan, Holland and the US.

Borneo guitarist Victor Yong, originally from Miri and now based in Vancouver, shared his joy at being back home with a good opening set of Latin jazz. His percussionist, Nicholas Charles Apivor, who also performed twice at the Miri International Jazz Festival with the band Rumba Calzada, had the audience on their feet with a terrific set of Brasilian batucada which featured all members of the band ‘Electric Carnival’ on percussion.

Japanese saxophonist Yuichiro Tokuda led the high-energy quintet Ralyzz Dig on a set of straight-ahead jazz. By then the crowd has swelled up, under a rising moon and another perfect tropical evening. Dutch sextet State of Monc followed with a hybrid set combining slick electronic sound with pure jazz on acoustic instruments. Bernardus Dungen on saxophone and Tuur Moens on drums really stood out.

Multiple Grammy nominee Maria Muldaur (of “Midnight at the Oasis” fame) then belted out a foot-stomping set of blues and swing, including hilarious raunchy classics such as “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion.” Her full-blast vocals on “You are seeing a woman who’s got the blues” drew rousing audience applause, as well as the scorching guitar solos by Daniel Joseph Caron.

If there is one artistic director who can curate a superb blend of world music, jazz and blues, it has to be Randy Raine Reusch from Vancouver, who once again ended the performances in rousing style by coordinating a joint jam featuring all 10 bands. Maria Muldaur finished her set with the classic all-night blues party song “Wang Dang Doodle,” and musicians from all the bands joined her on stage one by one, to the audience’s delight. Power-rhythm duo Gino Banks on drums and Sheldon D’Silva on bass, from the Indian jazz band Dhruv, anchored the second half of the jam.

An informal version of the jam carried on in the hotel bar till the wee hours of the morning. It was terrific to see a French guitarist, Japanese bassist, Indian drummer and a Dutch saxophonist jamming away, for instance, joined by other aspiring musicians such as a singer from Australia!

Day Four

The festival concluded in fine style on Sunday afternoon with a smooth Brasilian set by Ray Piper and Brazilada. Guitarist Ray Piper led a tight quintet of musicians from Canada and Australia, who have been playing together for almost 30 years.

The quintet also brought on stage Brasilian vocalist Fernanda Cunha, who had also performed on Day Two of the festival. The group played original compositions as well as covers by Brasilian composers Johnny Alf, Djavan, Haroldo Barbosa, Joao Bosco and Mauricio Einhorn. Nothing compares to the sound of smooth Brasilian groove on a tropical afternoon, whether in South America or Southeast Asia!

I had a nice chat with Cunha and Piper after their performance. Their music has been sometimes described as world music and other times as jazz. “If more Brasilian instruments are used, the music tends to be described as world music, but the structure and level of improvisation will determine whether it will be called jazz,” they joked.

“We don’t play the song ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ in Brasil,” added Cunha. She has been collaborating with Piper on their recent CDs; Piper shuttles regularly between Canada, Australia and Brasil. Cunha performs at jazz festivals in Buenos Aires, Vienna and Vancouver (it was the Vancouver Jazz Festival director who introduced her to Piper). Ironically, Brasil’s big festivals focus mostly on rock and pop music and not as much on jazz and bossa nova (an emerging opportunity for Brasilian tourism and cultural event managers?!).

Musician Insights

A terrific feature of the festival is good media access to the artistes. Each day featured a press conference with the bands, and the media and artistes stayed in the same hotel, allowing for many more opportunities for informal interactions.

The media had a range of interesting questions for the performers. Where exactly is the line between jazz and world music? What is the future of jazz? How are new technologies like portable devices and Internet downloads changing the music industry? How do performers divide their time between recordings and performances, between domestic and international markets, between learning and teaching and collaborating? How can the Asian jazz scene be given a bigger boost? How can local universities be roped in for partnerships and workshops? Can Asia also create its own version of the Berklee College of Music? How can indigenous music be preserved in a era of globalisation and homogenisation?

Festival director Randy Raine Reusch said jazz is like a garden with flowers in different areas growing with different fertilisers, and this leads to variations (eg. with cultural influences from India, Brazil, China) – but they are all in the same garden of jazz. Randy also curates the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching.

“We are an Indian band playing jazz music,” said Indian guitarist Dhruv Ghanekar. He comes from a family of film-makers and studied in the US for a few years. During his interview he played his favourite tune “What If” – a “tip of the hat to the other side” of the crossroads we face in life.

“I grew up on pirated cassette tape compilations in Bombay,” he joked. Today he uses an iPhone app to set the tanpura tone while he tunes his guitar! “Whatever sound we play will have a strong Indian connect,” said Dhruv, who also composes scores for Indian movies.

Maria Muldaur, who has worked on over 40 albums, said her recent work features “swamp funk” and new tracks with her group, The Red Hot Bluesiana Band. She is also finishing an acoustic blues album, a tribute to her hero Memphis Minnie, who composed 200 of her own songs and was also famous for “bitching guitar.”

“Music is a healing art, it brings joy and positive messages to people. I don’t do much of ‘Dear Diary’ music. We are being bombarded with so much news of sadness and trouble these days. Music heals performers and listeners and uplifts spirits, that’s what I do,” said Maria. Her favourite songwriter is Bob Dylan, who “speaks of higher truths.”

State of Monc from Holland has been around for 15 years. They said their music has a mix of influences from electronica to jazz, such as Miles Davis, Weather Report and the 80s UK electronic scene (dubstep, James Blake).

Several of the performers studied at Berklee, and met some of their future collaborators there as well, such as Dhruv from India and Yoichiro Tokuda from Japan. “Jazz is still popular among youth in Japan. Jazz in Japan first came from US troops in Yokohama, then spread to Kobe and others parts of Japan. Some jazz scales resonate well with Japanese scales. Tokyo has many jazz clubs,” said Yoichiro.

Indian classical music also synergises well with jazz, as reflected in their rich collaboration and well described by a number of articles (http://www.orientalblues.com/indojazzmusic.htm, http://bit.ly/lsba6d, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129379409, http://bit.ly/inuUMG).

Victor Yong, originally from Miri, grew up in Canada. “My early influences are Joe Pass, Alan Holsworth, Scott Henderson and Pat Metheny. Vancouver has a great Latin jazz music scene. I play bachata, and also perform with members of the band Rumba Calzada, who played twice in Miri. Latin music’s Afro rhythms are very powerful and universal. I just can’t get enough of it,” said Victor.

Members of French gypsy jazz band Les Doigts de L’Homme credited Django Reinhardt as the first person to take gypsy jazz global, mixing gypsy with jazz music. Legend has it that two of Django’s fingers were burnt in a caravan accident. The banjo he played was considered too loud in the hospital, so he switched to guitar!

“Gypsies have had a hard time in life. The French government wants to control them with weird rules. Gypsies also suffered during the Nazi Holocaust. Our music remembers this community. We also love their music. France is lucky to have so many cultures in its mix,” said guitarist Kikteff Olivier. “None of us are gypsies, and there are delicate political nuances on who protects, performs and improvises on gypsy music,” he explained.

In another interview, legendary bluesman John Hammond joked that he was “old school” when it comes to technology: his wife uses his cellphone!

“At the age of seven, I heard my first blues performance. I started buying records at the age of 10. I started off as painter and sculptor, till I got my first guitar at 18. I have been playing for 50 years now,” he explained.

“I know over 400 songs, each one is special to me. Something comes through me when I play, that’s what keeps me going. The audience gives me that extra boost. Blues is a passion which inspires me. I paint and sculpt with the blues! Every day and every audience is new for me, there is nothing “same” for a bluesman,” said Hammond.

“Blues has always been the blues. If you don’t put enough into it, it becomes more like a ballad; if you put too much it becomes something else. Blues is a condition which doesn’t change from generation to generation. Every generation discovers it in its own way,” he added.

“Unfortunately, though I can show what I do, I can’t teach what I do. I don’t think I am a good teacher,” confessed Hammond.

“Bossa and jazz are harmonically tied together. Brasilian jazz was influenced by West Coast US jazz and Afro rhythms,” said Raymond Piper from Australia, who is now based in Canada and has been playing Brasilian music for over 30 years. Brasilian rhythms are not museum pieces, they are living organisms and movements, said Piper. “It’s humbling to listen to the young virtuoso guitarists and musicians in Brasil. They gather by the dozens under mango trees and play,” he explained.

Ng Cheuk-yin of SIU2 gave a terrific demonstration of two variations of the Chinese mouth organ, sheng. He showed how sounds can be produced on the sheng while inhaling and exhaling – creating “non-stop sound with no end!”

“Not many bands are mixing Chinese instruments with jazz and rock. Our band’s name is an acronym of ‘Sheng it up!’ Many critics ask whether our music is jazz or Chinese music. We tell them we are just creating something we like! The label doesn’t bother us,” said Ng.

“Hong Kong is an energetic place, but many youth prefer karaoke to live bands. For mainland China everything is new — there is a lot of change on the ground, including in music. Taiwan also has a good music scene, with many clubs and festivals,” said Ng. There was some good – and hilarious – discussion on the origins of many East Asian instruments, with China, Japan and Korea each taking credit for their inventions! Some musicians also said it is a good thing Hong Kong parents insist that their kids learn to play traditional instruments, but this can also create an unfortunate backlash with some kids resisting this pressure and disliking local music.

In sum, the Borneo Jazz Festival is now regarded as one of the world’s Top 25 festivals according to Songlines magazine, said the organisers, who also launched ‘fringe’ events this year such as two jam sessions between the musicians in local hotels. A talent search, workshops, music camps and even a jazz conference are planned for next year. I would also suggest creating compilation CDs for each festival, featuring choice tracks picked by each of the performers!

I have a huge stack of CDs to review now from the Borneo festival performers — including Dhruv, Yuichiro Okuda, Maria Muldaur, Victor Yong, Fernanda Cunha, Ray Piper, SIU2, State of Monc and Les Doigts de L’Homme – as well as from other performers and music labels whom I met during the festival. This should keep me busy for the rest of the month!

We already look forward to the seventh edition of the Borneo Jazz Festival in 2012 – see you all there!

See more pictures:

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Reporter: Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz; Bangalore
Pictures credited to Pein Lee of Sarawak Tourism Board

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