Wait, wait, wait, don’t turn your nose up at the mention of jazz! This isn’t a gown-and-champagne uppity jazz festival reserved for ‘atas’ people who are best friends with Yo-Yo Ma. In fact, I was surprised to learn that ‘jazz’ is far more diverse and inclusive than I’d realised. And funner! You CAN attend this thing even if you’re not a big jazz aficionado. I’m definitely no expert and I had a good time.
“If ‘what is jazz?’ is the eternal question, then Borneo Jazz seeks to be the adventure in looking for the musical solution”
It’s not all Norah Jones slow crooning and feeling-feeling piano tunes to be enjoyed between petite bites of fancy canapes. At no point was the tooting-and-tromboning excessive enough to make me wish I could slink away into an edgy club (where I actually know the words, and can break it down on the dancefloor). Nor was it hours of listening to romantic ballads reminding me there’s no Michael Buble in my life professing his undying love to me, thus causing me to cry a drip-drip of salty flavouring into my champagne flute.
Naw. The range of music at this festival was actually pretty good fun my friends. And it’s very laidback so all are welcome.
Alone, it’s a small event. But wrap your holiday in Sarawak around the festival and it makes for a great trip! The Borneo Jazz Festival is a great launchpad for adventures in Sarawak. Start off with some chilled-out fun at the fest, make some friends, then go Bear Grylls it out in the lush nature of Sarawak.
At the Borneo Jazz Festival 2017, there was Afro-Caribbean funky tunes, contemporary compositions from a (very international) group of students from Berklee College of Music, latin rhythms from Cape Verde and Cuba, an award-winning vocalist who has sung with Sting, some James Brown and even David Bowie tunes!
The range of music offers plenty to make you go, fuuuh how did she did that? To make you form a dance circle and dance like idiots with your friends. To make you nod in calm admiration. And if you’re a music connoisseur, there are also moments of sophisticated compositions that will dance in your technical ear. Jazz = all of the above.
Apparently it’s not a particular sound but improvisation that makes jazz, jazz. #learnsomethingneweveryday
Quick note tho. This isn’t a pop concert so it’s not designed to be whopping fun for everyone at every minute. Because each band has quite a different sound, you’re going to like some performers and not enjoy others so much. But that’s okay. Someone else will like the reverse, so it all balances out.
“…because music makes you travel anyway. You can stand in one place and discover the whole world through music. And then if you get to physically move, go to another place, and meet people of different cultures, there’s no way that you can still think that we need to fight each other” – Pascal, of Delgres
Fun Times at Borneo Jazz Festival 2017
I met some wonderful people and enjoyed great music at this intimate music festival (before adventures in the rainforest). The casual jam session, as usual, was the best part. I like how laidback this festival is. I could wander in and out, interact with the musicians, do my own stuff in the day and come back for the evening.
For instance, we went to Lambir Hills National Park to swim in a waterfall on Saturday and made it back in time for the festival fun.Funny story here… At Lambir under the canopy of green, about 15 mins into our hike, one of the girls in our tour stuck out her hand saying hello.
“Hi,” I said taking her hand, “Rebecca.” But she said Rebecca at the exact same moment. My eyebrows furrowed and her expression mirrored mine. I said “Whoa. How do you already know my name?” And she replied “No, I’m Rebecca.”
“Oh. I’m also Rebecca…” Cue amused laughter from the whole group! Friendship forged :)
Within the hour, we found out 6 of us were mixed kids and instantly bonded. 2 of us had the same first name and 2 of us had the same surnames. Cray! I guess this was Borneo just doing its thing, bringing people together through forests and festivals.
Okay, back to the festival!
[On how travel influences their music] “For instance, we had a great jam right here in Miri. The first night we played here at the promo event. It was meant to be just a short promo. Then Armando and Alberto ended up singing with the other band. And we played together and we played completely different music, different from our way of playing” – Nils, of Cabocuba Jazz
Highlight #1 : Afro-Caribbean Blues with Attitude
My favourite performance was from the French trio Delgres. First of all, please behold their marketing shot. How nonchalant do they look?! That selekeh pose on the right made me 100% curious about them!
Then I had a little interview with them, and thanks to the language barrier, Baptiste made me laugh with his cute attempt to answer my question even though he didn’t understand it :)
On stage, the guys were rip roaring. Between the giant instrument, the lead singer’s vocals made raspy by a distortion pedal, and Baptiste’s intense drumming, it was a hoot! They managed to get the crowd tres excited! The change of pace between songs was smooth and enticing. Pascal also told some stories explaining what drives the heart of their music, which always makes the experience a little deeper.
Find out more about Delgres here.
“I come from a place where travelling was not for everybody. So, music gave me the chance to travel. And I was hungry to travel and see other nationalities, other countries” – Armando, of Cabocuba Jazz
Highlight #2 : Asian James Brown in Shiny Pant Legs
Next to them, Japan’s Osaka Monaurail easily stole the show! An absolute blast! They closed the festival on the last night with so much soul and a whole lotta funk.
I was NOT expecting the Japanese vocalist to channel James Brown, of all people. What an epic surprise. Listening to him, you woulda thought you were in Louisiana — he didn’t sound remotely Japanese!
He was so full of energy, dancing about in James Brown signature speedy-leg moves mixed in with his own flare of Mr Roboto meets Ray Charles dance moves. I mean, it’s hard to describe! He definitely worked the crowd.
You got the sense that his music is a kind of homage to the musicians who inspired him from afar, and so he emulates them and injects his own twist to it. Masterfully executed, I might add! I liked listening to the bands who play originals but it was great to also recognize some songs and be able to sing along.
“Do you think we can go back to the 60’s? We wanna go back to the funky time. I wanna go back to the funky sound of Otis Redding. The sound of Ray Charles. The sound of James Brown” – Ryo Nakata on stage
The music, needless to say, was also incredibly enjoyable. Really upbeat. I loved that everyone in Osaka Monaurail was in a fancy suit too. The brass fellas on the right were all coordinated and doing some super smooth spins on their instruments. Ryo never stands still.
Here he is channelling some Ray Charles, after pretending to blindly stumble to the keyboards ;p
My favourite bit is probably the humorous back-and-forth little skit they did, playing on their ‘Japaneseness’. He asked a question, his bandmates said ‘Yeah!’ to every question.. until he begins to suspect they don’t understand what he’s saying. So he asks a few more and we realise they’re just saying YEAH enthusiastically anyway. Made the crowd laugh really hard. Showmanship was top notch :)
I wouldn’t have guessed a Japanese band would top a jazz festival, but they definitely did!
Listen to Osaka Monourail on Spotify here.
“[When I travel, I like] just watching all the diversity of the world. And that makes you think really how crazy it is nowadays for some people to want to put boundaries…this is just so crazy…The more you travel, the more you see the craziness of people trying to bring one people against another. All the fighting is so ridiculous. And for that travel is great.” – Pascal, of Delgres
Highlight #3 : Cabocuba Sexy Latin Rhythms & Bongoriffic Jazz
A group from Netherlands playing seductive latin music intertwined with the slow melodies of Cape Verde, South Africa. The band members of Cabocuba Jazz hail from Cape Verde, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Germany, Venezuela, USA… Interesting kan??
Among the group are music professors, a guy who can sing as well as he drums (#madskillz), a vocal duo with sexy dance moves, a German guy on bongos (?!). It’s wonderful. And so is their music. And in fact, so are they!
“You have to be open. To talk to people. To share music. The jam session is the ‘material prima’ to grow different music. Only in the jam sessions, you can mix all the styles that are around. To jam with bands that you don’t even know. We can take from them and they can take from us. And from there we grow amazing things” – Alberto, of Cabocuba.
I had the pleasure of spending time with Cabocuba during the festival when they weren’t on stage making our hips shake.
That’s something cool about Borneo Jazz. It’s pretty easy to meet the musicians and interact with them. If you play an instrument you can even jam with them during the jam sessions in Park City Everly‘s Riau room. If you have the energy to stay to the end, you’ll be well rewarded in the jam sessions.
Nils: We had a concert in Finland. It was great then we had a jam session, which was a very special musical moment. We played with the others so we played some other music. The audience liked the jam session more than the concert! I could see it in their faces. But you can’t plan these things.
Armando: In jam sessions, we meet people and play with musicians – we don’t even know each other. And it’s a very refreshing experience. It’s always nice to share music with people that we don’t know so much. And then once more, music goes further. Music is a big thing
So meeting these musical magicians was one of the highlights of my time at the festival. Just as the band said meeting musicians from around the world opens them to play different kinds of music, I got to learn from them too. About Cuba from Armando, about Cape Verde from Carlos, exchanging hair tips with Dina, learning to salsa with Alberto…
Here’s some of the fun they offered when I interviewed them.
Rebecca: What is the craziest thing that has happened while you were travelling?
Alberto: The craziest thing that comes to mind is… the plane was too cold. Normally you bring a pullover. But this time we didn’t think anything because it’s so hot in Malaysia. But it was freezing on the plane!
Rebecca: So did you hold each other?
Alberto: No. To hold each other, it’s dangerous.
Yerman: Armando always has a problem when we travel. [Anxious silence] The big problem for him is that… on the plane, the food is only a little bit and he likes to eat a lot. This is a problem.
Nils: [Putting the jokes aside] The craziest thing is always to deal with the airport. The logistics, transporting our instruments and all that. It’s like Murphy’s Law. You plan something, and it’s never going the way you expect. But you have to be ready and stick to the plan. I think the most crazy thing happens every single time we go on tour. And that is, that we get it together. And we keep playing together.
Find out more about the band on their website, here.
It’s my favourite thing about travelling, when you find your walls down and people just invite you into their world. Music also does that. You share some wonderful moments simply celebrating that your paths have crossed in the here and now
Those are 3 highlights but I enjoyed much more than that. Laila Biali from Canada was an absolute doll in person and on stage. Her vocals are beautiful but so is her smile and how she worked the keyboard. I don’t know if her bandmates were also Canadian but they were all so likeable, you just wanted to have brunch and hug them. Is that weird? I hope not haha.
She played some recognizable songs that the crowd loved, and emotional ones that tugged at your heartstrings. Undoubtedly a talent. She also said she wants to hang out with me in Singapore and have me show her the cool spots. She has no idea I’m not that cool, but you know, I have a famous talented friend now guys. *flipshair*
Also a shout for Fluoroscent Collective. Ridiculously talented for students! Led by a Malaysian (#malaysiaboleh!) with a pretty diverse ensemble. I expected it to be difficult for me to appreciate but it was actually really wonderful, and quite exciting compositions. It was like watching a thriller movie with twists and turns you don’t expect, but they keep you glued and it’s really satisfying in the end. That was them. Vioin, and tabla, and a guitarist that I would never have guessed is a guitarist. But he kicks butt.
Here’s a few pictures from the other performers.
“People think it’s only fun but it’s also hard. But the inspiration we get from the festivals and from the other musicians, this is what gives back to us the energy” – Nils, of CaboCuba Jazz
About the Festival
Borneo Jazz Festival History
The festival is 12 years old, set in the laid-back town of Miri where once-upon-a-time many expats resided. Today the festival continues the tradition of a communal journey through the colourful sounds of jazz. Musicians from some interesting places take to an outdoor stage set beside towering trees along Miri’s coastline, bringing the world to Miri for a weekend of music. About 4000 people show up each year.
It’s pretty cool to think that this is the first glimpse of Asia for some of the musicians who come from truly far away. (There were people from Cuba and South Africa.) And that Sarawakians get to see such diverse acts without having to leave on a jetplane. I wonder if past performers have ever channeled their Malaysian experience back into their music…
How long is the festival? 2 nights, with workshops in the day.
How many bands play? 8 bands. 4 performances each night.
Are the bands all local? No. A mix of Malaysian bands and international bands.
Is it all highbrow jazz? No. Every year the line-up features a mix of different kinds of jazz, some more technical than others, some more upbeat than others, some play originals and others play covers.
Should I bring cash? Yes. There are stalls selling food, wine, beer and local handicrafts on the festival grounds.
Do I need to dress up? Nope, but it doesn’t hurt to wear something pretty yet breezy! It’s hot, sticky and you’re standing outside. I suggest bringing a picnic mat and a hand fan.
Beautiful Sarawakian art by a local artist, who does a pretty spectacular job capturing Bornean motifs and wildlife in his affordable watercolour paintings.
Beaded jewellery (I gave my aunties a few one year, to share. I had to buy a whole bunch more the next year because they all wanted to wear it all the time!).
Beautiful handbags woven from natural materials, made by local tribeswomen. I learnt that a non-profit organization set this up to help the local women and children get access to education and integrate/survive in the local economy. The bags are genuinely beautiful and unique.
What else to do
The Malaysian jazz music festival circuit
Borneo Jazz Festival is popular among music fans who chase the Malaysian music circuit including the Penang Jazz Festival, KL jazz festival, and the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching.
What else is there to do around Miri in Sarawak?
Lambir National Park is an easy day trip for a dip in a waterfall.
There’s a handicraft market, and to my surprise I even got a good haul from shopping at Imperial Mall. Enjoyed some Old Town White Coffee as well, mee kichap and a juicy burger. It was a RM5 Uber ride!
Brunei, Kuching and Mulu are all a very short flight away with some spectacular attractions. Great food of course like Mee Kolo and Sarawak Laksa. You can visit some longhouses of Bornean tribes, do a homestay, explore Gunung Mulu National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, climb the Pinnacles, watch the Bat Exodus, see the Orangutans in Sepilok, get an Bornean traditional tattoo, go black water rafting….
Lots. It’s not really a place to wing it, so plan ahead, book your guide and driver etc. Also, I recommend getting fit before you go. The best attractions require lots of walking/trekking/climbing/bug-survival.
“When you travel, [you spend a lot of time waiting for flights and trains and so] you stand in that place kind of out of time, in the middle of nowhere somehow, step back a little bit and watch and listen…just watching all the diversity of the world” – Pascal, of Delgres
To Jazz or Not to Jazz, That is The Question
I like the Borneo Jazz Festival as a way to kickstart a holiday in Borneo. Pack your sense of adventure and sense of rhythm, you’ll have a great time.
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Malaysia over a weekend, put this down in your calendar for Borneo Jazz 2018. Don’t expect a huge festival with throngs of people and constant flow of (boozy) energy flowing from the crowd to the stage. It’s not electric. It’s a fairly small festival in a quiet town of Miri, but the music is great and the pace is easy so you don’t need a huge group to get a ticket and join in. It’s family-friendly, so feel free to bring the kids.
Domestic flights to Miri are generally affordable. If you’ve got more time, start off with the Borneo Jazz Festival in May or Rainforest World Music Festival in July/August, then explore the rest of Sarawak’s unspoiled rich attractions. Banyak tempat menarik di Sarawak! Forrealz guys, so much fascinating nature and outdoorsy stuff!
If you’re coming from outside Malaysia, Borneo Jazz Festival is not really something I’d travel for on it’s own but it’s certainly a good way to start your time exploring Sarawak in a longer trip. That’s what I did this year. Started with the music festival in Miri then took a 30min flight to Mulu, and headed into the Mulu National Park (and dreamy hotel, Marriot Mulu). Music, dancing, nature, burning calories the healthy way, seeing strange creatures, checking a UNESCO national park off the bucket list, lush hotel, amazing photos… Really satisfying trip! #visitsarawak ? #yes!