What is Jazz? .. the musicians answer me!

ParkCity Everly Hotel
ParkCity Everly Hotel


Before I attended the Borneo Jazz Festival  in Miri, Sarawak, (May 2014) I asked “What is Jazz?” and I came to no real answer so said I would ask the performers once I was able to talk to them at the  ParkCity Everly Hotel.

Worldwide, jazz festivals are really popular and the local organisers in Sarawak decided they could not afford to be the same as every other jazz festival so the people selected to come to Malaysian Borneo are all very different creating a small and perfectly formed music festival. This year, by chance, vocals and piano were big in this 2014 event. (Next year is the 10th annual Jazz festival so I expect there will be big celebrations for this milestone)

However, this, in part,  is what some of those performers said in reply to the query ‘what is jazz?’

The crowd-pleasing group was Vocal Sampling, an all-male a cappella group from Cuba . The band is 25 years old and the trip to Miri was part of the celebration. They said Cuba is a very rich musical environment in which both old and young like jazz … but no explanation why their music is jazz … it seems improvisation will be the common denominator answer!

Mario Canonge is a great musician and showman who plays creole jazz with West Indies rhythms. Originally from Martinique he now lives in France  and said”Jazz is just a word. When you improvise you are jazz’.

Anthony Strongpianist and singer, hailed as ‘England’s new jazz superstar’, sings mostly classical jazz and I missed his interview so a few days later, over breakfast at the Royal Mulu Resort I asked him the same ‘what is jazz’ question. He responded with “I’m sure if you Google it there will be heaps of people who have written many theses on the topic!” All true – he went on to say he thought not all jazz was improv; that the term is an umbrella for many forms of the music.  Just like ‘world music’ has no specific musical genre – that there must be 500 different forms of music that comes under the label – and jazz is the same.

YK Band from Indonesia featured jazz with a Borneo flavour and the locals particularly loved this group – who also couldn’t give a simple answer to my question.

Iriaoa Georgian ethno-jazz band said each area had its own ‘folk’ music and all were different … and although they didn’t give me a definition of jazz they said that Georgian music and jazz were sent to space as a part of  ’13 masterpieces.’

Both evenings of the festival concluded with a jam session all the musicians ( inside the hotel) which was certainly improv .. so maybe was ‘really jazz’, while in the Pavillion beside the ‘Stage by the Sea’  DJ Roundhead had a popular Club Set: crowned the ‘Malaysia DJ Champion’ three years in a row he has a 20 year history in the local music industry.

Junk o Func, (with 12 people) grabbed the stage and entertained us with punchy, gospel-influenced vocals and playful, interaction with each other and the audience – who loved them. (I predict they will return!)

So what is jazz .. to me it seems it’s jazz if you say its jazz! So make up your own mind or become one of the thesis-writing uni students and spend years studying the genre.

So, if you love jazz, if you love music, if you would love to laze around the pool (or beach) all day, eat and then experience great jazz at night, the Borneo  Jazz Festival is for you! (repeat daily!)

If it’s World music that you like, Sarawak also hosts a festival which is also by the beach! Rainforest Word Music Festival (#rwmf). I’ll I’ll be at in Kuching, Sarawak in a week for both the Rainforest the Borneo World Expo at the Hilton  – I’m staying at Damai Beach Resort for the RWMF and at the Hilton for the expo … see you there! 🙂

Andy Kho: official photographer
Andy Kho: official photographer at the Borneo Jazz Festival

Kayaking in Borneo

use IMG_3599 (1)Kayaking was not on my to-do list for my East Malaysian travels!

I’m not a skilled paddler as anyone who has read my book knows: the last chapter is about me having to be rescued while kayaking around Pulau Perhentian Kecil  off the northeastern coast of West Malaysia .

However this is on a river, with a guide, so after visiting the orang utans at the Semonggoh Centre I’m back in the van with Nikki from SEABackpacker heading for a river and some rainforest kayaking – starting in the little Bidayuh village of Bengoh.

McKenzie, our Semadang Kayaking guide ( his father started this family run business) is waiting for us and with our life-jackets on we go down a few steps to where our boats await us: our Diethelm Travel guide is coming too and he’s happy to be out in the country. We all have our own kayaks: McKenzie points out to me they are New Zealand-made.

The water is low and a few times my boat scrapes the bottom as we glide down this bush-lined tributary at the start of our five-hour, 12-K trip. It’s not long  before we reach the Semadang River which is where we may experience some grade 1 rapids – sometimes they are grade 2 but not this week! Grade one suits me just fine!

‘Look, there’s a crocodile’ say McKenzie – he’s teasing us. There are no crocs in this river and its a baby monitor lizard he’s pointing at. who ever says the bush is quiet and peaceful have never kept quiet enough to listen to the noise of birds in the lush vegetation.  We see many including kingfisher, swifts,  black and white wagtails, along with silent dragon flies and butterflies that hover around.

McKenzie our guide

McKenzie our guide

A couple of times we find rapids and both Nikki have our canoes spin around and briefly travel backwards but we stay on board! Our land-guide was not so successful and tipped out once. Mackenzie took these action shots – and gave us a CD with the photos at the end of the journey 🙂

Partway into our trip we stop for lunch in Danu village – a wonderful meal cooked by our guides sister. “She has been married for two years but no babies yet so she helps us ‘ he says.

As we wait for lunch we explore the village gardens with pepper and many herbs and fruits growing.

Pepper drying in the sun
Pepper drying in the sun

Lunch is great and provides my first taste of midin which I’d been told was a must-taste food. Pronounced “mee deen” it’s a jungle fern that only grows in Sarawak and remains crunchy when cooked. The thin, curly shoots are delicious and it’s often stir-fried with garlic, ginger, shrimp paste and chili – I’m instantly a fan.hh IMG_7619

Back on the water we pass more rainforest, sandy beaches and limestone hills that tower over us and all too soon we reach the family’s home village of Semadang. My back was sore from sitting in one position for ages but it was still sad to finish such a great journey.

use IMG_3654 (1)At this end-point we meet their grandmother whose home is the base for this family company and its good to know that money is being left in the villages along the way . . . perfect eco-travel.

Reducing my carbon footprint: greening the music festival

Heather with her tree’and Kuching North City Commission’s Deputy Director, Kartina Zamhari

Within twelve hours of arriving in Malaysia (Kuching, Sarawak) along with 200 others, I was planting a tree as part of the ‘greening the festival’ programme while also helping reduce our carbon footprint.

Here for the Rainforest World Music Festival for the first time, it seems this tree-planting ceremony is in its 3rd year and “helps make Kuching a livable city” said the CEO of Sarawak Tourism Datuk Rashid Khan.

Although not essential, it seems traders at the festival are “encouraged to use green products and practices so the event is not only successful, but also to leave a lasting eco-effect,” he continued.

No doubt, like most international festivals this will soon become a need to get a licence to be part of the #RWMF which is set in the Sarawak Cultural Village.

The 150 trees we (school children, musicians, journalists, concert promoters, travel writers, along with local officials and politicians) planted – in the Government offices lake compound area, Banguan Baitulmakmur – are the Golden Shower (Acacia Fistula). Evidently, over the past few years, some 2 million trees have been planted across Sarawak in events such as this: ‘We try to plant three trees for every one cut down’ someone said, ‘although it’s not always in the same area.”


Datuk Gramong Juna digs a hole for his tree, watched by Kuching North City Commission Deputy Director and Datuk Rashid Khan CEO Sarawak Tourism Board









Malaysia often receives bad press for the destruction of native forests and planting oil palm plantations, so it cannot be easy to convince the often cynical foreigners they want to “take care of our environment.”

Come back and hug your tree” we are encouraged by Assistant Minister of Tourism, Datuk Gramong Juna, who said they are “trying to do good deeds to our mother earth, to take care of our environment. It’s heartening to note that the Sarawak Tourism Board has taken the government’s campaign seriously. ”

The minister continues, “We are proud to have the world’s oldest rain-forest that we have custody over. We are serious at promoting Sarawak as an eco-destination – this beautiful land where adventure lives.”

A beautiful setting for “my tree” to grow!

Arriving in Kuching a couple of days before the Rainforest World Music Festival I was, for one day, able to join a group of international concert promoters and journalists who were in the city for their first world music business conference and expo. It seems this was successful for many of the artists featured with their diaries filling up with dates to perform in other places.

expo IMG_2464

expo IMG_2474

The consensus from knowledgeable music people there (and I’m not one of them!) seemed to be that the local, traditional, music scene was creatively rich but needed support to present themselves professionally and that this expo, and the contacts made, will advance that. Good luck to them all!





Note, talking culture; the letter K at the end of a

Malaysian word, such as Sarawak, is always silent!

Rainforest World Music Festival better than promised.

The annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak, (East Malaysia, Borneo) certainly lived up to and even surpassed my expectations. (Next one 20/22 June 2014)

Set on the edge of the jungle, in the fascinating Sarawak Cultural Village, this has become a signature tourism event in this, Malaysia’s largest state Sarawak. I will be writing more about it,  but for now let me suggest that if you plan to be in Borneo, or Asia in general, or will be passing through any July make sure you add the RWMF to your bucket list along with the orang utans which everyone travelling here wants to see.

At the three-day festival, along with the great shows every night, on the two stages, during the day are fascinating workshops with artists from various bands and acts combining to jam together and show how their instruments work. This meant the Australian didgeridoo was playing along with other wind instruments such as a saxophone or Iranian bagpipes! It was often hard to choose which workshop to attend.

A first this year was the pre-festival expo: the successful Borneo World Music Expo held at the Pullman Hotel and which is planned to be an annual event also, showcasing traditional folk, roots and ethnic music to the international stage.

I only attended the last day of the expo but was really impressed by a Malaysian band Beringin Emas who performed at a high impacts level for some 45 minutes during the showcase event in the evening. As I said … more to follow, just make sure you get to the next one … or the  Borneo Jazz Festival in MAY 2014




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Word-wide musical talent in the rainforest!

More of the talent that will be at the Rainforest Word Music Festival (#rwmf) that I’ll be at in Kuching, Sarawak soon … I’m staying at Damai Beach Resort.

Do you know any of these groups? Follow me for find out more and, see my other blogs about and for links to many of the other performers who will be in Malaysia for this big music festival.

Alp Bora www.alpbora.net

Moshen Sarifian and Lian https://www.facebook.com/mohsensharifianofficialpage (Persian)

Habadekuk www.habadekuk.dk

Dizu Plaatjies & the Ibuyambo http://www.myspace.com/dizuplaatjiesibuyambo#!

Madeeh http://rwmf.net/performer/madeeh/

Spiritual Seasons http://rwmf.net/performer/spiritual-seasons/

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