Cool jazz in the jungle

ALL THAT JAZZ: Lead guitarist with YK Samarinda, an ethnic jazz band from East Kalimantan, has his centrestage moment.
ALL THAT JAZZ: Lead guitarist with YK Samarinda, an ethnic jazz band from East Kalimantan, has his centrestage moment.

Unless you are from Brunei, no one goes to Borneo just to listen to jazz.

Bruneians, on the other hand, drive weekly to the Malaysian territory simply to replenish their supply of alcohol and cigarettes (you should see their passports) so a jazz festival is a positively thrilling reason to cross the border.

For the rest of us fetching up at the Borneo Jazz Festival, the event generally forms part of a larger holiday either on the mainland or the island itself. No doubt, this is one of the reasons why this festival has been going for nine years in Sarawak. Why else would the steamy tropical Malaysian territory host a jazz festival, for goodness sakes? It's hardly world music.

ALL FUNKED UP: Russell Curtis of Malaysian band JunkOFunc.
ALL FUNKED UP: Russell Curtis of Malaysian band JunkOFunc.

Most people don't even know where Borneo is. In fact, Borneo is the third largest island in the world, located just north of Java. The island is carved up between three countries: Malaysia which has Sarawak and Sabah, the tiny sovereign state of Brunei, and Indonesia's Kalimantan which comprises more than 70 per cent of the island.

Miri in Sarawak is HQ for the annual jazz fest. The coastal town made rich on oil and gas, is also the nearest town to the famous Niah Caves.

I'd been to Borneo before. Eighteen years ago in fact and I loved it so much readers of the paper I worked for at the time complained they might as well be buying the Borneo Times. I did write rather a lot of stories.

In those days the major threat to one of the oldest rainforests in the world was logging. Now, as I flew over the island, I saw that I could add a new threat to the list. The spread of the oil palm was extraordinary.

Glossy palm florets had been punched into the ochre earth of former jungle all over the shop. It was so raw you could almost hear the land screaming. Elsewhere taller palms carpeted the land. Still it wasn't as bad as the Malaysian mainland where crummy construction and plastic hothouses had been added to the mix. And there was more jungle left here too.

Fortunately some things had stayed the same, the most important being the good nature of the locals. Travelling in Borneo is a hassle-free experience, which makes a pleasant change from a great many other countries in the region. And of course, just like on the Malaysian mainland, the food is superb.

As soon as I stepped on to the island I started to have mighty food flashbacks so, not long after reaching my hotel, I headed out to find Sarawak laksa, the spicier version of the popular mainland noodle soup. I followed that with a plate of umai (fish with thinly sliced onions, chillies, salt and lime juice) and finally hoovered up ayam pansuh or chicken cooked in bamboo. That done, I patted my belly contentedly. Sarawak. I'd arrived.

I carried my over-full belly back to the hotel and collapsed in the pool. One of the many great things about staying in Borneo are the hotels. For the price of an ordinary room in Auckland, I had a fancy room in the five-star JW Marriott hotel.

The clientele were many and varied including the sort of travellers who wouldn't normally stay at such swanky digs but "this just isn't pretentious". Which really means it's not as flash as other five-star Marriotts around the world. Maybe not, but it's more affable, the pool is the size of a small lake and where else can you get spicy Sarawak laksa for breakfast?

Things were going well so far. The news got better when I learned that five minutes' walk from my hotel was the Park City Everly hotel, the venue for the two-night jazz festival. And I would have walked too if I hadn't met a chap who'd gone for a stroll in the dark and just missed dropping into a 12-foot-deep hole half filled with water.

So I drove to the festival in air-conditioned splendour, was ushered through the hotel, past the pool and decorative vegetation until finally I stepped into the music arena, which was essentially the beach. A sandy lawn, fringed by food stalls and women with stretched ear lobes selling beaded bags, wooden jewellery and ikat fabric, held a few thousand folk, all ages, all races, all manner of dress.

They gossiped, drank and milled about. Some scored a plastic seat and perched on it for the rest of the night. Others had food dribbling down their chins as they tucked into a roti john. When a breeze came off the ocean, the temperature was almost bearable.

The whole scene looked a bit like a tiny Womad but it sounded completely different. It sounded - shockarooni - a lot like jazz.

On stage a slip of a thing was riffing cool cabaret music accompanied by a pianist and one of those sassy saxophonists that make anyone sound good. She was good but I wasn't convinced. Diana Liu, the only local to grace the stage during the festival, was too airy and detached for this crowd. It was the sort of music you wanted to talk over.

No one could hear themselves think, let alone talk, when the next act came on. Mario Canonge, aka the flying fingers, is a jazz piano genius. When this Martinque man and his French mates ripped into their brand of pure passionate jazz, the audience was converted. We loved jazz. No. More than that. We were mad for it. Although to be fair, the jungle juice smuggled in water bottles might have had something to do with it too.

After Mario it was all on. Dancing to the not very jazz but very funky beat of JunkOFunc from Kuala Lumpur and Vocal Sampling from Cuba, a group whose voices alone can emulate musical instruments. The night ended with a jam session by all the musicians followed by a club set by a local DJ.

The following night was similarly eclectic. UK singer/pianist Anthony Strong, the next contender for the Michael Buble musical slot, Indonesia's YK Samarinda, a jazz band from East Kalimantan, German Brassballett, a singing dancing brass band and a Georgian band, Iriao, playing Georgian folk and polyphonic music recognised by Unesco as a masterpiece of oral heritage, held us all in thrall. Actually the latter sounded dreary to my ears but thank goodness for Unesco. Iriao wouldn't last five minutes in my music collection.

As it turned out, one of the most striking features of the festival, apart from the incongruous location, was that none of the guests I spoke to were particularly fond of jazz or even sure what the term meant.

It appeared the organisers were aware of this and the mix of cool jazz with hot rhythms, some funk and a little bit of rock worked wonderfully. Many of these non-lovers of jazz were here for the second or third time, promising to return next year.

They reckon that the 2015 festival should, by rights, be an even better and bigger shindig. That's because next May the Borneo Jazz Festival is 10 years old and we all know what that means. Celebration time. Too right. Pass me the Sarawak laksa.


Getting there Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur six times a week. From KL to Borneo, fly Air Asia or Malaysia Airlines. The main airports in Borneo are Kuching (Sarawak) and Kota Kinabalu (Sabah).

When to go The region is hot and humid all year round, with the heaviest rain from November to February.

Staying there Jungle or beach? Take your pick from rainforest lodges to backpacker hostels and beach resorts. See and

Being there Don't miss: Cuddling an orangutan at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre; absorbing the view from the top of Mt Kinabalu (Malaysia's highest mountain); snorkelling or lazing about on Turtle Island, where green turtles come ashore to lay their eggs; photographing the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia; visiting the traditional longhouses of the tribes of Sarawak.

Fun fact The TV reality show Survivor was filmed at Pulau Tiga in Sabah.

More information See and

The writer travelled to the Borneo Jazz Festival as a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

Sunday Star Times