Beaches Brew

Lying on the grass, staring up at the crescent moon, the sea breeze gently rustling, and then to hear the cool soprano saxophone sound of Japanese jazz band Jaja thrilling the air – the melodic piano at the back, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, the hendrix-like guitar, lifting the sound and the audience into another dimension, before fading back again into the soft piercingly soulful playing of Yukio Akiyama…

Superlatives trip lightly off the tongue. “Wonderful”. “Fabulous”. “Incredible”. “Wow”. The 2nd Penang Island Jazz Festival has finished (3 – 4 Nov 2005), but the music still echoes through the grounds of the Bayview Beach Resort and the beach of Batu Ferringhi. Two nights of thrilling music, two days of workshops and discussions, wonderful ambience throughout and no rain that mattered – truly a joy for anyone who was there.

Jazz to the masses

So was number two better than number one? Last year the response had been excellent ‘for starters’. This year the intention was to build on that, to get a bigger audience and to add opportunity for people to learn more about jazz.

Was this achieved? Well, there were better crowds on both evenings compared to last year, but still not as many as was perhaps hoped for. “It’s a challenge,” says Wilson Quah, Penang-based jazz pianist, conductor and performing arts activist. “There is an established niche audience, but to expand it is difficult.” This was the subject of a Sunday afternoon forum, very well attended and with a lively discussion. How does one take jazz to the masses? Is there a sustainable future for an event like the Penang Island Jazz Festival? Why has it been so hard to win substantial state and corporate support?

“There are two words which are the major issues,” says Paul Augustin from organisers Capricorn Connections, “Penang and Jazz.” As the forum heard, the word “jazz” is for too many people synonymous with words like ‘old’, ‘dated’, ‘dead’ and ‘help get me out of here’. Making it accessible and alive for people is very much part of the agenda of the Festival, but more needs to happen more regularly. Wilson Quah again: “We must provide consistent opportunities for people to get involved, to listen, to play, to discuss, to appreciate. It will take commitment…” he paused, “and passion.”

Judging by the Festival, commitment and passion are not necessarily in short supply. Wilson for example is part of the ARECA group, whose ambition is to develop into a regional performing arts group. In fact, both evenings kicked off with the Penang ARECA Jazz Ensemble, a group of mainly young musicians trained by Wilson and others. The workshops also showcased not just the fantastic musicianship, but also the passion and commitment of those giving them. Indeed, as someone pointed out, possibly the most amazing thing of the weekend (other than the music and the design of some of the folding chairs some of the audience were carrying) was getting drummer Lewis Prasagam to give a workshop at 10 on a Sunday morning following the concert and the partying the night before.

According to theatre professional and freelance journalist Himanshu Bhatt, a panellist at the Sunday forum, to reach new audiences one must get beyond the perception that jazz is difficult either to play or to appreciate. At the forum, the contrast was made between modern ‘rock’ music, where technical proficiency can and often is safely ditched, where reliance on technology and repetition dominates, where ‘instant’ gratification is the order of the materialistic day and where improvisation, so much the heart of jazz, is a thing of absence. Where then is there place for jazz appreciation?

Not everything sucked into KL

And in Penang? Actually, it is very sad if the word Penang is an obstacle to sponsors. It is crucial for the future of Malaysian performing arts, and that includes jazz, that not everything is sucked into the KL basket. A Malaysian culture of creativity and dynamism depends on very healthy arts activities throughout the country. The nurturing of new and local talent by placing them alongside musicians of international stature is a fantastic opportunity. Giving audiences the chance to experience this is fantastic too. It works on a 20-40-40 formula, placing young Penang musicians alongside new and established Malaysian musicians alongside a similar proportion of international performers, the majority from the East Asian region. The mix worked really well.

And this is what is important: the inspiration provided by the music. From the clarity of voice and performance of Shanon, the proficiency of the David Gomes Trio (plus wife), the funky upbeat driven music of the Zailan Razak project, each act was a showcase of talent and diversity. Driving rhythms (the overall quality of the drumming, to the ears of this listener at least, was stupendous), some mind-bending improvisations, artful, imaginative, storming precision abounded. And what came across most of all were the energy and the joy of those playing. No clue about the difference between swing and be bop, fusion and acid, a seven and a six eight, a Miles Davis and a Bette? Who cares? Lie back and enjoy the music. And that is what everyone did.

There was the South Korean band, Lazy Monday, crashing into their opening number with such verve, velocity and volume that within seconds one was thinking that if this was a lazy Monday, one would hate to see what Tuesday was like. The complex timings and form, heavily fusion based, stunned the crowd into awed silence as the band criss-crossed from complex jazz rhythms into heavy rock beats without flinching.

And what about the virtuoso performance from American folk-bluesman Steve White? Variously strumming, finger-picking, sliding, slapping and even grinding his guitar, he delivered his numbers with such intense humility that his audience were entranced despite a genre not readily accessible in this part of the world.

And then the simply world class performances from world class musicians who included the Greg Lyons Nonet with Greg Lyons, Lewis Prasagam, Mac Chiew and Andy Peterson then doubling up the next evening to back American Randy Bernsen in the final act. Stunning.

Six generations deep

This Festival amply demonstrated the extraordinary diversity of jazz and its apparently infinite expandability. As was stated for the group Asian Spirit last year: “Six generations deep into the roots of Western music, jazz now takes on the mystical sounds of Asia. Combining two great traditions of classical jazz and the spirit of Asia, this distinctive sound is reverberating across cultures, nations and global world music, transforming the jazz genre in its wake.” And this year, especially in the music of Mr Gambus (aka Farid Ali) and the Bali-based Saharadja, the permutations and blends and adaptabilities of jazz music were not just apparent but absolutely captivating.

There was Farid Ali playing the gambus whilst Japanese Chie Hanawa played the three-stringed shamisen, an instrument originally played in kabuki theatre. Beautifully supported by their group, drawn from their instruments – both of which incidentally have traditions of improvisation – came a haunting, ethereal quality that merged perfectly with the Penang Bayview beach night air: serene, lyrical, soulful, hypnotic.

Such blend had been matched the evening before by a fabulous performance from Saharadja, who combined a range of instruments with a range of rhythmic traditions. One moment a Balinese folk song, add something from a Celtic ceilidh, throw in Arabic, Indian, Latin American rhythms, bit of trumpet here, bit of a didgeridoo there, played with such confidence and passion that we were taken into a world of celebration, freestyle world music played from the heart.

These are musicians pushing at the edges, refusing to accept the status quo. Greg Lyons talked in his workshop about sonic beauty. We were privileged to be part of so much sonic beauty, from the heart. Penang witnessed it last year and again this. Without exception, the musicians loved the venue, the ambience, the feel of this festival. So did the audience. Yes, there is work to be done, to get more audience, to get to a position of sustainability. But sponsors, get involved. And Penang State Government, support this event. For the excitement generated by an event like this, with quality music in a quality environment with quality organisation (how rare to get all three) is bound in the end to rub off on Penangites and fellow Malaysians in a highly constructive way. Yes, we need the media (all media) to play a bigger role. Yes, we need to work in our various localities to provide more opportunity for jazz listening, appreciation, playing. Yes, we need to be more involved in regular and consistent advocacy for jazz. But this Festival – what a showcase, what an investment, what an inspiration, let’s not pass it up.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” I quietly asked Yukio Akiyama from Jaja after his set. He looked me straight in the eye, and with a huge smile beaming so gladly, so radiantly, across his whole being, he replied in his best Japanese English: “Very enjoy.” Penang, Jazz. What’s the problem? Nothing we can’t overcome. Roll on number three, I can’t wait.


Originally from UK, James Lochhead is a would-be pianist who does various odd jobs in order to have an excuse to stay on in Penang.

First Published: 09.12.2005 on Kakiseni

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