All That Jazz

Ethno jazz, Dixieland swing jazz, New Orleans jazz, rock-infused blues, progressive acid jazz, afro jazz, classical jazz, organ jazz. That was the whole spectrum of jazz performed at this year’s Borneo Jazz Festival 2016. I didn’t even know there was so many! But I’m thrilled that I got to enjoy it all, skillfully performed by talented musicians from different parts of the world. Here’s highlights of all the fun I had at the Borneo Jazz festival 2016. If you live in Malaysia, you should definitely do it next year!


Borneo Jazz Festival 2016: It’s All About the Bass

The Borneo Jazz festival from 13-14 May 2016 was a music-filled weekend in Miri, featuring 8 bands over 2 days. The bands came from Malaysia to Poland, bringing a whole myriad of culturally-influenced music. In fact, the bands themselves already had a mix of genders and nationalities, leading to an interesting colourization of their music.

“It’s all about the bass this year,” said the artistic director about the lineup for the 2016 Borneo Jazz Festival. Indeed it was. Most notably from Manou Gallo & The Groove Orchestra, a band fronted by the outstanding female bassist from Ivory Coast.

I was also impressed to learn that the Cuban band, needing a replacement bass player for their gig here, filled those shoes with a talented young bass player who had won a scholarship for his outstanding bass skills.


The weather in Borneo is hot and sticky. 100% humidity! Remember it’s surrounded by rainforest. So keep your clothing light and airy. Mosquitos are very busy here, and if you go on the beach the sand flies will happily feed on you. So bring your repellant. And I’d avoid the beach at Park City Everly Miri anyway – it’s dirty. Only great for watching sunset.
Where to Stay

Where to Stay in Miri for Borneo Jazz Festival

The Marriot Miri is just a few minutes walk. The 4.5 Star property has a wonderfully inviting pool and a lush lawn facing the sea. I recommend joining the weekly BBQ.

Pullman Miri Waterfront is another luxury hotel choice in Miri worth checking out. It’s in the centre of town, with a good view and the Pullman attention to design.

Park City Everly is the most convenient place to stay but the hotel is dated and frankly, leaves a lot to be desired.

Find More Hotels in Miri, Sarawak

Getting There

Take a flight to Miri Airport. The Borneo Jazz Festival is held on the grounds of Park City Everly which is a short 10-minute ride away.

Find flights to Miri Airport

Visa Requirements

Bring your passport if you plan to visit Brunei, which is  only 30mins drive from Miri. It’s easy enough to do in the daytime before the festival starts. 

Practical Info
 Stuff to bring:

  • Mosquito repellant
  • Anti-itch balm (after the mosquitos get you)
  • Raincoat. It’s a rain or shine event. There is enough shelter but in case you still stay out in the open.
  • Scarf/mat to lay down on the ground and relak.
  • Ringgit for makan, kueh, t-shirts, CDs, beer, Coffee Bean, souvenirs.
  • Your dancing shoes

Go early to watch the beautiful Miri sunset.

Support the bands by buying their CDs. You can get them autographed, each band sticks around to take photos and sign CDs after their set. They sell albums to open the doors to more live music.

Bring cash, not credit. (The ATM at the airport ate my card before I even pressed any buttons. Would have been a nightmare if I didn’t have spare cash on me to change into Ringgit.) 

Read: Borneo Music Festival 2016 Pre-Event


It Begins!

Crowds filtered in late Friday afternoon, wandering the festival grounds behind Park City Everly Hotel Miri, Sarawak. The open-air setting is fringed with tall trees and a beach looking out over a calm sea. Just like the Rainforest World Music Festival, I really liked the natural outdoor setting with a very professional stage and sound set-up. There was also food, drinks and handicraft stalls. Again, very impressed that Coffee Bean makes iced frappucinos out there :)

Outreach to Young Musicians

At 6pm, the local Chung Hwa School Marching Band welcomed early arrivers as the sun begin to go down over the seascape. They were part of the new positive addition this year – a youth outreach programme to give opportunities to young people and encourage their musical journey.

Miri Student Band at Borneo Jazz Festival 2016

The USM Mini Big Band was the second to take the stage under the leadership of Assoc. Professor Razif Mohd who I found to be an inspiring figure. He’s doing his best to facilitate the continuity of music through youth. He has designed a programme in the local university, where students studying any major, can learn music too. It’s designed to grow their music skills within the limited few university years, to reach basic performance-ready level. Interestingly, he shared that it’s the students who aren’t majoring in music who are most disciplined in practicing.

Both student bands did a good job. The crowd was very encouraging too.


Swing & Dance

After a beautiful sunset, Spanish band O Sister! kicked things off to a great start with their cutesy swing style. With the crowd warmed up, Malaysian-Indian collaboration band A.P.I took over, followed by Japan’s Ralyzzdig and finally the Manou Gallo Groove Orchestra, for an entertaining night of jazz tunes.

API at Borneo Jazz Festival 2016

Over the 2 days, each of the 8 bands sounded very different from the next. For serious fans of jazz, there’s lots of technical skillful stuff happening on stage for you to appreciate. But no one is left out as the festival was full of great music – to dance, to snap your fingers, to feel the blues.

Speaking of the blues, I just adored the seductive bluesy tune by Manou Gallo Groove Orchestra. That was just one of the many great songs they played at the Borneo Jazz Festival 2016. Fast, slow, sexy… their entire set was great. In fact, they were my favourite band. I’ll elaborate a little more on that later when I get into the highlights of my 3 favourite bands. Japan's Yoichiru Tokuda at Borneo Jazz 2016

I definitely recommend attending the festival even though you’ve probably never heard of any of the bands. They’re going to be good – trust me. Or rather, trust the organizers. The Sarawak Tourism Board puts in a lot of effort to create a great line-up of musicians who offer a wonderful variety of sounds within the jazz spectrum. And you’ll be pretty cool for discovering a band your friends don’t know — yet :)

In any case, good music is good music so that’s reason enough to attend. Plus it’s wonderful to hear something for the first time.

I will say though, it’s not a very big crowd. Which is great because you have plenty of space. But this festival deserves a much bigger crowd. So tell your friends k!

Now, back to O Sister! who made my top 3.

My Top 3 Highlights Of Borneo Jazz 2016


O Sister! Light My Fire

Spanish group O Sister! more than warmed up the crowd with their lively performance. I was expecting a slow start, but this definitely started things off with a bang. They were just wonderful! Made me excited to see the rest of the festival play out if the start was this good!O Sister - Dixieland Jazz at Borneo Jazz FestO Sister from Spain

I told the singer, “Your snazzy outfit looks great but how are you going to manage when it’s so hot out there?!”

“We’re making hot music,” he joked.

He added that wearing the full jazz suit helps him get in the mood. And he proved that on stage! They were delightful!  I especially loved when they made the wah-wah sounds with their mouths, and that bit of dancing was also a big crowd-pleaser.

This performance was easily enjoyed by everyone. Very chirpy and perfect to put you in a good mood.spanish-dixielandwah-wahPhoto: Sarawak Tourism BoardChicken dance from O Sister!, Spanish jazz bandThey even got the crowd to do the chicken dance :) 

Afro Groove & Girl Power

The band is fronted by amazing female bassist Manou Gallo from Ivory Coast. The whole groove crew comprises 4 ladies and 4 men hailing from Ivory Coast, Belgium, France and Denmark. They play afro jazz with lots of energy. It was obvious to me that each one of them is super skilled at their instrument – their energy and passion music was infectious! Even when we didn’t understand the words, the crowd absolutely loved Manou Gallo Groove Orchestra.Manou Gallo ladies at Borneo Jazz Festival

Listening to them, you would have no clue that they’d had a very stressful journey to Malaysia and almost didn’t make it in time to perform for the Borneo Jazz festival! Half the band got stuck in the Belgian airport strike. They finally arrived the afternoon of the same day they were to play, but without their instruments so they had to scramble to borrow some from the local bands. Madness!

But come evening, they were all smiles and brought some serious groove.Manou Gallo Groove Orchestra

Manou was indeed a killer bassist.

And then there was the cellist who had to make do with the borrowed cello, yet put her heart into playing it.

The guitarist… the boys loved her and the girls wanted to be her. I was in awe too. She has mad skills and c’mon, she looks super cool.

The guys on trumpet, trombone, sax and drums were smooooth. Loved.

Lene surprised me with her vocals. Blown away.Guitar and Bass - Manou Gallo from Ivory Coast & BelgiumManou on the right

Manou Gallo cello Guitarist of Manou Gallo at Borneo Jazz Fest 2016Virna on guitar, Borneo Jazz Festival 2016Manou, Nico and Lene from Manou GalloGaspard on sax, Borneo Jazz Festival 2016Christophe on drums, Manou Gallo Groove OrchestraThe boys of Manou Gallo

The Language of Music

After chatting with girl-next-door type Lene, I was very curious about the dynamics between herself and the vivacious Manou who has quite the presence. How could they fit together? But on stage, they were absolutely electric belting out afro rhythms. Lene’s vocals.. wow.

Even more interesting, Lene learnt French completely from Manou by practicing music together. She sang it before she understood it, and now she’s fluent with the rest of the French-speaking band. Just another magical story of how music connects across borders :)Vocals from Côte d’Ivoire band at Borneo Jazz Festival

Top 3 Favourite Bands

Those were 2 of the 3, and the last is the Rad Trads. It’s a bit of a tough choice between USA’s Rad Trads vs The Klazz Brothers (Cuba + Germany).

Cuba hit a bit more of the latin notes, which I adore. They did a great job of getting the crowd dancing. Even got a few people up on stage! I liked the smooth tunes and their backstory of how the band got together, was my favourite. The German guys were in Cuba to perform, and met the Cuban musicians. They invited them over to Germany, and so the Cubans went, despite having no language in common. Today here they are, performing together in Borneo. How wonderful :) Their set also included great jazzed-up interpretations of classical symphonies.Cuba's Klazz BrothersAudience invited to dance with the Cuba + Germany band

The Rad Trads were… less radical. Haha. But super lively. They closed the show on the 2nd day with a very very entertaining set. Full of big energy and all the guys looked like their cheeks were about to explode! The epic moment was right at the end, when several of them jumped into the crowd. The crowd went bananas! That was so much fun. It was in fact a shame the night had to end there.

Well, almost — there was the post-performance casual jam session where the audience could mingle with the musicians.USA's Rad Trads jazz group  Rad Trads jump in the audience at Borneo Jazz Festival, Miri

Bonus: Pyjama Jazz

Before I get to the jam session, I have to say my absolute favourite moment was a very random one. After the jam session the first night, the bar closed and among the last handful of people to leave was Manou Gallo’s lead vocalists, Manou and Lene. In their pyjamas and in a good mood, they spontaneously broke out into song. And it was the most melodic wondrous thing ever. Seerriously. Best skali!

Ruined only by the drunk dude who thought he should add a drum beat despite his complete lack of rhythm. Funny moment :)

Jam Session

My favourite part of the Rainforest World Music Festival was the workshops. There, musicians who had never met before, playing unique traditional instruments, would sit together and create unrehearsed music in front of a crowd sitting in traditional longhouses. I was in complete awe of how beautifully they could communicate just with music. (Read more about that here)Spain on drums at the Borneo Jazz Festival jam sessionIndia, Malaysia, Japan and Belgium make music at the jam sessiondancing-jam-session jam-sesh1

At the Borneo Jazz Festival, after midnight similar magic takes place. In the cosy hotel bar, any musician is welcome to take the stage and jam together without any practice. You’d be surprised how good they sound, with zero rehearsal. They do some wonderful things together with the freedom to just go where the music takes them. I’m no musician, but this is the part about music that has me in complete awe.

I was personally most impressed by the musician from India who could create such rapid drum beats with his vocals alone.

The rest of the night was fun too, hanging out with the musicians and hearing more of their personal journeys through music that took them to this very moment, in Miri where they probably never imagined they would be when they first started following their passion for music far far across the world.

Borneo Jazz Festival 2017

Just do it.