Laila Biali and Idang Rasjidi Syndicate shine at Borneo Jazz Festival


Set against the lush tropical gardens that stretch down from the Borneo Jazz Festival stage to a palm-fringed white sand beach where the delicate oud-sounding curlicues of Chung YuFeng's Chinese lute-like pipa spin fleetingly around Michael Simon's plangent flugelhorn, it's hard not to concur with the knowing words of keyboard player and bandleader Idang Rasjidi, the erstwhile godfather of Indonesian jazz: "America does not own jazz anymore, the world now owns it." A remark that hits the spot with all the power and accuracy of an Iban headhunter's deadly blowpipe given the unique multi-cultural musical vibrancy of this magical boutique festival, now in its 12th year.

Artistic director Jun Lin Yeoh programmes groups from the increasingly strong Malaysian and Indonesian jazz scene alongside a highly eclectic mix of mainly emerging ensembles from around the world. And you don't get more much eclectic than the Fluoroscent Collective whose eight young members hail from Malaysia, Borneo, India, Italy and America and who are all currently studying at Berklee. With influences ranging from Miles Davis to Snarky Puppy, their vibrant jazz/prog/world is clearly a formative work in progress with edgy Holdsworth/Zappa influenced guitarist Alief Hamdan a name to watch. Originally formed over 40 years ago South Africa's Cape Jazz Band brought their bouncy mix of mainstream and funky jazz to a highpoint with a township-style intro to a moody 'What's Goin' On', while the potent Creole blues of the French/Guadaloupe trio Delgres, fronted by guitarist Pascal Danae's stinging bottleneck and Rafgee Gouthiere's pumping sousaphone comes on like John Lee Hooker meets Ali Farka Toure in Congo Square. Afro-Cuban bands are a regular feature at this festival and the Netherlands based Cabocuba Jazz, whose players come from Cuba, Holland, and Cape Verde, bring a bristling set of Cuban, fado and salsa to boiling point fronted by spirited pianist Carlos Matos and the inventive, skittering congas and percussion of Nils Fisher.


A big hit of the second night, Canadian singer and pianist Laila Biali prowls the hinterland between jazz and singer-songwriter with confidence and poise, occasionally channeling Joni Mitchell and Carole King but equally strong on her own compositions and dynamic, classically-tinged improvisation. Her dramatic down-tempo rearrangement of Bowie's 'Let's Dance', with expressive accompaniment by her strong rhythm section, should be a passport to bigger things.


In many ways though it was both Michael Simon's Asian Collective and the Idang Rasjidi Syndicate who echoed the region's atmosphere and heat with two contrasting yet compelling performances that point towards a fascinating future for Southeast Asian jazz. Simon's group fuse bewitching Indonesian and Chinese folk traditions with an impressionistic acoustic/electric Steps Ahead feel, while the clue to Rasjidi's prime influence lies in his group's name. This is not latter day Zawinul though but the early 1970s edgy drive of Weather Report. Rasjidi's gritty Fender Rhodes and edgy analogue effects push and prod the Indonesian-flecked themes while Iwan Wiradireja's unrelenting polyrhythmic drive across congas, djembe and rapid-fire bongo accents fuel the top line's intense improvisation. Like several groups throughout the weekend, ethnic percussion plays a vital role in freeing and uplifting the rhythmic spirit, and is a unique musical signature of both the Borneo Jazz Festival and its sister event, the Rainforest World Music Festival held in July.

– Jon Newey

– Photos courtesy Sarawak Tourism Board - Laila Biali (top), Michael Simons Asian Collective (middle) and Idang Rasjidi Syndicate (bottom)