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June 26, 2018, Sarawak, Malaysia

All jazzed up in Miri

Jac Woo swings to the rhythms of the Borneo Jazz festival in Sarawak’s resort city

Jac Woo

EATING satay and sipping coconut juice by the sea while listening to jazz music and watching the sunset — it was like a rhapsody in colours with a Malaysian flavour.

I got to experience this last month at the Borneo Jazz festival in Miri, the second largest city in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo island.

Borneo Jazz, presented by Sarawak Tourism Board, is usually held in the second weekend of May every year. It features an international line-up of musicians and vocalists performing a wide repertoire of jazz genres.

The festival is organised by No Black Tie (a premier jazz club in Kuala Lumpur), with AirAsia as one of the official airline partners.

Seahorse and sunsets

This year, the 13th Borneo Jazz was held at Coco Cabana at Miri’s Marina Bay.

If you think “cabana” means a small beach hut or shelter, Coco Cabana will make you sit up.

This double-storey rustic building with Bali-inspired architecture is massive enough to be transformed into an impressive 1,200-seater concert hall with dynamic floodlights, big media screens and even chandeliers over the stage.

In a smaller hall beside the Main Stage was the Fringe Stage, where workshops and more intimate concerts were held in the afternoons.

Coco Cabana, a former seafood restaurant, is a popular events venue that hosts a variety of festivals as well as night markets and corporate functions.

At the Main Stage, concertgoers were free to sit or stand on the first floor or go upstairs to enjoy a balcony view of the performances.

They could also refresh themselves with a snack or drink at the Sunset Bar at the back of the hall without missing a beat.

Although there was no airconditioning, fans and the sea breeze kept the interior cool. I felt like I was on a cruise ship because there were open-air balconies and views of the sea on both sides of the stage.

The panoramic sunset vista was to die for. The silhouettes of the coconut trees at dusk — along with those of sungazers relaxing on benches and swings — created Instagram-worthy photos.

Just around the corner was an iconic lighthouse in the shape of Miri’s mascot — the seahorse.

As I had a three-day festival pass, I could intersperse performances with strolls around the area to enjoy the sea breeze, mingle with the locals, and shop at the outdoor food and souvenir stalls.

With the variety of eats — from local and foreign street food to juices and beers — jazz lovers didn’t go hungry even when the musicians jammed on till midnight.

The best was, even outdoors, I could still enjoy a steady flow of amplified jazz tunes.

Sax appeal

Jazz music can be tricky to define because it comprises many diverse styles, from Bossa Nova to Acid Jazz. One aspect of the genre that I like is listening to the instruments associated with it, such as the saxophone and jazz piano.

At the festival, I was spoilt for choice with sets by 30 bands and singers from 17 countries.

For saxophone lovers, it was triple the thrill when Julian Chan (Malaysia), Gaoyang Li (China) and Tony Lakatos (Germany) took centre stage in the Borneo Jazz Festival Band Featuring 3 Saxes performance. The three musicians seemed to be engaging in a lively conversation as they played, at times talking to one another and at times agreeing in harmony.

According to Chan, it was the first time the trio were performing together.

He said: “I had a lot of fun performing with them. Playing with musicians of high calibre inspires me to try to play better. I get to feed off their musical ideas and also try to go into different directions from the other two, to establish my own sense of character and style.”

Classics re-imagined

I was also delighted to get to hear jazzed-up versions of familiar pop or classical music because as a piano and guitar player myself, I like to pick up improvisation ideas from others.

In Beat Goes Bach, classical pianist Mei Lin Hii (Malaysia) and drummer Lorenzo Brilli (Italy) did a refreshing take on J.S. Bach’s Baroque music with the piano, drums and percussion.

Gypsy jazz violinist Roby Lakatos (Belgium) — who has a passion for blending classical music with Hungarian-gypsy styles — mesmerised me with his enchanting yet fiery rendition of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5.

Clapping along with the audience, I felt tempted to dance along as well.

Festivalgoers also heard musicians from Singapore: the Jazz Association Singapore Orchestra (JASSO), its music director and pianist Jeremy Monteiro (“Singapore’s King of Swing”), and jazz singer Melissa Tham.

The rest of the line-up included performers from Asia, Europe, Cuba, Canada and the United States.

After three days of free-flowing jazz — from tapping along with JASSO’s catchy Jingkli Nona to swinging along with Havana Social Club’s hot Cuban and Latin music — I found myself nodding rhythmically even after the festival was over.

The writer’s trip was organised by Sarawak Tourism Board and AirAsia.


■ I took a two-hour flight on AirAsia from Singapore to Miri. Coco Cabana is 10 minutes’ drive from the city centre.

■ Miri is located near four national parks. Explore them if you are a nature lover.

■ If you are a fan of world music, don’t miss the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, from July 13 to 15 (

■ Visit Sarawak Tourism Board’s website ( for information on attractions and festivals.

■ For details on AirAsia’s flights, visit 

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