The island of Borneo is known for many things: virgin rainforests, exotic wildlife, world-class scuba diving. Jazz doesn't make the list.
Each June, however, music aficionados from around the world flock to Borneo's largest city to see the two-day extravaganza that is the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival.
My wife and I were traveling through Southeast Asia when we heard about the festival from other travelers. Since we missed the New Orleans Jazz Fest this year for the first time in close to a decade, we decided to drop by and check out the show.
We were glad we did.
The KK Jazz Fest, as it's known locally, kicked off six years ago as a one-day event featuring a handful of local artists. Since then, it's grown into a two-day festival with two stages that showcase a melting pot of talents, including burgeoning local artists, as well as international talent from Indonesia, China, the UK, and for the last two years, from the U.S., thanks to support from the U.S. Embassy.
"The KK Jazz Festival shines the spotlight on many of our talented local jazz artists, while also attracting musicians from around the world, including the United States," said Roger Wang, jazz guitarist and co-chairman of the festival. "It's also becoming a big event for Borneo's tourism industry."
We could attest to that.
On the first night of the festival, the air filled with the rhythmic sounds of bamboo flutes, a wailing saxophone and the melodic gongs--yes, gongs--of a kulintang (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kulintangan), as Borneo's "Rimba" performed what they call "fusion ethnic jazz." Soon after, another local favorite, the Amir Yussof Acoustic Project, wowed the crowd from center stage, with three guitars joined by drums and a cajón, and accompanied beautifully by the deep, soothing vocals of singer-songwriter, Yussof. A cool, evening breeze drifted in from the South China Sea just a stone's throw from the stage.
"The local artists, the international musicians and fans, the food, the drinks, this is the real Borneo," said Jaime Gortazar, a Kota Kinabalu-based expat from Madrid.
On the final night of the fest, we joined thousands of jazz fans from as far away as Spain, China, Chile and Canada to see New York-based Johnny Rogers Band belt out its own brand of country- and rock-infused jazz. Within minutes, Rogers had the crowd on its feet, as he performed jazz standards such as "What a Wonderful World," as well as re-arranged classics from the likes of Sam Cooke, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
As the sixth annual festival came to a close, we had completely forgotten we were on an island known more for its jungle treks and reef diving than for its music scene. For everyone at the KK Jazz Festival that night, Borneo seemed to be all about jazz. And that sounded perfectly fine with us.