It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, but it turns out that Indonesia got rhythm, and plays host to dozens of exhilarating jazz festivals throughout the year. There's nothing quite like dropping in on a local knees-up while you're visiting a place, so here's our selection of jazz festivals worth knowing about in Indonesia, Borneo and Singapore...
Mention Indonesian jazz to those in the know and you’ll get an appreciative smile, but this well-established aspect of modern Indonesian culture is unknown to most outside the circuit. There are jazz cafes scattered throughout Bali and Java where you can rock up on a Saturday night and immerse yourself in the genre’s compelling rhythms, but for the ultimate South-East Asian jazz experience you can’t beat the eclectic sound fusion of a jazz festival.
A little background
Indonesian jazz, and pockets of jazz culture across other parts of South-East Asia, developed organically, blending traditional instruments and themes with big-band sounds imported from the US. It was a subversive scene from the start, with music being made and changing hands in informal, often unrecorded, ways. Indonesian jazz has prestigious pedigree and a bright future, spanning from the 1950s improvisations of Bubi Chen and Bill Saragih (who have both been referred to as ‘Godfather of Indonesian Jazz’) to the definitive 1967 collaborative album ‘Djanger Bali’ by the Indonesian All Stars with clarinet legend Tony Scott, to today's piano prodigy, Joey Alexander. New jazz festivals spring up frequently, so you might even stumble on a small local event or two as you travel through Indonesia.
As one of the biggest jazz events in the world, JavaJazz is an exuberant celebration of Indonesian and international artists, and the place to see up-and-coming acts alongside global superstars. Usually held around the first weekend in March at JIExpo, Jakarta’s International Exhibition centre, this indoor festival showcases traditional jazz artists, as well as acts with elements of soul, R&B, pop, folk and blues, with plenty of crossover. This year’s line-up included homegrown blues-rock act Jakarta Blues Factory, renowned Indonesian jazz singer Andien, and folk duo Endah N Rhesa, as well as cross-genre international acts including Dionne Warwick and the Goo Goo Dolls. Follow the write-ups on social media and get your tickets early for 2019.
Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival - March
This weekend sees the arrival of the 12th Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival, a fundraising event for local charities throughout Sabah including clean water and literacy initiatives, environmental protection projects and free medical treatment schemes for rural communities. Incorporated under the wider umbrella of the Kota Kinabalu Arts Festival, this event gives a prominent platform to local Sabahan performers and acts from across Malaysia and South-East Asia, as well as a handful of international artists. Past line-ups have included the Borneo Big Band and Sada Borneo who give new life to traditional jazz and Malaysian music. This year’s line-up includes Malaysian singer-songwriter Rozella, Italian acapella quintet Mezzotono, glitzy jazz duo Shangri-la, and experimental jazz-folk fusion collective the Alu-Alu Project.
Sing Jazz - April (6-8th Apr 2018)
Taking place across multiple stages at Singapore’s striking Marina Bay Sands, Sing Jazz is a star-studded celebration of music from jazz to R&B, blues to latin. Now in its fifth year, Sing Jazz is becoming an established event in the international music calendar and attracts global stars to play alongside up-and-coming local artists. Separated into the Main Stage, which runs from late afternoon until around 10:30pm, and the Late Show (for dedicated night-owls aged 18+) which keeps going until 4am, this is somewhere you can really dance the night away! This year’s line-up includes sets by Indonesian-born singer Tompi, hip Singaporean collective The TENG Ensemble, and the Jazz Association SG Orchestra led by ‘Singapore’s King of Swing’, Jeremy Monteiro, as well as appearances by Jamie Cullum, Brand New Heavies, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and Soul II Soul.
International Kampoeng Jazz festival – April (28th Apr 2018)
The Faculty of Law at Java’s Padjadjaran University might seem like an unlikely venue for a music festival, but the Kampoeng Jazz Festival is just that. The university town of Bandung (provincial capital of West Java) has the profile you’d expect from a mid-sized Indonesian city - a contrast of tradition and modernity, cafe-culture and temple solemnity; the perfect setting for a jazz festival. Set up in response to a perceived declining interest in the genre from younger generations, this festival puts jazz music centre stage in the student calendar, though you don’t have to be a student to attend this open, family-friendly event. Discover the sultry, soulful voice of Raisa, the musical gymnastics of clarinet and saxophone duo Clarxophinist, TV talent-show singer Teza Sumendra, and Philippine-based acoustic band M.Y.M.P (Make Your Mama Proud) in this year’s line-up.
Borneo Jazz – May (11-12th May 2018)
As it enters its 13th year, Borneo Jazz is now one of the longest-running jazz festivals in Asia, and features every incarnation of jazz music from school brass bands to established international acts. Taking place in the coastal city of Miri in northern Sarawak, right on the Brunei border, the festival’s diverse audience is reflected in a broad range of featured artists. This year’s line-up is still being finalised, but past performers have included Malaysian old-school jazz-funk band Funkatorie, the Manou Gallo Groove Orchestra, Canadian jazz sensation Laila Biali, and Indonesian supergroup the Idang Rasjidi Syndicate. The festival is also a hub for music outreach projects which encourage and support aspiring local musicians, and this week sees the start of the Borneo Jazz Talent Search, unearthing the best local acts to showcase at the main festival.
Jazz Gunung Bromo – July (27-29th Jul 2018)
Slotting neatly into the typical outdoor music festival mould, Jazz Gunung Bromo is held in the amphitheatre of the Jiwa Jawa Resort with the Bromo Tengger Semeru Mountain Range providing a breathtaking backdrop. The stark, otherworldly terrain and matchless summit sunrises of the famous Mount Bromo, Java’s active volcano, bring adventurers to these mountains throughout the year; celebrate a successful climb with a couple of days enjoying the festival’s smooth sounds. This year’s three-day event will see appearances from prog-rock-jazz fusion group Tohpati Bertiga, swing trio NonaRia and a special tribute to Bubi Chen by the Surabaya Allstars. For the first time, there’s also a special Sunrise Jazz Breakfast on the last day this year - be up bright and early, the music starts at 5am!
Ubud Village Jazz festival – August (10-11th Aug 2018)
Ubud’s famously creative and bohemian atmosphere makes it the perfect place for a jazz festival - it would be more surprising if they didn’t have one! As you might expect, the Ubud Village Jazz Festival is a relaxed and intimate affair; a bit rough around the edges, and all the more tangible for it. Held in the gorgeous green grounds of the Agung Rai Museum of Art, the focus is on celebrating local talent playing alongside visiting acts from around the globe, and enjoying the organic, collaborative nature of creating live music. This year’s line-up is still in the works, so keep checking for updates, but previous guests have included German jazz group the Glen Buschmann Academy Big Band, Indonesian electronic jazz fusion guitarist Tesla Manaf, and pianist-composer David Manuhutu - all super-chilled and perfect for a stress-free Ubud afternoon.