The Force behind the Festivals


Organising a music festival is no easy thing. Yeoh Jun Lin, the artistic director of both the Borneo Jazz Festival and the Rainforest World Music Festival, can testify to that. That doesn’t stop this spunky lady from rising to the challenge.

The Borneo Jazz Festival (BJF), held May 13- 14 at the ParkCity Everly Hotel in Miri, has grown immensely in just a decade. In its 11th year now, the festival has managed to gather top local and international bands across various genres of jazz – from New Orleans to Afro, and funk from the Ivory Coast – as well as Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Mini Big Band.

Yeoh Jun Lin is no stranger to the music scene in both Sarawak and the international circuit. The artistic director for BJF 2016 comes from a family of professional musicians and has been involved in the Sarawakian music industry for over 30 years.

Graduating from the Royal College of Music in London, the Penang lass started her career as a pianist trained in classical music, but found it to be a solitary experience: “Playing the piano is a lonely business. Most of the time, it is just you, yourself and yourself,” she says.

Yeoh Jun Lin.

She sought escape through chamber music, group activities and choirs; and from there she reached out to the music circle in Sarawak. She eventually became president of the Sarawak Music Society, actively organising shows for local musicians and bringing international concerts to the state. Along the way, she picked up the skills needed to organise and manage events while simultaneously getting more involved in music and arts festivals.

A Tale of Two Festivals

It’s hard to talk about BJF without mentioning its sister, the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF). Both started off with very small budgets, and with Yeoh playing a pivotal role. Established in 1998, RWMF was led by a bunch of stubborn and inspired musicians who had great love for arts and music.

“At first, no one – not even the Sarawak Tourism Board – expected the RWMF to survive.

It was more of a one-off event then. But the festival kept growing. By the fourth year, we had made it more focused and structured compared to the slightly chaotic first three years. By the fifth year, RWMF gained prestige through high-quality music and its growing crowds. From the success of RWMF, BJF was born with the vision of bringing world music to Miri in 2006,” says Yeoh.

BJF, previously known as the Miri International Jazz Festival, started in the same vein as RWMF: small scale and held indoors. Over the years, it grew into a large-scale outdoor event, equipped as sophisticatedly as the RWMF stages.

“We get big audiences now,” says Yeoh. “People fly in for it, which is very gratifying since Miri is not exactly on an international flight route. We like to think that the music and the laidback experience – a very Sarawak thing – draw them here.”

Yeoh is responsible for expanding the repertoire of the music. Apart from conventional mainstream jazz, BJF now includes a variety of jazz genres such as swing, blues, vocal jazz, ethno jazz, funk, New Orleans jazz, boogie-woogie, experimental jazz and more. Besides the vast selection, the festival also initiated a youth programme to encourage up-and-coming bands as well as outreach programmes where they run workshops and tutorials, which they intend to expand in coming years.

Running a Festival

Yeoh’s greatest enjoyment comes from seeing her ideas come to life and enjoyed by people who share the same passion for music. But the process of realising it is very challenging, especially when it comes to budgets and red tape.

“It is hard to manage the budget these days, especially with the ringgit dropping in value. The process of getting visas and flights is also quite difficult at times.”

But Yeoh takes these challenges in her stride. Motivated by the search for excellence and her thirst for high quality music, she believes in full commitment towards getting the work done. She adds that it is important for anyone, especially young women, who want to follow this career path to learn every aspect of the production process.

“By knowing your stuff, you will be much more efficient. Running a festival is about getting the best out of people. It is not only about the bands on stage, but also everybody who contributes their part – be it small or big. It is like putting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together; everyone is needed to complete the festival.”

But, like any other festival, it receives its share of criticism. Last year Edgar Ong, one of the founders of RWMF, faulted it for having lost its vision of being a platform to showcase Bornean musicians to the world. Yeoh disagrees, stating that the festival has always allocated 25%-30% of its slots for Sarawakian musicians, and is full of Sarawakian “flavour” with chanters from local ethnic groups such as the Bidayuh, Iban, Melanau, Orang Ulu and more. On top of that, they also perform traditional customs such as the miring ceremony.

More than just performances onstage, the festival, along with the Borneo World Music Expo, is a platform to promote Sarawak’s musicians to the world. Among those who have made their name internationally are Mathew Ngau and his band Lan E Tuyang who did a German tour last year; Arthur Borman Kanying’s Madeeh who did a French tour; Nading Rhapsody; and Alena Murang, who performs Kelabit music locally and internationally. There is also Narawi Rashidi from the Sarawak Cultural Village who teaches traditional music and dance to students from art colleges.

Far from being dismayed, Yeoh took Ong’s comment as a wakeup call, seeing the need for a little more publicity on what they are doing right now. “I think I’m often just so immersed in getting the work done and fretting over details that I forget that some things need to be shouted out to the public – the bands’ achievements, our progress so far and also the level we are at. Perhaps I should suggest that the bands get themselves a pushy agent and manager to make them more noticeable!”

After all, being in this industry is all about individual passion.

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