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“Kuu dog nepa yon kuk” translates to ‘you are meant for me’ from the Bidayuh language. West Jazz Band, a group from Sarawak, Malaysia, recently played a song with this name at Borneo Jazz 2013, of which they were the opening act. It was written by the lead vocalist, Lisa Chong’s late father. “It had special meaning for me to sing it, in memory of him,” she later commented.
West Jazz Band was the only Malaysian group to perform at Borneo Jazz 2013. The band formed in 2005, a group of music enthusiasts led by founder and band leader Eugene Clifford. The music they play takes something from the western world: a mix of jazz, latin and soul.
Why the name West Jazz Band? “We’ve been frequently asked that question. The term ‘West’ actually comes from the West Coast of USA – as you know, West Coast Jazz and East Coast Jazz music differ in terms of feel and swing; we try to model ourselves after the West Coast sounds; hence the name West Jazz Band,” Clifford explained when we caught up with him during the festival.
A set full of swing certainly was delivered. For some, it came as a pleasant surprise that West Jazz Band graced the stage at Borneo Jazz, playing high quality jazz. This is because one engraved mindset was prevalent among the locals: “What good can come from your hometown?” But West Jazz Band held their own that night. Clifford (piano and synthesizer) spent 4 years at Berkeley College of Music to study Contemporary Writing and Production, and has clocked 28 years in the music industry. Lisa Chong (lead vocals), Sahfri bin Mustapha (saxophone), Sumardyi Bin Morshidi (electric guitar), Sulaiman Bin Tuah (percussion), Johua Anak Sadam (bass) and Rudy Bin Husaini spend much of their time with the Sarawak Symphony Orchestra.
Overall, their set at the Borneo Jazz Festival was well received. A little reserved at some points, but they slowly were able to get into the feel of the grandeur of the show. The handful of early-comers slowly grew into a larger, vibrant group as they played. West Jazz Band played a number of original tunes fused with latin, jazz and pop elements.
Toonari Post had a chance to meet West Jazz Band during the festival for a short exchange. They responded enthusiastically at the meet-up, but seemed a little shy when we started the quick interview, pointing to their band leader to answer the questions. Husaini appeared a little bashful when complimented on his well-delivered performance on the drums.
Sarawak has a large reservoir of musical talent that has yet to be tapped into, and occasionally little bouts pop up here and there, but then fall behind the scenes. It remains a challenge for local groups to break out into the music scene and make a lasting impact. There is strong influence from Western music and many young musicians look up to Western groups, and try to imitate their sounds when writing music. However, some groups choose to use Sarawak’s heritage as a starting point for distinctiveness. West Jazz Band did well to infuse local flavor in their music. They played “Leleng,” a song by the Kenyah tribe in their set. It is a song normally sung during celebrations, and is one of the more well known songs among the urban bands.
Having been involved in the music industry for many years (despite just forming in 2005), the West Jazz Band is aware of its position to influence the younger generation. They see themselves as role models. “We feel that the young people should give themselves more exposure by playing more frequently at events and staying committed. Hopefully by our presence here we will be able to guide them at some point,” Clifford commented.
Borneo Jazz 2013 was their first international performance as a group, citing concerts and functions back in Kuching as their main activities. Nevertheless, they are dreaming far; Borneo Jazz has been their stepping stone to the next level. Clifford explained, “We have an eye on a few jazz festivals in the region, such as KL Jazz Festival and Penang Jazz Festival. Ultimately, we aim to play in Java Jazz Festival one day.”
Image credit: Borneo Jazz