Jazz in the village: world-class artists, music education, and some booze

There’s something that ties the French to jazz. 

Maybe it’s the fact that in the first half of the last century, Paris became home to a generation of African-American jazz musicians who were fed up with the racial abuses back home. Maybe it’s some sort of metaphysical fit where the complexities and rhythms of jazz match those of French society.

As for myself, the first time I enjoyed jazz, like really enjoyed the music, the scene, and the atmosphere of jazz, was on a Maker’s Mark-soaked evening in Paris. 

So it seems to make sense then that wherever jazz travels, one might also hear the French language. 

This at least was the case at the Ubud Village Jazz Festival (UVJF), which was held over two nights on August 7 and 8 at the lovely and tranquil Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA). While the remainder of the crowd consisted of the usual bule assortment of Australians, Dutch, and the scattered American alongside a strong core of local Indonesian jazz lovers, the event had a certain je ne sais quoi. We can probably attribute this to the wine that was served free-flow from a Plaga truck between 7-8 pm.

Over the course of Friday and Saturday evenings, and across the ‘Padi’, ‘Giri’, and ‘Subak stages, some of the leading figures of the Indonesian jazz scene, and renowned musicians from the US, Australia, and Holland tickled the ivories, fingered their saxes, and generally produced tasteful sounding music for a crowd that numbered in the thousands. 

The origins of the Ubud Village Jazz Festival go back to 2010 when Yuri Mahatma, a musician and founder of Underground Jazz Movement, and Anom Darsana, the director and owner of Antida Music Productions (who also happens to speaks fluent French), began holding events that they called Jazz Rendezvous. “We did it for fun,” said Pak Yuri. But when the Rendezvous venue closed down, the two were afraid that the “fun would disappear along with the coming boredom. To keep the spirit alive, we had to step higher and produce something more challenging. That’s when we came up with the idea of making an international jazz fest,” said Mahatma. 

And by almost any measure, the three subsequent Ubud Village Jazz Festivals have not only challenged their creators but the paradigm of music festivals as whole. On the standards of their festival, Pak Yuri was clear. “We are dedicated to staying a jazz-only event. All the big and famous festivals have included other genre, including pop. So do small festivals. That’s why we gotta be different,” he said.
 

Ubud Village Jazz Festival
For the UVJF, it’s not just about staying true to Jazz. It’s also about educating aspiring local musicians. For Pak Yuri, all the live music that’s can be found in bars across the Island of the Gods is both a blessing and a curse. Young musicians learn a few chords and can cover a couple songs and “Sadly, once they think they can play and make money, they stop learning.“

To remedy this, UVJF goes well beyond the two days of shows. In the weeks and months leading up to the main event, UVJF hosted shows in Sanur, Seminyak, Kerobokan, and of course Ubud to build up buzz and, just as importantly, spread the gospel of jazz. The centerpiece of this education effort, though, is the Bali Jazz Summer School that was held from August 1-6 at the Harrads Hotel on the bypass in Sanur.

The Summer School was an intensive six days in which the participants, all local musicians, were immersed in jazz and run through their paces by Mahatma and another musician, Ben van den Dungen. Van den Dungen is a jazz journeyman in the best sense of the world. Originally from the Netherlands, van den Dungen has played in over 70 countries. He has lectured and taught in Europe, South America, and Asia, and is currently the artistic director at a music school in Seoul, South Korea where he helps organize the Dutch Jazz Summer School. 

But beyond the pedigree and philosophy of UVJF, we would be remiss if we didn’t dive into what actually happened at the event itself. 

ARMA sits on the main road entering Ubud, yet the sheltered grounds that host a museum, resort, and café belie its central location. Nestled perfectly into the acreage and its foliage were the three stages and upwards of a dozen food stalls and sponsors exhibits, which included the likes of Citilink, Mandiri, and Jack Daniels (more on this to come). In the style of Green School-chic, bamboo dominated as a building material and the lines of everything merged brilliantly with the large trees that surrounded the complex.
 

Ubud Village Jazz Festival
Unfortunately, I missed the first evening, but the highlight of Friday night was reportedly Oran Etkin. Etkin, who is based in New York but whose tour dates reveal multiple circumnavigations of the globe, seems to share the UVJF’s mission of music education. Back in The Big Apple, the clarinet and saxophonist has built a new method of teaching music to children called “Timbalooloo” that, according to its website, teaches “the fundamentals of music in and intuitive, fun and meaningful way.” Prior to taking the stage in Ubud, Etkin brought his experience to Bali with a workshop at the Bali Island School and visits to local instrument studios.

The Miles Davis tribute group appropriately named “Miles!” (and featuring van den Dungen) grooved on Saturday night, leaving me to make myself comfortable with some delicious chicken tandoori and naan via the of Queens of India food stand and a borderline exploitative number of satays that were being handed out as tasters by representatives from a local warung that will remained unnamed. 

To wash all this down, there was Bintang at prices worthy of any music festival (or airport, sporting event, really any place you can’t escape), the aforementioned free flow of Plaga wine, and, opportunely, a bottle of Jack Daniels provided (or at least handed) to an appreciative group by none other than Mr. I Putu Swantara Putra, or as he’s known to everyone, “Klick”.

Klick, an architect who is also heavily involved in the ongoing SPRITES Art & Creative Biennale, designed the layout for this year’s UVJF alongside partners Diana Surya and Marie Bechade de Fonroche. With limited space and a large number of groups to accommodate, the trio’s improvisation and informed technique would’ve made any jazz musician proud.

Aurally speaking, while much of the music was pleasant if somewhat un-engaging, the group that really caught my ear was the Julian Banks Trio led by its eponymous saxophonist. This was the kind of kick-ass jazz that brought back memories of that Parisian evening. It also could’ve been the bourbon, but then again JD is no MM. 

All told, the Ubud Village Jazz Festival should be firmly penciled into the Balinese social scene. And if you see an event poster with UVJF’s green logo in your neck of the woods, make sure to stop by. It’s sure to be some of the best live music around and, whether you want to or not, you just might find yourself reading Sartre with a glass of vin rouge at the end of the night. 

Photos: Agus Wiryadhi Saidi

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