Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Get real about jazz!

Dear Sachin,

In response to my letter on your article about the Java Jazz Festival (JJF), you wrote that hits by ticketing and advertizing agencies on Google is a "valid" way to let people know about the JJF and asked: " Isn't that plain and simple advertising, or prepublicity, the right sort of communication we are looking for to enhance Indonesia's image in a positive way?"

My answer is that there is nothing valid or invalid about these hits. If anything, it is just plain business. It would be naive of you, or anyone, to think that these agencies were promoting a better image of Indonesia abroad; in fact, they were just going about their business. And, therefore, they would do the same thing for any client other than the JJF, wouldn't they?

And by going through the trouble of finding definitions of non-jazz mucians, such as Dave Koz and Kenny G, on the Internet and putting these definitions in your letter, you have done nothing other than proving my point that they are not jazz mucians. Intentionally or not, you may have given readers of your letters the impression that you are a fan of Mr. Koz and Mr. G. While there is nothing wrong with being a fan of either one of the two aforementioned musicians--one's choice of music is a matter of one's taste and liberty--it was unwise to go public about it as it your readers may think that you have a bad taste for music. In other words, everyone has (at least) a skeleton his closet, but he may not want to, or should not, show it to everyone, like you did!

As for your comment about Blue Note signing a record deal with Norah Jones, my response is, to quote the tittle of a legendary tune by Miles Davis: So what? Only because she did a record with Blue Note, that does not make her a jazz vocalist or, as some labels have so daringly called her, "a jazz diva"; only because a foreigner wears a batik shirt, that does not make him an Indonesian, does it?

And thanks for pointing out an obvious point that "music is meant to be food for the soul and is a universal language that promotes cross-cultural harmony, friendship and understanding". Fair enough! But, it remains that, to quote Duke Ellington, "there are only two kinds of music, good and bad." And, I am afraid, the music that you like and defend falls into the latter.

With regards, I remain,

Thang D. Nguyen

The Jakarta Post
25 March 2006

Your letters

Music promotes understanding

I was quite amused by Thang D. Nguyen's response to my article, for he seems to be a jazz "purist" who was offended by a pop-jazz-soul music festival that could not cater to his definition of jazz. In my article, I genuinely believed that my viewpoint was perhaps reasonably qualified due to my close proximity to see, hear, experience and therefore report.

The popularity of any jazz festival is perhaps impossible to measure, so I never even attempted to measure the popularity of the Jakarta Jazz Festival (JJF), instead I focused on how much it is talked or written about. Hits on Google are one such indirect measure of how many times it is talked or written about all over the world.

Even ticketing and advertising agencies mentioning the Jakarta Jazz Festival are valid, as this is letting people all over the world know that there is a JJF and it is taking place in Indonesia. Isn't that plain and simple advertising, or prepublicity, the right sort of communication we are looking for to enhance Indonesia's image in a positive way?

I prefer to respond to some of his specific points on what is jazz and who jazz musicians are. Nguyen's classifying of Dave Koz and Kenny G in the so-called "vulgar camp of elevator music" is a classic example of a purist's self-proclaimed superiority in what he believes jazz should be.

Wikipedia, one of the Internet's largest encyclopedias, states that "Dave Koz is a Jewish-American jazz saxophonist and radio host. He is currently co-host of the morning show on 94.7 The Wave, a smooth jazz station in Los Angeles". Perhaps we need to give them a call and tell them of Nguyen's findings about Koz.

Wikipedia states that "Kenny G is an American saxophonist born in Seattle. Influenced by the likes of Grover Washington, Jr., his own albums are usually classified as smooth jazz, though there are many in the music community who categorize his albums more as adult contemporary". This is perhaps borderline target practice for Nguyen as Kenny G has received similar flak from many other quarters.

Wikipedia also states that "James Brown is recognized worldwide as an African-American entertainer recognized as one of the most influential figures in 20th century music. As a prolific singer, songwriter, bandleader and record producer, Brown was a seminal force in the evolution of gospel and rhythm and blues into soul and funk".

And of course let's not forget his footnote on Norah Jones, because the leading jazz recording label Bluenote classifies her music as pop, folk, soul, jazz. Jones majored in jazz piano and won the Beat Student Music Awards for Best Jazz Vocalist (twice, in 1996 and 1997) and Best Original Composition (1996). Music is meant to be food for the soul and is a universal language that promotes cross-cultural harmony, friendship and understanding, not to segregate humanity into camps of genre fanatics.

Music is meant to be food for the soul and is a universal language that promotes cross-cultural harmony, friendship and understanding, not to segregate humanity into camps of genre fanatics.


The Jakarta Post
23 March 2006

Your Letters

I refer to the article entitled "Java Jazz Festival and Indonesia's global reputation" by Sachin Gopalan published in The Jakarta Post on March 18.

While it is unclear whether it was out of his patriotism that Gopalan wrote this article or it was because his media company was involved in the promotion of the Java Jazz Festival, the article itself contained a great deal of narcissism and is based on a misperception of jazz by most Indonesians.

For one thing, for Indonesia -- the world's fourth most populous nation -- having organized a big musical event like the JJF is no major achievement. Look at tiny Singapore and ask yourself how many large (measured by the size of the audience) musical events, among other things, that it holds a year!

Furthermore, citing the number of hits on a Google search of the phrase "Java Jazz Festival", the author asserted that JJF is the biggest event of its kind. While the number of hits on JJF is high, only a few actually come from jazz media, connoisseurs, critics and fans. For the most part, these hits come from ticketing or advertising agencies!

This is no way to measure how popular JJF is, is it? In the world of modern (not fusion and light) jazz, the biggest and most well-known ones are still in the U.S. and Europe. In Asia, the only place known for holding fine jazz events and a public that really knows good jazz is Tokyo, Japan.

This brings me to the third and final point: Only because Indonesia has the JJF, that does not mean it is a really a jazz event. Seriously, if you look at the names that came to JJF this year and the previous ones, most of them are lightweight and/or pop musicians and singers doing jazzy tunes.

Who in the know considers Dave Koz a jazz musician? If anything, he is in the same vulgar camp of elevator musicians like Kenny G! And James Brown came to last year's JJF, but "I Feel Good" is not jazz, is it?

So, if the organizers of JJF want to bring it to a higher level and to be recognized as in international jazz festival, I would advise them to approach and bring in some big names like hardcore jazz artists, such as Kenneth Garrett, the Marsalis brothers and Diana Krall, to Jakarta next year.

But, don't approach Norah Jones because she would make your festival lame (nora in Bahasa Indonesia)!


The Jakarta Post

18 March 2006

Java Jazz Festival and Indonesia's global reputation

Jazz News Sachin Gopalan, Jakarta

"For a country that has been quite the superstar with its terrorists and bombs, this goes to prove that Indonesia is still alive and kicking! Behold, the Java Jazz Festival, bringing together some of the worlds greatest jazz musicians ...," Fida Heyder, Singapore.

This statement jumped out at me as I was browsing the Internet for some information on Indonesian cultural events. With these ominous yet simple words, it dawned on me yet again how everyone from the outside world perceives Indonesia.

These words also made me realize that the most significant effect of the recently concluded Java Jazz Festival has perhaps eluded most of the people who were present: That they all played a part in creating modern international cultural history.

What exactly is the significance of the JJF, and in particular the second version held in 2006? First, as Peter Gontha, the Festival chairman put it, "This is probably the biggest jazz festival of its kind in the world."

Not a tall claim. When we look at the total number of artists, locations and performances over the tightly packed three-day schedule, this is the biggest festival of its kind. So one can safely conclude that this event has definitely put Indonesia on the international cultural map for posterity, and three positive truths emerge.

First, Indonesia has the capability to be recognized globally for making positive contributions to international society and culture.

Second, there are still people in Indonesia who believe in the importance of doing so. And third, they are definitely going about doing so, despite all the odds they may face.

Consider this in contrast to many other infamous people giving Indonesia many other dubious distinctions; of being the most corrupt country, most devastated country and several other "mosts" or "firsts". The JJF is perhaps one of the few significant positive international achievements Indonesia has managed in recent times.

One can count on one's left hand how many such achievements we have made in the past year. Perhaps the A1 races, the Bandung Conference, and of course one cannot forget, an international conference on terrorism.

So what exactly is the important context of modern cultural history that needs to be understood by us? If you remember, Woodstock way back in 1969 was the biggest concert ever until that point in time. People still talk of it today.

Woodstock was not just a concert, it was an idea, a spirit of celebration and it is still celebrated all over the world through countless rehashed versions and musical tributes. The JJF, one hopes, has created a somewhat similar effect among the thousands who flocked to the festival, the glaring difference only being the dramatically superior surroundings, use of high technology and availability of global logistics to bring practically anyone from anywhere to the 15 stages at the festival.

Another important question is, how important is the global race to be bigger and better than everyone else? I personally heard several comments during the festival of how its better to try to be the best instead of the biggest, and how the festival was overpriced and how the schedules were infected with Indonesia's national disease, jam karet, or rubber time, a term indicating a general lack of urgency to do anything on time.

Sure, agreed, but these are only improvements that organizers need to work on. Nobody who was there can deny that despite all the minor problems, the event generally went well and it was the biggest music party of the century for Indonesia

Another point that needs to be appreciated is the brilliant strategy of the JJF to get the most famous international musicians performing alongside the most famous Indonesian musicians, in a unique collaborative effort, confirming that the country's musical ability has finally been recognized by the best names in the musical world.

So when one takes a giant step back and looks at the bigger picture these minor organizing irritants begin to die of insignificance, and realization dawns that we are perhaps at the proverbial tipping point of creating a ripple effect or avalanche of good cheer for Indonesia.

A case in point is exactly how much the JJF is being talked about or written about. A search on Google for the words "Java Jazz Festival" elicits 1.35 hits (734,000 results in English and another 616,000 results in other languages). All that coverage in just two years. Compare this to the words "North Sea Jazz Festival" (1.8 million hits after being around for over 30 years) and "New Orleans Jazz Festival" (2.18 million hits after being around for 36 years).

The JJF is also featured in, a New York-based Internet resource site, and Wikipedia, the Internet's largest encyclopedia. And, of course, the JJF features on almost any international jazz website worth its sax appeal.

To everyone who was there at JJF 2006, Indonesian or foreign, artist or music fan, organizer or participant, advertiser or consumer, one fact should now start to become clear. They have indeed created history. And the message they have sent out is clear and resounding. Indonesia is safe, and Indonesia is center stage in setting international standards in global cross-cultural developments.

And yet, the vulnerability of it all is also glaring. All we need is another bomb, another disaster, another scandal, for human memory only retains the latest event. Let's have another JJF quickly before something unwanted happens. Or let's outdo the terrorists by having more good and positive events than the bad they can ever plan to do. After all, the majority should be the winner.

So, for the moment, and until the next happening, we again have something to be proud of, something to reminisce about and enjoy. When was the last time somebody did the country proud? Somebody give the medals to the real heroes of Indonesia, they are just a mere handful and it surely wouldn't cost the taxpayers much to recognize them, reward them and encourage them onward.

The writer currently heads a convergent media company based in Jakarta. He can be reached at