From 4,000 attendees in 2019 to 116,000 last week, this music festival successfully pivoted to a virtual format

The Borneo Jazz Festival in Malaysia broke its previous records with an online showcase this year. Organisers and bands share insights on pandemic resilience.

Launched in 2014, PhotoSparks is a weekly feature from YourStory, with photographs that celebrate the spirit of creativity and innovation. In the earlier 540 posts, we featured an art festival, cartoon gallery. world music festivaltelecom expomillets fair, climate change expo, wildlife conference, startup festival, Diwali rangoli, and jazz festival.

Held every summer in the east Malaysian city of Miri in Sarawak, the annual Borneo Jazz Festival (BJF) carried on in a new format in the times of COVID-19 – an online showcase. The 16th edition of the festival broke its own records as it garnered fans from more than 33 countries for its three-day virtual journey.

This year, Borneo Jazz Festival 2021 Virtual Journey highlighted some of the outstanding performers right since its first edition in 2006. The showcase was accessible online for free, from 6:00-7:30 pm (Malaysia Standard Time), on the weekend of June 25-27 (see Part I and Part II of our coverage).

I covered three earlier editions of the festival, as shown in some of the pictures in this photo essay. Over the years, the festival has attracted performers from over 25 countries, including artistes from India such as Dhruv Ghanekar, Gino Banks, and Sheldon D’Silva.

“This iconic event has gone from strength to strength. It has found its way to a much broader audience and provided our artistes an even bigger platform for their artistry,” according to Datuk Haji Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Sarawak.

Hazmat Modine

Online platform, global reach

Themed Borneo Jazz Memories: A Virtual Journey, the online showcase featured pre-recorded sessions of local artistes, in between exclusive interviews with seasoned jazz veterans.

“The increased participation and the element of online engagement we received for Borneo Jazz Festival 2021 has given us a new baseline. It will help us better gauge how we can best develop next year’s edition, which is scheduled to be held June 24-26,” Abdul Karim added.

In total, more than 116,000 online viewers logged on to the BJF website and social media platforms as well as broadcast partner TVS and Shopee Live.

STB also organises the award-winning annual Rainforest World Music Festival, which featured an online showcase this year as well, on the weekend of June 18-20 (see Part I and Part II of our coverage). The virtual showcase attracted around 140,000 viewers from 80 countries, according to STB. The next edition, the silver jubilee, will be held on June 17-19, 2022. 


“The number of viewers from around the world is a testament to how well-loved and relevant these iconic events are. We hope to see the end of the pandemic soon so that we can continue to bring more value-added entertainment to devoted festival-goers,” Abdul Karim added.

The east Malaysian state of Sarawak comprises 27 ethnic tribes with their own unique traditions, lifestyles, music and food. Geographically diverse, it has also emerged as a regional cultural hub.

Miri’s cultural attractions include the San Ching Tian Temple. The waters of Tusan Beach are famous for the phenomenon of bioluminescence. The iconic Horse Cliff collapsed in 2020, unfortunately.

Nisa Addina - BJF 2021

Artistic resilience

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the live music industry for more than a year, but opened up new opportunities online as well.

“Musicians who are freelancing are definitely near breakdown. As a band, we did our best to accommodate and help one another to make sure that the music in each of us does not fade away,” explains Eugene Clifford Suboh, leader of O-HA Soul Band, in a chat with YourStory.

As times got difficult, they had to adjust to the new norms by making music and music videos from home, and leveraging social media. “We really miss those days when we could congregate and feel music together,” he adds.

Ta'Dan, BJF 2021

The band is grateful to BJF 2021 for the opportunity for musicians to connect again with audiences. “Music is an eternal living flame that knows no boundaries. I praise God Almighty for giving us the gift of music,” Eugene affirms.

“Our performance for BJF 2021 have really uplifted us in these times of pandemic difficulties. It was one of our best performances playing the song medley Puteri Santubong and Pak Tambang,” he adds. They are based on local folk tales and cultural symbols.

“The pandemic hits us all hard. So many plans had been made to promote our newly-released single and EP. We had also planned to release our Blues Project by the middle of 2021. But it all has to wait since we are in our movement control order (MCO) for the third time,” music duo Ta’Dan explain.

The band is self-funded, and had to turn to social media to promote its CDs. Recording activities are also halted by the MCO. “Well, the positive side and outcome is that we have the chance to go into ourselves and discover more,” they add.

“The pandemic gave us a time to relax and wind down, maybe rest – but hopefully not long – from all the hectic work. This phase may not come again,” they observe.

Jasmine Chen - BJF 2019

“Going through this pandemic has indeed been challenging for many of us. There were cancelled shows and events to the closure of performance spaces,” laments singer Pete Kallang.

“It has indeed let me pause and reflect on my personal life and music journey. Exploring new sounds and music was also part of the process,” he adds.

“The pandemic made me realise how difficult it is to be a musician and that I really have to understand how to market myself and learn more about the music business side of things,” explains violinist-composer Nisa Addina.

“Financially it’s been really tough. But I’ve come a long way ever since the start of the outbreak,” Nisa signs off.

Now, what have you done today to pause in your busy schedule and find new avenues for your creative core?

Miri waterfront

San Ching Tian Temple

Sunset at Tusan Beach, with bioluminescence

Horse Cliff in Tusan Beach, 2019 (collapsed in 2020)

Seahorse Lighthouse, Coco Cabana


BJF 2019


BJF - 2019

DJ Maestro

BJF 2019

Dhruv Ghanekar (second from right) at Musical Meeting - Miri Marriott

Gino Banks (L), Sheldon D'Silva (R)

Fox Capture Plan


New Cool Collective

See also the YourStory pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups,’ accessible as apps for Apple and Android devices.

(Images credit: Madanmohan Rao and STB)


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