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Historic Sepilok Jazz Festival to help turtles
Published on: Sunday, January 08, 2023
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Alex Yee founder of Sepilok Jazz festival with award winning fingerstyle guitarist cris Abah and Music Director Cheong Kok Aun (inset).
THIS is a story about Jazz with a purpose. Not known to be a music hub, award-winning turtle conservation icon Alex Yee decided to stage a historic first Jazz Festival in world famous Orangutan destination Sepilok, Sandakan, on December 16-17.

Alex explained how he landed on the use of Jazz to energize the fund raising project to help ‘make things better’ for the turtles: 

“Conservation can be a full topic and I have decided to ‘borrow’ the drawing power of music to create awareness on sea turtle conservation,” he said.

“Taking the advice of the event Director of Music, Cheong Kok Aun, I decided on the Jazz genre and selected Sepilok as I feel Sandakan can do with such an event.” 

CTJ2 Quartet leader on ‘The best thing’ about the festival  

Die-hard friends cum jazz practitioners rushed in to help without qualms.

Sarawak-hailed Joe Wan is one of them.

The CT2J Quartet (from left): Crystal, James Simon, Teddy Chin Jr and Joe Wan (inset)

“The best thing about it is the reason why it is being held,” noted Joe Wan, lead and bass player of CT2J Quartet, one of the tree bands selected by Cheong to perform. 

“That to me is quite close to my heart because I support anything to do with wildlife, anything to do with saving our wildlife, I am for it. That, to me is special. It gives me enough reason to come here (from KK),” Joe said.        

But to raise enough money for turtles, a swell of enthusiasm must come from the ground, hopefully a tsunami of excitement in future.

Glowing comments from jazz buffs 

Well, let the jazz buffs tell you what they think as follows:   

Said Edna Sung Burongoh: “I actually love jazz so this a good step, make it bigger and more happenings in Sandakan, not only Kota Kinabalu. Go towards all the districts, you know, to educate people, not just Jazz, any song can fit into jazz.”

Dr Robert Ong and wife Melissa.

Robert Ong, Deputy Conservator of Forest Sabah, turned up for two nights.  

“I think it is a great start and a potential to grow bigger.”

Asked why he thought so, he said: “I think it is a good performance, and it is something unique for Sandakan.” 

Melissa, wife of Robert Ong chipped in: “It’s very interesting and we have a good time, they sing very well, they performed very well, it’s good start for them,” she said in reference to the three bands Sonny B & The No.1s comprising leader Sonny Bahari (guitar, vocal, harmonica), Kasim Matahir (drums, vocal), Naza Husin (bass, vocal) and Nadia Hong ( keyboard); CT2J Quartet, comprising Joe Wan (bass/sape), James Simon (drum), Teddy (saxophone) and Crystal ( keyboard) and Take 5 Band Sandakan comprising multi-award winning duo Chris Aban (fingerstyle guitarist) and Yana (vocalist).   

An un-identified friend of the Ongs said:  “Good show, they played very well, they performed well, good music, keep it going,” he said.    

“It was awesome, yeah, the way the singers present the songs, everything is perfect. They should do this yearly,” said Aemi. 

Amazed young Dutch couple report joy and happiness   

Among the crowd on the second night were a couple of Dutch communication specialists and best friends, Laszlo Lieffering and Marianne Geerlsema, who hailed from Amsterdam but work in Kuala Lumpur.   

“It was so amazing, we enjoyed it so much, yes we did, so joyful, it was amazing,” exuded Marianne 

Asked what made it amazing, Marianne said: “The music, the happiness, the joyfulness, the spontaneity.

“And also the enthusiasm about turtles, their enthusiasm about turtles, everybody was passionate and for a good cause, it is one of the reasons we are here, also jazz is very nice but for a good cause we came here,” chipped in Laszlo Leiffering. 

Asked why they chose to come to come to Sabah, Marrianne said: “Put the pandemic behind, we are just here for the weekend to celebrate our friendship together and also it is the cheapest and nearby.”

From Amesterdam - Marianne Geerlsema and Laszlo Leiffering (left) Joyful

“Also back in the Netherlands, I said to people, okay, I am going to Malaysia, what tips can you give me and everybody said: Borneo, Borneo and Sabah,” said Laszlo, who met Marianne at the University of Groningen in northern Netherlands.

“We are very happy that we came here,” said Marianne who stayed only two days while Laszlo stayed on longer, both of whom had seen the Orangutan.  

“The Orangutan – woo, the baby stays together seven to 10 years with the mother, they are like us – amazing,” Laszo raved on. 

A trio of Sandakan bankers were among the audience.

The ‘excited’ bankers of Sandakan  

“It was an amazing show and it should be yearly-lah – do it yearly and I quite enjoyed the show, this is my first show ever in my life, I enjoyed the most the last one (Sonny B), the uncle one, he is very funky,” said Nursyuhada Zahirah.  

“Actually this is not the first time for me to attend the jazz music,” noted Hong Leong Bank Officer, Mary Kwan She Yee.

Excited bankers of Sandakan - Mary Kwan She Yee (middle) and colleagues, Nursyuhada Zahirah and Lynette.

“A long time ago, I attended the Sabah Jazz Festival in I think Magellan Hotel KK, well before the MCO so this is the first time in Sandakan, I was so excited to come here with my colleagues and I hope next year they will organise few more concerts like this,” said Mary Kwan. 

“I am a banker, we are so stressed, so weekend we come here to enjoy the music. Jazz music is good, you can actually enjoy the music and have a drink with friends,” Mary added.             

Mary’s colleague, identified only as Lynette, said: “I enjoyed the night very much, it’s very nice songs, very nice music, especially the the guitar and drum, I like saxophone, very nice.”   

‘Showmanship is no secret’: Sonny Bahari

What do the musicians themselves think of the first Sepilok Jazz Festival? 

“The most unique thing about the festival which I don’t see done anywhere else in the country or the region is it’s a two-pronged attack on awareness about jazz music in Sabah and conservation in our flora and fauna,” said Sonny Bahari, leader of Sonny B & the No1s band said.

“This is the most unique thing about the festival compared to other festivals,” he added.

The Sonny B & The Nols (from left): Nadia Hong, Kasim Matahi, Sonny Bahari, Naza Husim

“To me, up to this point, the art of jazz music has never been taken seriously, it’s the same thing about conservation of flora and fauna of our wildlife,” Bahari added.

“That’s why I did not hesitate when the organisers called me to be part of this,” he added. 

Showmanship- the subtle flair which touches deep chords inside human, was evident in the Sonny B & No 1s band (and some other performers too) who can probably make an impact anywhere in the world. 

“Showmanship is no secret, it’s just hard work,” he asserted.

A John Denver hit to test defining improvisation 

Improvisation is a basic element that defines jazz outside of classical music, it is often claimed.

Meaning they can pick up any song and create a piece spontaneously not planned and without preparation. 

“That’s how jazz educated me-lah, jazz education is knowing nothing is impossible in music also,” Bahari asserted.     

A classic test from this writer was a request to do a popular but non-jazz John Denver song.

Bahari picked “Country Road Take Me Home” and did a splendid job, with the audience tapping their toes, humming, moving their bodies in rapt enjoyment as if they were listening with their muscles!     

“The request was unexpected, we did not practise, it really needs a high level of knowledge of music to play it, but I told them, they understood,” Bahari said.

“That song playing jazz? Nobody does, I was surprised,” said Naza Husin, band buddy of Bahari. 

“Yes, I always throw surprises at them, they understood. That’s the relationship I have with them,” Bahari said.    

Dream band out of Covid 

But that’s the mark Bahari’s “dream band” formed ironically during the Covid season when an NGO organised an online performance that involved him.           

“Drummer and vocalist Kasim Matahir, bass and vocalist Naza Husin and keyboardist Nadia Hong were handpicked because musically there is chemistry between all of us four and this chemistry comes from friendship which is hard to find within a musical circle in Sabah because there are not many of us so I held on to that and my theory worked,” he said.    

Honed in his education at La Salle Tanjung Aru under a disciplinarian principal, the late Datuk Bro Charles ‘O Leary, Bahari said: “Bro Charles, that’s the topping, that’s the cream, I am lucky I came from that era from 1978 to 1982.”

After which he forged a career where he started to work in Combo RTM.

“I didn’t know I was at that level and was trusted to be a professional musician, my knowledge of reading notes is self taught,” said Bahari, who paid tribute to several mentors who taught him.        

‘Everything self-taught’ – award-winning fingerstyle guitarist   

Entertaining duo comprising spirited Fingerstyle guitarist Cris Aban and soothing vocalist Yana opened the show nightly.

Cris is reportedly a self-taught Fingerstyle guitarist with numerous awards such as winner of the “Tommy Emmanuel Fingerstyle Get Inspired Competition 2011”; “Borneo International Guitar Festival 2013” and also the “Finalists of the Bakat TV RTM2 in 2011”. He also had performed in Penang Jazz Festival 2011, World Youth Jazz Festival 2014 and also the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival 2018.    

So how did the Sepilok Jazz Festival 2022 measure up? 

Multi-award-winning acoustic fingerstyle guitarist Cris Aban in entertaining mood.

“If you want me to rate it, five-star, I’ll give it 4.8, being the Number One location in the world, a top world  Orangutan spot, of course the environment, sound of the jungle which is jazz too, there is music in it, good venue, the place is nice, everybody is nice, the crowd is nice.” 

On his winning forms, he said: “That one is luck, I didn’t have formal lessons, I learnt by myself, so I did it like listening to cassettes, looking at other people, “stealing” their skills, and bit by bit, I enabled my styles, am still learning, still “stealing”, and that’s how music goes, you can be good at one time, next day you are better, that’s the beauty of music,” said Cris, an old boy of St Mary’s Sandakan.

After 20 years of performing, how does the Sepilok festival compared?

“Very different, really honoured to be part of it, at least we can do something good, actually I didn’t realise the turtles need some support for conservation,” said Cris, who claimed he had never seen a turtle except turtle eggs.    

Amazing vocalist on local songs with a jazz twist

Kuamut, Kinabatangan-hailed school teacher Yana is another multi-award winning vocalist, like the Best Vocal Award PSKPP Sabah Original Song Competition 2016, the Sandakan District Sugandoi Champion 2004, Mentor Sabah 6th Champion Competition 2018 and more.  

So what about singing at the Sepilok Jazz Festival?

Multi-award-winning vocalist Yana in suprise rendering of Kadazan & Malay songs with a jazz twist. 

“Really good experience, my first jazz festival, what I love here is the crowd and nature here, I love the greens and everything about the sound, different from other festivals, most festivals they do it in town, now they do it here, surrounded by nature so I love the jazz festival here in Sandakan,” exuded Yana, who rendered a number of Malay and Kadazan songs with a jazz twist to the amazement of Music Director Cheong Kok Aun.  

Proud to be an Orang Sungei  

With good look and showmanship, she said she picked it up from her parents especially her late father. 

“My late father Awang Gariman always performed somewhere in Kinabatangan, they had their own band but kampung-kampung type playing at Pesta Sungei (River Festival) so I learnt from my mother Salmah Zakariak who is a very good singer, but my speciality is not jazz, I was brought up in Asli Joget, Zapin , Inang so  I was singing that kind of songs which are very rhythmic and rich in body movements. “

Born and bred in Kuamut by the bank of the mighty Kinabatangan river, how does she feel about the river? 

“Proud to be an Orang Sungei because we lived near the river which is the largest in Sabah like the Amazon River, I am proud to be an Orang Sungei and I am proud about my river.”          

‘Kinabatangan river used to be crystal clear – Yana 

On the state of the Kinabatangan river which is very muddy nowadays, Yana is a direct living eyewitness of the days when the Kinabatangan was a crystal clear river when she was young. 

“Yes, before the loggings, Kinabatangan river was very clear, we swam there, you can swim under the water you open your eyes, you can see each other, you can see the prawns, you can see the fish, very, very clear, the crocodiles were not like nowadays, sangat jahat (very bad),” she testified.         

‘An amazing event’ – Music Director 

“This is an amazing event to contribute to the great cause in conservation works for the future generations via this unique music platform of jazz,” said Music Director Cheong Kok Aun.

“As the Music Director for this event, I am happy that the 1st edition of Sepilok Jazz was able to complete this two – night Jazz Extravaganza and Sepilok Jazz is now  in the world map of Jazz festival. We are proud of this achievement.”

“The location is perfect, being a global destination famous for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre with a large forest reserve – the best choice to have an event here related to conservation of nature.

Aemi: ‘Awesome’

First night international interest.

“On the musical aspect, we had a Fingerstyle acoustic guitar performance by local musician Cris Aban and Cris’ amazing vocalist Yana who surprised me with a few popular local Kadazan and Malay songs presented in a very clever arrangement with a twist of jazz, a very entertaining Blues group headed by Sonny Bahari and a smooth jazz ensemble, CT2J led by Joe Wan, featuring Teddy Chin Jr on saxophone and Crystal on the keyboard.

“I also introduced DJ Brian T to showcase his good selection of groovy and jazzy songs to the festival to complement the band performance,” said Kok Ann.

“With all the above, this two-night jazz in Sepilok is complete.”



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