JB, a festival city?

International jazz legend and world-class saxophonist,
Sadao Watanabe, performing at the inaugural JB Jazz Fest
There is nothing like the pleasure of watching live performances and Johor has no lack of talented and creative people who are making an impact in international art circles.  Talented Johoreans have taken their art to the highest level and are ready to contribute to the local art scene but are often let down by the absence of proper art infrastructure here.  If JB is a developing city that aims to attract people and investors to live, work and visit Iskandar Malaysia, then there is an urgent need to develop venues and spaces for the arts and culture.

The recent inaugural JB Jazz Festival from February 26 to 28, boasted a star-studded lineup of artistes, headlined by International jazz legend and world-class saxophonist, Sadao Watanabe.  Held at the Grand Ballroom of DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru, the fest was graced by Royal Patron of the Johor Society for the Performing Arts (JSPA), Her Royal Highness YAM Tunku Aminah Sultan Ibrahim.  She congratulated JSPA for bringing together a good mix of local, regional and international jazz artistes to the festival and commended them for organising the Jazz Fest, the first in a series of festivals under the Johor Baru: International Festival City (JB:IFC) initiative.

“As more festivals are lined up for the year, visitors to JB can look forward to enjoying a host of attractions for family fun, urban lifestyle and heritage sites in the city,” said  Director of Tourism Johor, Dr Haji Badrul Hisham Kassim, who was also at the first show.  The festivals planned for this year include the JB Classical Music Festival (May 1 – 3), the Unity Drums Festival featuring JB’s own 24 Festive Drums (June 5 – 6), the first ever JB Film Festival (June 11 – 13), the 12th JB Arts Festival with Fringe Festival (Sept 10 – Oct 9) and the JB Food and Visual Arts Festival from October to December 2015.

“The JB:IFC perfectly complements the government’s initiative in promoting the Malaysia Year of Festivals 2015,” said founder of JSPA and organiser of the JB Arts Festival (JBAF), Yap Siong Cheng.  He said JB:IFC is important because as the city expands its local and international reach, so must it continue to embrace and promote the arts as well as showcase the rich, historical culture of Johor and Malaysia to its many residents and visitors. “In the last 12 years, the JBAF has grown in size and stature while the city of Johor Baru, driven by Iskandar Malaysia, has also grown rapidly,” he added.

A scene from musical drama based on Johor history,
Bumi Berlantai Permata
, was staged in a tent for the
8th JB Arts Festival in 2011

The JBAF is in its 12th year but it is sad that the value of arts and culture is not properly acknowledged by the city, especially with the lack of arts infrastructure for live performances.  While some of the acts in the annual arts festival calendar may be amateurs, many of the invited performers are artistes who have professional careers in the international stage.  Sadly, the two main venues for past JBAF shows have been in tents and while there is a time and place for outdoor shows, these venues are simply unsuitable for class acts.

Last year, the JB Performing Arts Centre (JBPAC) opened on level 4M of Danga City Mall with two sections – the White Box, a gallery for exhibitions and art activities and the Black Box for performances.  This is the first step in the right direction because visual and performing arts not only require space for shows, studios and exhibitions but also need proper parking facilities for visitors and audiences.  In the past few months, these spaces have been put to good use but a great deal more can be done to create suitable venues for traditional and contemporary art forms that are conducive for the artistes’ performance and the audience’s enjoyment.

Ramli Ibrahim [Left] and Geethika Shree performing a dance
from Vision of Forever, at the JOTIC auditorium in 2012
Arts and culture form part of the urban value system and reflects the quality of life for the community and if JB aims to project herself competitively in the international arena, then this city should have a high standard of arts and culture infrastructure.  At the moment, the stage and auditorium facilities here are mainly multi-purpose halls that are either inaccessible due to high costs or unsuitable as they are without proper lighting and sound amenities.  These are also not well-equipped black box spaces with sprung floors for professional dance artistes to perform.

If JB aims to be an International Festival City with jazz, classical, drums, films, cultural, visual and performing arts festivals, then the city is in desperate need for suitably equipped venues for each of these festivals.  In planning and designing venues, due consideration must be given to acoustics and properly equipping the stage and back-stage where there are dressing rooms and toilets for the comfort and convenience of both artistes and the audience.  And once these are put in place, the venues must be professionally managed and maintained.

As we encourage all forms of art and cultural expressions in the city, there is certainly a need to develop sustainable and quality art infrastructure and make provision for the development of arts and culture in JB.  The time is ripe to map out our cultural assets like art galleries, heritage districts, conservation areas and creative talents, and integrate arts and culture into all aspects of urban development.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 15 April 2015 

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