We’re very sad to announce that longtime Songlines contributor Jan Fairley (pictured left with flamenco singer Maria Bala) died on Saturday from cancer. She was only 63. As well as being a prolific writer on world music, she presented many radio features, including her own show, Heartbeat, on Radio Scotland from 1990-1994, and was director of two editions of the Edinburgh International Book Festival from 1995-1997.
Her main interest was Spanish and Latin American music, although her record collection – which I was recently helping her sort through – included music from all over the globe.
A fluent Spanish speaker, she taught in Chile from 1971-1973 and was there when the Pinochet coup took place. That event certainly had a profound effect on her later life – as evidenced by her study of Latin American nueva canción (new song) and her memorable hollering through a loudhailer on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in memory of the ‘disappeared’ on September 14 2009.
After returning from Chile she did an M.Phil in Latin American Studies at Oxford University and a PhD in ethnomusicology at Edinburgh University, with a dissertation on the Chilean group Karaxú! Amongst her scholarly work she chaired the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and was the longest serving editor of the journal, Popular Music.
I first met Jan in Cuba in1989 where she got me into a spectacular concert in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución by Silvio Rodríguez (a good friend of Jan’s). It was a clear demonstration of the power of nueva canción in Latin America and we recorded a feature for Radio 4 while we were there. Jan counted Pablo Milanes, Eliades Ochoa and most of the Buena Vista musicians as personal friends.
On the day she died, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the former bandleader of Buena Vista Social Club, tweeted: ‘Today passed away my friend, the great journalist and musicologist Jan Fairley. Rest in Peace, sister. See you later!! J D´ Marcos & Family.’
Jan wrote the entries on Cuban music, nueva canción and flamenco in the first edition of the Rough Guide to World Music in 1994 – and its subsequent updatings. She wrote for fRoots and Songlines when it started in 1999. In the first issue, Jan wrote the seven-page Songlines Guide to Cuban Son, and she contributed features and reviews to almost every issue since then. Her last piece was on El Sistema in Venezuela which was published in Songlines #84 on April 27.
Jan learned about three months ago that she had just a few weeks left and she practically set about finding a home for her large record collection, saying farewell to her many friends and enjoying the chickens in her Edinburgh garden. Her courage was inspiring.
She died at home with her three children present in the morning of Saturday June 9. That evening we dedicated the final Songlines Encounters concert to her memory. The music by the Yiddish Twist Orchestra and the Madagascar All Stars was vibrant, quirky and life-affirming, just like the lady herself.
We send warm wishes to her family and there will be an obituary in the next issue of Songlines published July 20.
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