Jan Fairley (1949 – 2012)

Posted on June 12th, 2012 in News, Recent posts by .

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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6 Responses to “Jan Fairley (1949 – 2012)”

  1. Lucy Richardson Says:

    A witty, courageous and true friend with an enormous depth of knowledge and understanding on all things musical and Latin American. Jan will be sorely missed.

  2. Jane Cornwell Says:

    We all knew she was going, but she still seemed invincible. She was more prepared than we were. To lose someone so full of life, knowledge, opinions and creativity is a tough thing to get one’s head around. Jan wasn’t easy, which was partly why she was so fabulous. She was never afraid to say what she thought , which was sometimes hard to take, and meant that sometimes we fell out. But Jan was too loveable, too irrepressible, to let go of. She had principles and stuck to them, fought for them. She was a proud feminist and old school activist who reminded you what was important, and got you back on track when you wandered away.

    Jan and I met at WOMAD but bonded on a press trip to Portugal, and hung out in Cuba and the UK. I remember having a salsa lesson in Santiago de Cuba around 2006 when Jan – who happened to be there doing research on Cuba’s female musicians – stuck her face in between my dance partner and I with a loud ‘Hiya!’ Boundaries weren’t really her thing. We drove around town in old Cadillacs; back in the UK she interpreted the emails I got from a Cuban beau with humour, hilarity and occasional impatience. I remember traipsing up from Kings Cross weighed down with artwork to give to her Cuban beau; Jan was as demanding as I was.

    I spent two days with her at her beautiful home in Edinburgh a few weeks ago. She was vibrant, death-defying. Visitors were pouring through the front door. She was sorting her archives, reminding herself of her legacy, fully aware of how loved she was, and is. She gave me a brooch and a jet necklace, which I’m wearing now. We hugged and she kissed me on each cheek as I left.

    “What do we say?” I said, feeling teary. Jan was standing at her door.

    “Hasta luego,” she said. “And take care of yourself.”

    Jan was a one in a million.

  3. Daniela Rosselson De Armas Says:

    I have known Jan for over twenty years. I first got in contact with her in the 1980′s when I was researching for a PhD in Cuban Music. There were not that many academics I could turn to in those days and she was both encouraging and helpful. She continued to be so supportive of me during my career and various projects. I have so many memories of Jan over the years, in a personal in addition to a professional capacity. Our paths crossed many times in Cuba, London and Scotland and I will always remember her as an extremely strong, opinionated, energetic, positive, vibrant and fun person. I am so sorry and sad not to have seen her to say goodbye. I guess I thought Jan would go on forever! I will always remember her fondly.

  4. giuliana cesarini Says:

    I remember Jane in -el Portus- Cartagena, Spain, during la Mar de Musica Festival… we spend a so lovely time and conversation together and with my daughter Claudia and Alessandro. They too remember her. She was so kind woman, available to listen the friends, I will remember her.
    I am sad for her died, I hope she is with the angels… listening good music
    ariverderci Jane
    Giuliana Cesarini, from Spain

  5. Debbie Golt Says:

    I knew Jan for over 20 years. We met in the 80′s through the music of course tho I can’t remember when – it’s like she has always been there and now she isn’t. A big shift.
    As Jane says there were certainly moments, however we always found our way through! Jan said she was at peace and ready the last time I chatted with her. So hard … I did not get to see her this time … Jan used her strengths and determination generously. I have written and spoken this elsewhere (on my radio show etc) however I remember vividly how she championed Yusa at WOMEX – 2002 I think – inviting her to perform in her presentation on Cuban women and music even though Yusa wasn’t scheduled. And we found a modus vivendi to co-present very diversely different sessions segued into one as I agreed to/wanted to include her in mine after she was turned down by WOMEX 2006 for a session, and being Jan she was totally determined that she must be there. Hats off – it worked!
    And hats are the key – see her wonderful website http://www.janfairley.com and also her so honest blog at http://www.janfairley.wordpress.com where she shared so much and did her best to prepare us whilst continuting to contribute so much

    Jan’s archive is in about 3 places I think – the main part being at Cardiff School of Music at the University in a specially named room in her honour – The Jan Fairley Room!

    It would be brilliant to do a tribute to her at Cardiff next year as well as anything in 2012 and involve,highlight and draw upon that archive. I would be up for being part of that.

  6. Anthony Cummins Says:

    When I lived in Glasgow from 1980-1993 Jan Fairley’s “Earthbeat” was a regular weekly listen. In those days without iPods etc it was taped for listening in the car on cassette. Outside of Andy Kershaw then on BBC Radio 1 Jan’s was the only show opening ears to the beauty of sounds from Latin America. She was a trailblazer and I’m sure I echo the thoughts of many former Earthbeat listeners when I say to her (now grown up) children that their mum was someone special to many


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