Obituary: Jan Fairley - Writer, broadcaster, academic and ethnomusicologist
- Toby Gough
- 25 June 2012
World music writer and champion of human rights
Jan Fairley was an amazing woman.
She was an exceptional writer, broadcaster, academic, festival director, champion and defender of human rights, maker-of-pilgrimages, loving mother and grandmother, devoted to her hens.
Jan was an ethnomusicologist -- an expert in the music of Spain, Chile, Venezuela, and Cuba -- and the preeminent music journalist responsible for introducing and explaining the music of Latin America and the Hispanic world to new listeners and readers. She was very proud of being the first female Latin music DJ in Scotland. Above all, she loved to dance and sing.
She was fearless, passionate, inspiring, never afraid to speak her mind, always showing great humour and wisdom. She was a great friend to so many, with a huge heart and a very, very good soul. I urge all those who haven't yet met her to find Jan on her blog and enjoy her wit and wisdom there.
Jan quite literally brimmed over with life and imprinted herself so forcefully on our universe that her influence, advice and example will forever be a part of us.
Jan championed causes, standing upon Antony Gormley's plinth in Trafalgar Square - dressed in a home-made cape, like a super hero - to speak out for those who had politically "disappeared" in Chile.
She kept in touch with forgotten people who had been abandoned by the rest of the world.
She was rightfully proud of her loving family.
I watched that family grow up over the years; Jan would come down to watch the promenade productions in the Royal Botanic Garden, Rachel, Tom and Fran traipsing behind her through the undergrowth, Jan's smile and infectious enthusiasm beaming through the rain. She was very proud of performing in two of the productions: The Spice Trail, with performers from Tanusree Shankar's Company, and Finding Marina, with child survivors of the tsunami and former child soldiers from Sri Lanka. She was always unforgettably, madly brilliant.
In The Spice Trail she played Queen Elizabeth sending Francis Drake off to discover nutmeg, and Queen Victoria extolling the virtues of curry. As a performer, Jan was utterly devoted and passionate to her character and was always fearless and committed to baring all, in every way. Jan wandered through the rhododendrons singing exquisite madrigals, and as she got more into the character-in-question she became adamant about performing topless, which I didn't allow due to our conservative cast and audience members from India and Bangladesh. I regret this now, but Jan would later get her wish when she performed naked in the award winning Trilogy at St Stephen's Church and The Arches in Glasgow, the liberating experience she was searching for.
Jan loved Cuba with a rare passion and always generously supported the Cuban productions we brought over to Edinburgh for the festival. In Cuba, she introduced me to the Morales brothers, who made for our Cuban dance production Lady Salsa radiantly colourful eight-foot papier mache sculptures of the Afro-Cuban Orishas, or gods. We stored these in Jan's house where they were hung from her ceiling, and as you entered Jan's house, Oshun - goddess of love - would gaze down upon you, and rightfully so. Jan herself likewise radiated that sense of comfort and love, always positive.
There is, in her garden, a small house dedicated to Yemaya, Orisha of the sea, and in this way Jan stayed connected to Cuba, an island she dearly loved and home to many who dearly loved her in return. I watched the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club - Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzales, and Juan de Marcos - meeting Jan as if meeting a long lost sister. Recently on tour with the Buena Vista show, I phoned and asked Jan what song they should play for her. She replied "Nothing sad...something funny, sexy, full of life..."
Jan prepared for her passing in a remarkable way, inviting friends and family to join her in her wonderful house for farewell tea parties, listening, as always, to incredible music.
She told me a story of fearing that when she went to meet St Peter at the Pearly Gates, she would say "Can you put me in the part of Heaven with the Cuban musicians Ibrahim and Compay? And St Peter would look down at his list and reply "Um...Jan Fairley... No, you have to be with the journalists and the roadies."
"But St Peter!" she would say in return, "I am here to sing!"
You see, Jan never wanted to merely watch and observe. Jan wanted to play a part, to feast on life, to savour every moment, to live each day to the full, to sing with all her heart in this world that gave her so much joy.
And I know she's singing now her part in a magnificent band of legendary musicians, together all in a concert of exquisite music, eternity with clave, and life.