Beishan International Jazz Festival Beishan Theater Nanping Town, Zhuhai, China 10-20 October, 2012
Jazz festivals occupy some fairly far-flung, diverse, and oftentimes dramatic settings; from the Polar North to the volcanic mountains of East Java, from medieval European towns to the great urban metropolises of North America, from tropical Thai islands to luxury cruise ships, from Borneo to Central America and all places in between. But a jazz festival in a 200-year-old Chinese theatre and temple complex dating from the Qing dynasty-the last of the great imperial dynasties before the foundation of the Chinese Republic-is a first.
The Beishan International Jazz Festival in Zhuhai was actually celebrating its third edition, and judging by the packed house and vibrant, enthusiastic crowds on each of the two nights, it's clear that jazz in this part of the world is resonating greatly with a young, music-hungry audience.
The Beishan International Jazz Festival is the brainchild of artists and music-loving brothers Simone and Justine Xue. With the profits from their English school of many years standing, the Xue brothers purchsed the dilapidated theater and adjacent temple buildings and set about restoring them: "We bought the theater and temple six years ago," says Festival Curator Simone, "but we weren't sure exactly what to do with it. We knew we wanted to do something, and a few years ago, we thought, yeah, a jazz festival," he says with a mischievous grin.
The idea of a jazz festival in a city all but devoid of jazz might have raised a few eyebrows at the time, but in just three years the Beishan International jazz Festival has established itself as an essential date in Zhuhai's cultural calendar, one of the best jazz festivals-and their numbers are growing-in southern China.
Situated on the southwestern estuary of the Pearl River, the city of Zhuhai is just a 50-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong to the east. To the south, Zhuhai borders Macau, and with Jiangmen to the west and Zhongshan to the south, this modern city of 1.5 million people is a tourism and transportation hub. Having won national and international awards for its sound environmental policies, the city boasts 300 kilometers of bicycle lanes. Green, spacious, famous for its oysters and flanked by mountains, Zhuhai has a lot going for it, and the Xue brothers were confident that a jazz festival would work.
From an artistic point of view the BIJF set the bar high from the get-go, with an ambitious program that refused to underestimate a young audience largely unfamiliar with jazz. In its first two editions, the BIJF brought bands from Norway, Canada, France, Holland, the USA, Australia, Malaysia and China. Norwegian bassist Steinar Raknes
all wowed the festival crowd in the first two editions.
The BIJF strikes a balance between tradition and experimentation, and this was most evident during this year's festival. Jazz was represented in many of its guises, from big band swing to a set of jazz standards, from bebop and hard-bop to jazz-funk, and from beat-box to experimental rock.
The Xue brothers, however, had a much broader vision, and a sister festival, the Beishan World Music Festival was successfully launched in 2011, with a similarly eclectic, open-minded program. The venue, Beishan Hall, was part of the original temple site of Nannping village, and the brothers want to make it once again a focal point of the community. The narrow, bustling streets of the surrounding village are home to tea shops with their Mahjong tables, dumpling vendors, butchers, barber shops and the local market. Courtyards standing off the winding lanes are framed by the brick-wood houses of the villagers whose ancestors have walked these same lanes for 700 years. It's a glimpse into a rapidly disappearing China, as voracious urbanization levels the old, two- and three-story shop-houses and in their place erects forests of skyscrapers to house a burgeoning immigrant population.
The BIJF is part of a project labeled the Beishan East-West Cultural Hub, aimed at providing access to the arts, entertainment, and educational training, as well as boosting trade and tourism. As such, since 2009 the remodeled Beishan Hall has become a center for art exhibitions, business conventions, and of course, the jazz and world music festivals.
The exterior stone walls house the hall, an inner courtyard and several temples; the temple of the Medicine King, the temple of Kang Zhen Monarch and the Cai Bo temple-all in all, 1000 square meters of cold stone floor and impressive columns climbing to wooden-beamed ceilings. Ceremonial bells, ornate gas lamps and red paper lanterns, high-arched doorways and hanging drapes covered in striking Chinese calligraphy, make for a marvelously atmospheric setting.