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OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival: Shenzhen, China, October 8-23, 2012

OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival: Shenzhen, China, October 8-23, 2012
Ian Patterson By

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OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival
Shenzhen, China
October 8-23, 2012
The OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival, in Shenzhen, Gaungdong Province, is one of the youngest jazz festivals in China, yet in just two editions it has already established itself as one of the best. Financially, it can't compete with the Shanghai Jazz Festival, which for its 2012 edition attracted renowned jazz artists such as bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Chris Potter and the Yellowjackets. Nevertheless, the quality of the music at the OLJF is not only high, but refreshingly eclectic, and the programming adventurous. Furthermore, in its aim to promote jazz and educate the Chinese public about jazz's history and its protagonists, as well as the current issues that influence and shape the music, the OLJF is perhaps unique among festivals, not only in China, but throughout Asia.

Just a few short years ago there were no jazz festivals in China. Suddenly, however, they seem to be popping up all over the place. Southern China in particular is home to at least eight festivals, all of which have started up inside the last three or four years—though outside of Beijing and Shanghai, there's not much in the way of a jazz scene.

Even Hong Kong-which hosted the fourth Hong Kong International Jazz Festival in October-comes up short according to Ng Cheuk Yin Sheng, player and founder of one of China's most original and progressive bands, the Hong Kong-based SIU2: "Around the world there is dance music, progressive music, house-there are different scenes," he says, "but in Hong Kong we don't have such a thing as a scene in any kind of music." So, why then the sudden appearance of so many jazz festivals in China?

Unlike in Europe and America, where funding for the arts has been severely reduced in recent years from both state and private sources, it seems that in China, sponsors not only have the money to support jazz festivals, but see the marketable potential in a country of 1.3 billion people (20% of the world's population) whose youth are hungry for music so long denied them.

The growth of the economy and rise of the great Chinese megacities is one of the great stories of our times, and Shenzhen is a case in point.

Riding in the passenger seat, enjoying a sight-seeing tour of the city, guided by Fei Teng, [below, left] co-curator of the OLJF along with Fei Tu [below, right], who, whilst no relation, is most certainly a kindred spirit—skyscrapers stretch endlessly every which way you look. Five-lane highways dissect the city. The architecture is modern and often striking. A mass of giant cranes perch atop countless buildings, highlighted against the skyline like a flock of predators from a Jules Verne work of fiction, waiting to swoop. The scale is dramatic. "This was all rice fields thirty years ago," Fei Teng states as a matter of fact.


It's unbelievable, but true. As late as the 1970s, Shenzhen was a town of 30,000 people, farmers mostly, who tended the surrounding rice paddies. Then, in 1979, Shenzhen was declared a Special Economic Zone, due to its strategic position on the coast, just an hour from Hong Kong. Massive Chinese and foreign investment followed. As an experiment in state-controlled capitalism, it has been a resounding success.

A little more than 30 years later, Shenzhen is one of the biggest cities in the Pearl River delta, with an official population of over 10 million people. I was told that this figure is probably very conservative, as there are said to be over 50 million registered mobile phone numbers in Shenzhen. Fei Teng laughs at my incredulity: "Fifty houses are built every day here," he says.

Shenzhen has the world's fourth-busiest container port after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, and is one of the largest manufacturing centers in the world. It's the new China personified-growing at a dizzying speed, high-tech, dynamic and positive. It's also surprisingly green. There are plenty of parks. Trees and flowering bushes line the roads and a veritable army is employed in keeping the streets clean, trimming and pruning the greenery. Motorbikes are banned. Even in the most built-up residential areas, trees hold their own.

The two Fei's used to run a popular blues bar downtown, but the landlord, sensing a killing, bumped up the rent, thereby guaranteeing a different kind of killing- a terminal one for the venue. The privately sponsored OLJF, thankfully, looks like it has legs to run. The festival team is dedicated, the program is musically stimulating, and the venue is idyllic.

OCT stands for Overseas Chinese Town, a thriving economic and cultural zone of Shenzhen, built by returning overseas Chinese in the wake of Den Xiaping's economic reforms. The LOFT is a leafy artistic hub, a neighborhood of interior design studios, art galleries, artists' studios, and art dealers. It's a pedestrian area with plenty of chic terrace cafés and restaurants serving local and regional food. Old Communist-era warehouses and factory-shops have been converted into art spaces, non-profit galleries and a museum. Art, it seems, is everywhere; striking sculptures inhabit the area and many of the buildings' facades have been given a huge face-lift with ingenious paintings, both abstract and nature-inspired. A weekend market sees dozen of stalls selling all manner of hand-crafted art (Western kitsch is popular) from jewelry to individually designed t-shirts, and from mini-guitars to framed pictures of Communist-era art/magazine covers.

It's a thoroughly relaxing and equally inspiring location, as many of the musicians from the first edition of the festival observed: "We still have e-mail contact with many of the musicians from the first OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival," says Tu Fei, "and their enthusiasm for the festival, for the place, gave us the energy to go for number two."

Having spoken with a number of musicians who played the first edition of OLJF, I can vouch that their experience of the festival was unanimously positive. Singer Simin Tander played the inaugural festival as part of a larger tour of China and she observed: "Performing at the OLJF was definitely one of the, or perhaps the highlight of our China Tour. The festival is run by extraordinarily dedicated people with a clear and open-minded vision of what kind of jazz festival they aim to make-a high quality and creative festival in a beautiful and inspiring environment. The young audience was fantastic-really interested in the music and very enthusiastic. Besides this, everything was perfectly organized which made the stay even more wonderful. The OLJF is a special one; it is a place for cultural exchanges and encounters- I hope to be back soon."

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and his band Gatecrash also played the first edition of OLIJF and he is equally effusive in his praise: "It was a marvelous experience, the venue was exciting and the audience was receptive. I had no idea it would be so much fun. For us it's still exotic to perform in China but the Shenzhen organization, small and energetic, made us feel most welcome."

Little wonder then that the organizers feel they're on the right track. The first edition of the OLJF was 12 days long, with two bands performing each evening, and whilst the musical format has remained largely the same, OLJF 2012 has grown from 12 days to 16. The 2012 edition saw a number of gigs played simultaneously, in the main concert hall and just across the way in the comfy surrounds of the Old Heaven Bookstore, which doubles as a funky record and CD shop and a charming café to boot.

Without a doubt, however, the most significant change from the first edition has been the introduction of a series of talks related to all things jazz. There were talks given by Chinese speakers on eight days, with subjects covering the blues, jazz appreciation, independent European jazz labels, a history of Taiwanese jazz from swing to contemporary improvisation, European improvised music, the last 30 years of Chinese jazz, and the pseudo-exoticism of jazz.


As a representative of All About Jazz, the author's talk entitled "Death, Rebirth and the New Revolution: Trends in Jazz in the Last Quarter of a Century" drew a brave crowd prepared to sit through a 2-hour talk in English, translated step-by-step into Chinese. To be honest, two hours-longer than a football match or a movie-was way too long for any of the talks—for the audience, translator and speaker alike. Towards the end I felt a little like Fidel Castro with the bit between his teeth, haranguing a crowd unable to leave. Feedback from the audiences for all the talks was, however, overwhelmingly positive and it's to be hoped that this educational side to the OLJF will continue, though perhaps in a shorter format.

The music staged at the OLJF covered a very broad range, as is almost the norm at jazz festivals these days. The organizers, however, deserve credit for the adventurous nature of the program, given that the Shenzhen audience is relatively new to jazz/improvised music of this nature. The reason for the festival's length, and the fact that there were just two bands playing concise, one-hour sets, was done so as not to bombard the audience with too much of a good thing, as Fei Teng explained: "We want to ease the audience slowly into jazz music."

That said, the first concert of OLJF 2012-a Norwegian double bill of pop-electronic duo Streifenjunko and guitarist Kim Myhr-was a statement that the OLJF is committed to promoting modern, creative music, and there's arguably nowhere more creative than Norway these days. Streifenjunko is trumpeter Eivind Lønning and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen Lønning, a long-standing duo whose work orbits the improvisation scene in Norway. The venue was Old Heaven Bookstore, an intimate setting which seemed more attuned to poetry readings, but the advantage of the limited, closely packed seating was that the audience observed an almost church-like reverence during the captivating one-hour performance.


Guitarist Kim Myhr is not your typical one-man-and-acoustic-guitar act, and his furiously hypnotic wall-of-sound opening certainly made an impact on the audience. Grace, a 19-year-old student said afterwards: "I have never listened to music like that before. It was very powerful; also frightening at times." Whilst full of respect for jazz tradition-and there was plenty of classical/mainstream jazz in the program-the curators' stated intention with OLJF is to seek innovation in the artists they book, so "powerful" and "frightening" are just about on the nose.

Myhr, who had already performed in Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Hangzhou and Guangzhou, before completing his tour in Kunming, was impressed by the audience in Old Heaven Bookstore: "It was a great gig. The room was full and the audience seemed receptive to the music. They seem open to different things." At OLJF 2011, the Norwegian trio In The Country performed, and in addition to Streifenjunko and Myhr, OLJF 2012 also presented MonkeyBar, a duo of Steinar Nickelsen on keyboards/vocals and Erik Nylander on drum machine who improvised around pop and techno beats. OLJF has not wasted any time in introducing its audience to an exciting cross-section of Norway's abundant musical talent.

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