The Beishan Music Festival is the brainchild of artist and educator, Simone Xue, and his music-loving French friend, Jean-Jacques Verdun. “My brother and I bought the dilapidated theatre and adjacent temple buildings eight years ago, but we weren't sure exactly what to do with it. We knew we wanted to do something, and a few years later over a few cups of coffee with JJ, we thought, yeah, a music festival!" Simone says with a 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 five years the Beishan International Jazz Festival has established itself as an essential date on Zhuhai's cultural calendar; one of the best jazz festivals and the numbers are still growing in southern China.
Situated on the south-western estuary of the Pearl River, the city of Zhuhai is just a 50 minute ferry ride from Hong Kong to the east. Within 2 hours driving distance from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Jiangmen, Dongguan, and Zhongshan 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 km of bicycle lanes. Green, spacious, famous for its oysters, legends of romance, world record aquarium, clean air 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 programme that refused to underestimate a young audience largely unfamiliar with jazz. In its previous editions, BIJF brought bands from America, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Cuba, Denmark, Ghana, Guinea France, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Korea, Malaysia, Netherlands, Nepal, Norway, Serbia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and all wowed the crowds.
BIJF strikes a balance between tradition and experimentation, and this was most evident during last 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, Beishan World Music Festival was successfully launched in 2011, with a similarly eclectic, open-minded programme.
The venue, Beishan Theatre, was part of the original temple site of Beishan Village. Hosting music festivals here had made it once again a focal point of the community. The narrow, bustling streets of the surrounding villages are home to tea shops, Mah-jong parlours, dumpling vendors, butchers, barber shops and wet markets. 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 old 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 migrant population. It’s a perfect place where east meets west and a stunning blend of old and new.
[Partly adapted from Ian Patterson’s article published on allaboutjazz.com in 2012. Available at: http://www.allaboutjazz.com/beishan-international-jazz-festival-china-19-20-october-2012-by-ian-patterson.php?&pg=2#.VA6GglN0F0o]