Obituary: Jan Fairley, writer, broadcaster, lecturer.

Jan Fairley
Jan Fairley
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Born: 16 March, 1949. Died: 9 June, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 63.

Jan Fairley was a writer, broadcaster, ethnomusicologist, lecturer, DJ and singer, among other things.

On her website she liked to illustrate the different strands of her life and career via photographs of her wearing a series of hats – from a balaclava bought in Chile while recording a BBC documentary about the 30th anniversary of the 1973 coup d’etat, to a straw hat from Oxfam in Morningside, Edinburgh, where she lived for many years.

She died, peacefully and surrounded by family, on Saturday morning, aged 63.

Fairley’s various hats were a neat and typically expressive way of making sense of a long, multi-faceted professional life that took her all over the world and, in particular, to South America. From 1971 to 1973 she was a teacher in Chile; after the coup she returned to the UK to do an M.Phil in Latin American Studies at Oxford University, followed by a PhD in ethnomusicology at Edinburgh University.

She continued to write academically about Latin American music, culture and politics, and later became a respected world music journalist, contributing to the music magazines fRoots and Songlines, The Scotsman (for which she also reviewed classical music) and The Rough Guide To World Music (as well as Rough Guides to Andalucia, Chile and Bolivia).

She also produced and presented radio programmes, including, from 1990 to 1994, a weekly Radio Scotland show called Earthbeat.

Over the years, she interviewed international music stars including Youssou N’Dour, Papa Wemba, Miriam Makeba, Cesaria Evora, Omara Portuondo, and Taraf De Haidouks.

Many of the musicians she met professionally became firm friends, won over by this effervescent, passionate woman who was a keen musician herself.

Fairley sang from an early age, and tried her hand at everything from light opera to sacred music; in her later years, she sang with an all-female a cappella barbershop group called the Forth Valley Chorus, and was proud of their UK and Netherlands region gold medal victory in 2009. She danced too – tango, salsa and ballroom.

One of Fairley’s notable career achievements was her directorship, from 1995 to 1997, of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and she interviewed numerous authors too, including Isabel Allende, Doris Lessing and Bernardo Atxaga.

But her favourite Edinburgh festival experience, she said, was one where she had the opportunity to indulge another passion, acting, playing Queen Elizabeth in Theatrum Botanicum’s award-winning Fringe show The Spice Trail, directed by Fringe regular Toby Gough and performed mostly by a cast of actors and dancers from India. “Many people thought Queen Elizabeth was a man in drag, exactly what was intended,” she later wrote. “It was my best festival ever.”

In 2004, Fairley endured a series of operations for breast cancer, but her energy and enthusiasm for her work, and life, was undimmed. That same year she became a judge in Radio 3’s World Music Awards. The following year she travelled to Cuba to interview dozens of female musicians, part of her research for a book on Cuban women and music.

For a while, Fairley appeared to be recovering, but sadly the cancer spread to her colon, and in early 2012 came the shock news that she had only weeks to live. She dealt with this in a typically positive way – by sending an upbeat invitation to friends and colleagues to visit and say goodbye, and by staying busy. She continued to work on her Cuba book, wrote liner notes for a Beginner’s Guide to Flamenco CD, sang for hours with friends, and still found time to write long, regular blogs about music, family, dancing and life in general.

Her final blog, posted on 15 May, was typical in its tone. Titled “Sunny Side Up”, it pays warm tribute to her children, makes light of her illness (she referred to her cancer as the “hard little buggers”), and ends with the vow: “Do not leave till tomorrow what you can do today.”

She is survived by her sister Mary, her brother Rod, three children, Rachel, Tom and Fran, and two grandchildren.