On song, out of steppes

Jon Campbell

Beijing's jazz scene seems to work much like its politics. Zhang Fan, dean of the Midi School of Music and organiser of the school's annual rock festival, explains how he and a group of musicians organised this weekend's Midi Jazz Festival: 'We put together a committee.'

Now five years old, the music festival has become an institution, although there was a hiccup last May, when authorities denied the school a permit (a scaled-down version was held in October).

But with the decision to go with jazz this year, the festival has a lot more to offer. 'Beijing hasn't had a jazz festival for three years, so we thought we needed to do something,' Zhang says. 'You don't need a huge sponsor or to invite a lot of overseas artists. Beijing has a lot of talent.'

The two-day, 16-band festival will mainly feature locally based performers, many of whom are current and former teachers at the school. Coming from furthest afield is Saadet Turkoz, a Kazakh singer born in Turkey and now based in Zurich. Turkoz will perform with Beijing-based folk band Iz, who are led by Kazakh-Chinese Mamuer Rayeskan. The festival marks the collaboration's fourth performance in China, after shows in Beijing and Shanghai.

Iz have attracted attention with their take on traditional Kazakh music. Turkoz has been having a similar effect in Europe with her combination of Turkish and Kazakh folk traditions, incorporating improvised and jazz music.

'I like [Iz] very much,' Turkoz says. 'When I got their CD I listened to it over and over again. It was like being out on the steppes. It's meditative music; trance music. I was surprised that Chinese people could play this music. It's beautiful.'

Born in Istanbul to Kazakh parents, who fled to Xinjiang in the 1930s, Turkoz initially studied to be a Koran teacher because she was fascinated by the way the text was chanted. 'It's an accident that I ended up a singer,' she says. 'I thought you couldn't be a musician without going to music school.'

Turkoz's main influences were the elders of the close-knit Kazakh community in which she was raised, and musicians in the jazz and improvised music scene that she discovered in Switzerland, where she moved at the age of 20. The music she creates from this background is simultaneously traditional and avant garde.

'I seek to evoke pictures and an atmosphere by means of voice and music,' she says. And even if you can't understand what she's singing, it's easy to be transported to the Istanbul of her youth and the homeland that she briefly visited (after spending 40 years hearing and singing about it). 'The community shares their memories. It's what you do when you don't have much else.'

At the group's debut performance at the Dashanzi International Art Festival in Beijing, Turkoz and Iz impressed a crowd sprinkled with Kazakhs.

'This isn't just entertainment. It's much more,' she says. 'At the moment, you're one world together. This feeling is so important to me.'

Midi School of Music Jazz Festival, Sat-Sun, 2pm-11pm, 12A Ruiwangfu, Haidian district, Beijing, 20 yuan. Saadet Turkoz and Iz, 4pm, Sat. Inquiries: (86 10) 8259 8239