A Melting Pot Of Sounds – Pelin Opcin talks about the EFG London Jazz Festival

Alyn Shipton spoke to Pelin Opcin, the EFG London Jazz Festival's new head of programming, about the themes of openness, diversity and global awareness she's bringing to this year's event

Following John Cumming as director of the EFG London Jazz Festival – well, those are big shoes to step into," says Pelin Opcin (pictured above left), the new head of programming. "I'm not naïve enough to think I can do what he's done in terms of the London, UK and international scenes, but after 13 years running the Istanbul Jazz Festival, I think bringing my attitude, my contacts and my musical relationships to London could be good."

Ticking off the challenges: getting to know the UK jazz world better; coming to terms with a huge, intricately organised festival that runs across many different types of venue compared to the looser, more spontaneous feel of Istanbul; and continuing to reach out to the wider market beyond the most dedicated jazz fans, Pelin is anything but naïve. She recognises that she's coming into both a supportive team, and a festival that was at least partly-planned when she arrived (as is the way with big international events with stars' diaries juggled years ahead), but she is determined to bring in her own brand of creativity and imagination.

"2018 is a landmark year," she points out. "It's the centenary of the WWI armistice, and the 70th year since the Empire Windrush brought its first thousand passengers from the West Indies. So we've events to reflect these two significant anniversaries, but also we want to reflect the current atmosphere in the jazz world, the things everyone is thinking about. For example, at the European Jazz Network conference in Lisbon in September, it adopted a manifesto to put womens' role in jazz at the forefront. It's a reminder to all of us, but in London it's continuing work that the Festival has already been doing over the last decade: to reflect women's position in society. So this, and another aspect of the London Festival, which is to portray both Britain's cultural diversity, and that of the global jazz scene, are things that should not even need to be discussed but done out of necessity!"

That cultural diversity is on show with an opening night concert at King's Place by Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and his Rivers of Sound Orchestra, which merges jazz with middle-eastern microtonal scales, the Arabic 'maqam' modes. "I was proud to host him in Istanbul," recalls Pelin, "but this is his UK premiere, and I think people will be blown away by his fantastic integration of styles into a large 17-piece ensemble. Equally, a week later in the same venue on 24 November, Ian Shaw will present the Citizens of the World Choir, singers drawn from refugees, asylum seekers, volunteers and campaigners, many of whom Shaw met when he was working in the refugee camps in Northern France. These concerts show the arts as a great exemplar of peaceful co-operation. Personally, I think the arts get nourished in times of crisis. Artists reflect what's happening around them, and we can provide a platform for a great collection of musicians to comment on what's going on in the world, whether it's the current political climate, or even the growing problem with the visa situation for musicians coming to work here in London.

"This is something I learned in Istanbul. When the Taksim Square protests and the attempted coup of 2016 happened, we kept going, and as it turned out we were presenting the EST Symphony in memory of Esbjörn Svensson, and it became a concert to commemorate not just him, but also those who lost their lives in Taksim Square."

So, I ask if the Windrush concert is to draw attention to the plight of those people in the news recently whose UK citizenship has not been properly recognised by this country? "Of course that theme is present, but we see this as a positive agenda, a celebration of the members of society whose families or forbears arrived on the Windrush, It's been a bittersweet experience for many, but what we want to underline is their absolutely huge contribution to society and particularly to music.

"Anthony Joseph (above centre) came up with the idea, and I'm pleased to say it's developed into a series of events that go way beyond the festival with literature, films, poetry and discussions kicking off in mid-October and leading up to our Barbican concert on 17 November, with a new suite by Jason Yarde, plus the poet Brother Resistance, and the calypso artists Mighty Sparrow and Calypso Rose. And we're also screening the film 1,000 Londoners at the Barbican that afternoon, and holding discussions with director Rachel Wang, and some of the people featured in the film."

The Caribbean is not the only part of the world to be featured, as there's a strong South African focus. Hugh Masekela (above right) is being remembered at the Festival Hall, with musicians from his last regular band, plus Oliver Mtukudzi and Sibongile Kumalo. And if that great South African singer wasn't enough, Miriam Makeba is being celebrated by the Royal Academy of Music at a free show in the Clore Ballroom. The Festival also hosts the final of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the year with Monty Alexander chairing the judges. Truly an impressive start for the festival's new director!

For more info visit www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

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