Festival review: Edinburgh Mela

Members of Circus Raj at the 2017 Edinburgh Mela PIC: Jon Savage
Members of Circus Raj at the 2017 Edinburgh Mela PIC: Jon Savage
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After a difficult 18 months,­ ­during which its artistic ­director resigned and its core funding was pulled, the ­Edinburgh Mela has risen like a phoenix from the ashes – albeit with slightly less ­plumage. Former director Chris ­Purnell’s ambitious plans are a distant memory, with three live stages reduced to one, and no commissioned programming on the bill. Instead, this popular and undeniably vital event in the Edinburgh calendar has gone back to its roots. The word mela means “meeting”, and that aspect was alive and well in this new, scaled-down ­version, with thousands of people from different cultural backgrounds rubbing ­shoulders on Leith Links.

Edinburgh Mela ***

Leith Links, Edinburgh

With more than six hours of stage time to fill on each of the two days, new festival director Grant Williams has looked to the Edinburgh and Glasgow communities for much of it. Amateur dance groups and local musicians performed a myriad of styles, from ­African, Chinese and Indian to songs from across the Arab nations, while India ­Flamenco, a cleverly choreographed trio, seamlessly blended flamenco, ­belly dancing and classical ­Indian dance.

Inevitably, some acts arrived with more skill and polish than others, but that only served to give this year’s Mela a genuine ­community feel. When there is no entrance fee, and you’re encouraged to join in and have fun, you ­happily take what you’re given (and try to ignore the countless technical issues).

That said, Williams’ ­programming also ­featured some stand-out musicianship and vocal talent. Edinburgh-based R&B singer Khalid Al Khajah and guitarist ­Daniel Abrahams had only each other for company on stage, but Al Khajah’s gorgeous soul voice deserves a few more listens on Soundcloud.

Backed by a strong four-piece band, Sher Yar Khan told us it didn’t matter if not everyone could understand the Punjabi vocals in his rock/Indian crossover – all the songs were about love. When asked the secret of his success, he said “practise every day and sing from the heart” – the result of both clearly evident in his ­performance.

Orkestra Del Sol took the crowd by storm, as only a nine-piece, horn-heavy band can. Quirky and mischievous, with talent to spare, the band has its Eastern European/jazz/brass fusion so finely honed it seems criminal they are soon to cease playing forever. Other highlights included 22-year-old Rameet Sandhu, who recently signed with Bollywood’s biggest record label, and the seasoned polish of Punjabi singer Sona Walia – both of whom had the jubilant crowd on its feet.