Edinburgh Mela preview: Making a song and dance of expanding the Mela’s cultural horizons
IN broadening the international, multicutural flavour of the Edinburgh Mela, Chris Purnell hopes to extend its appeal to all the city’s communities
CHRIS PURNELL has spent the morning looking at spreadsheets. As the artistic director of a large festival run by a small team, such tasks are inevitable. But it’s when he pushes the balance sheets aside and starts talking about the artistic programming of this year’s Edinburgh Mela that Purnell’s face starts to light up. Suddenly it becomes clear why he would uproot his young family from their base in London and make the move to Scotland.
“It was a no-brainer,” he says with a smile. “I’d been involved with the London Mela for quite a few years, so was inspired by the general concept of the Mela. But the thing that was attractive to me was the word Edinburgh – because it’s the centre of the festival universe.
“The London Mela is very much driven by the music scene, whereas the Edinburgh Mela has a reputation for being a more multi-arts event. So I saw it as an opportunity to develop an already established event, and see how far we can develop it and create something really special.”
Ten months after he arrived in the city, Purnell has already made big changes to the festival, which has been running in the capital since 1995. The fundamentals remain the same – the Mela is still a celebration of black and minority ethnic cultures. But small tweaks to the festival layout signpost the way to interesting rumblings beneath the surface.
The former Garden Tent is no more, replaced by the Mix Tent, inside which you’ll find some forward-thinking DJs and performers. The Children’s Area is now the Kidzone, complete with a Viking longboat for storytelling and Around the World in 80 Minutes, a series of activity workshops exploring different nations and traditions.
“The kids area is really amazing this year,” says Purnell. “We’ve really tried to up our game with that, because if you give kids a fantastic experience, they remember it and grow up with it.”
Purnell’s most significant change so far is the brand new tent dedicated solely to dance. The World Dance Feste will house back-to-back dance events throughout the weekend, ranging from Chinese and Indian dance to breakdance. Performances include 9-2-5, a newly commissioned work by Glasgow-based Bright Night International which fuses parkour, contemporary and hip hop dance.
All of which feels a far cry from the perception that the Mela is purely an Indian music event. At the moment, Purnell is busy trying to run this year’s festival, but once it’s over, he’ll be out there talking to the Chinese, Polish and Brazilian communities (to name just some) in Edinburgh and beyond, with a view to making relationships for next year’s Mela.
“We’re pitching it as a festival of world music and dance, because we don’t want to focus on just one community,” says Purnell. “The Mela is the genuine community festival of Edinburgh, it isn’t just for one specific section of it. We have to be respectful of where the Mela comes from, but in order to survive it has to look outside itself and draw from all over the world.”
Striking a balance between local and international acts, and established and emerging artists, has been the main challenge for Purnell since he took up the post last November (or “hit the ground sprinting” as he puts it). So, alongside homegrown talent from Scotland and the UK, including highly acclaimed young sarod player Soumik Datta, Purnell has invited a Ghanaian drumming group, Nepalese folk instrumentalists and Brooklyn-based Bhangra/funk outfit Red Baraat.
In some ways, the Edinburgh Mela is like its big sister up the hill, the Fringe, giving young, exciting companies a chance to show their wares. Yet, like the International Festival, the Mela is curated, meaning that if you’re not at a certain standard, Purnell won’t let you in.
“As artistic director, I’ve got to have some kind of quality control, that’s important,” he says. “We’ve got limited resources, so we have to use them wisely. I try to be as objective as possible, but ultimately it’s an artistic decision.
“Our remit is to seek out young, developing arts organisations and groups, and to encourage that. But we also have to be pragmatic. We’re running a festival that we want people to come to, and if we have a programme made up entirely of unknowns, people are going to start thinking, what is this guy on? Our plan is to build a reputation for commissioning and encouraging new and exciting work.”
The word Mela comes from the Sanskrit “to meet”, and it is a sense of togetherness that Purnell is trying to get back to. Recalling the fêtes and parades of his childhood in Lancashire, he says: “I think that’s something we’ve lost in the UK in our busy lives, and we need to re-learn the art of coming together.” And where better than at a festival that combines diverse entertainment with great food, and, crucially, an entrance price of £3 for a day ticket, with under-12s completely free?
“It’s a cliché, but there really is something for everybody,” says Purnell. “And that’s important, because we bill ourselves as a family festival. You come along, pay three quid, and spend the day just hanging out with people. We like to think that it’s got that village fête feel to it, but with a really cool cutting edge artistic side.”
• Edinburgh Mela, Leith Links, tomorrow until 2 September. www.edinburgh-mela.co.uk
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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