Edinburgh Mela Festival: Mela opens up a whole world to festival crowds

THE entrance gate to the Edinburgh Mela may be on Leith Links, but within an hour of entering the festival on Saturday afternoon, I’d been to China, Ghana, Nepal and India.

THE entrance gate to the Edinburgh Mela may be on Leith Links, but within an hour of entering the festival on Saturday afternoon, I’d been to China, Ghana, Nepal and India.

All it took was a short walk between two tents, and a little suspension of disbelief, to feel part of a whole different culture. And so the weekend continued.

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New artistic director, Chris Purnell, wants the Edinburgh Mela to grow – not just in size and scale, but artistically. Part of that vision means striking a balance between local and international talent, established and emerging artists.

Then creating the atmosphere of a village fête, where all of Scotland’s diverse communities can come together, against a backdrop of seriously good music, dance and song.

Well, if this weekend is anything to go by, Purnell is well on the way to achieving his wish. This year’s new arrival, the World Dance Feste, was a huge success. Packed to the rafters for most of the line-up, with Purnell’s first dance commission, 9-2-5, a particular hit.

Although a little protracted and clichéd in places, 9-2-5 generated enough energy to power the entire festival. A collaboration between Edinburgh’s Xena Productions and Glasgow’s Bright Night International, the work described a typical day, from bed to work to relaxation, fusing hip hop, contemporary and parkour. Crucially, it is a work that can engage and enthuse dance fans and newcomers alike.

The same could be said for Random Aspekts’ Rock-a-bye B-boy and Taxi!, by London-based Avant Garde Dance. Literally danced in front of, on top of and inside a black cab, this fun, lively piece depicted a day-in-the-life of a London taxi driver and his associated fares. Attracting big crowds at each performance, all three of these works proved that there is a real appetite for accessible dance that doesn’t dumb down.

Another challenge Purnell set himself, was to raise the game for young families, and Around the World in Eighty Minutes is certainly a step in the right direction. Too confined physically to cope with demand, the workshops on offer none the less struck exactly the right tone, blending global awareness with hands-on fun.

But of course, it’s music for which the Mela is best known, and if there was one thing you couldn’t escape from all weekend (nor would you want to) it was rhythm.

No matter where on the Links you stood, a beat pulsed through you. As with most music shows, when it was performed live, it soared – Ghanaian drummers Kakatsitsi, superb Nepalese folk band, Kutumba, innovative London-based sarod virtuoso Soumik Datta, emotive Qawali musician Salim Sabri, and the intoxicating Arabic songs of Mohammed Nafae and the talented Babylon Band. Watching ‘pop princess’ Eylem, who had neither a backing band nor a strong dance move to her name, was less inspiring.

As expected, British bhangra star Jassi Sidhu and his infectious beats closed Saturday night in fine style, to a hands-in-the-air crowd (although the sound quality could have been sharper). While nine-piece New York band, Red Baraat raised the canvas roof on Sunday night, with a funked up horn section that rivalled the Festival fireworks up the hill for explosive quality.

All the while, Purnell’s village fete fantasy became a reality, with an unquantifiable number of communities coming together under sunny skies.