Chris Purnell on the Edinburgh Mela
The Edinburgh Mela

The Edinburgh Mela is embracing and celebrating more cultures than ever before, director Chris Purnell tells David Pollock

The Edinburgh Mela

Perhaps the greatest hope of the organisers of this year’s 20th Edinburgh Mela is that lightning won’t strike twice. Or in this case, that unexpectedly ferocious winds surely won’t shut down the second day of the festival as they did last year. It was an unprecedented event and not something the organisers could have done much about, although they tried hard, but in the end it took the shine from what was not only a great family day out but one of Scotland’s most interesting and rapidly growing new arts festivals.

Since he became director of Edinburgh Mela in 2011, Chris Purnell has wanted to emphasise the artistic element of the event, with a particular focus on dance and on broadening the cultural horizons of the festival beyond its beginnings as a celebration of the city’s Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. This is particularly appropriate to Leith, an area in which high numbers of the city’s immigrant communities live.

“The ambition for the event is moving on apace,” says Purnell, “as evidenced by this year’s King of Ghosts project, which is a signature event for us and a major step up in terms of the quality and the reach that we want the organisation to have across Scotland.

“We see ourselves as an arts organisation with a year-round remit now, rather than just having to fill two or three days in August, and we have to make steps up in terms of the quality of the work we’re producing.”

Although the Mela has commissioned work before, The King of Ghosts is its most ambitious development to date. A collaboration between young British-Bengali sarod player Soumik Datta, percussionist Cormac Byrne and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Austrian co-composer and arranger Johannes Berauer, the piece will comprise various new musical sequences to accompany excerpts from the classic 1969 Indian arthouse film Gupi Gayen, Bagha Bayen.

“It’s a project I’ve had at the back of my mind for quite some time,” says Purnell, “it was just a question of who the players were going to be. I’ve followed the career of Soumik Datta for quite some time, he’s a sarod player who’s really paid his dues in terms of learning to play the instrument and then translated that into a younger, more contemporary style. He played my first Edinburgh Mela with his band in 2012.

“The addition of the film element adds another level of excitement,” he continues. “It’s not just a music performance, it’s a multimedia experience, and Gupi Gayen, Bagha Bayen is also just a very charming family-focused film, a very simple tale which is beautifully shot. It’s one of Satyajit Ray’s very finest films.”

As well as the traditional cultural groups which formed the Mela in 1995, this year’s edition will also reach out to more of the city’s communities than ever. “We’ve got work from Ukrainian artists, from Brazil, from all sorts of areas we’re bringing into the festival,” Purnell says. “Edinburgh has a significant Hispanic community, and with the Capicúa Flamenco piece we’re trying to engage with them and bring them into the Mela family. It’s important that diverse communities can express their ambition and see their work on an equal footing with that of other backgrounds.

“Our World Dance Feste strand is something I’m particularly excited about at the moment in terms of the quality of the work,” he says. “That’s my catchphrase this year – quality. Our reason for being is beyond dispute, so now it’s about placing the work we do right up there in the best traditions of the Edinburgh Festival in general.”

Under the Dance Feste banner, which is run in collaboration with Edinburgh’s Dancebase, Purnell also points to another exclusive commission as indicative of what they’re trying to do; this time a South Asian-influenced dance piece from Edinburgh-based choreographer and dancer Merav Israel, entitled From Here to There.

“I hadn’t spoken to her in a while,” says Purnell, “but when we started to discuss possible work it was with a focus on something that could again have a life beyond the Mela. It’s a simple piece based around the journeys we all make in our lives, the search for truth and identity and inner peace if you like, and also a fantastic opportunity to contemporise some classic Indian dance forms.”

The third commission is Capicúa Flamenco, a collaboration with Hispanic Arts Scotland, which sees Spanish flamenco dancers Carmen Ledesma, Rafael de Carmen, Mari Peña and Antonio Moya arrive in Scotland to present a new piece. The twentieth anniversary has also brought with it a loose “legends” theme, and few of the pop artists on the bill embody this more than Apache Indian; bhangra chart star of the 1990s, who hasn’t appeared in Scotland for a very long time.

Appearing elsewhere on the main stage is Cornell Campbell, a Jamaican reggae singer with what Purnell describes as “one of the most amazing falsetto voices in world music, he’s an amazing character and an amazing artist.”

Campbell will be backed by UK reggae group the Soothsayers, while other artists on the bill are dub DJ Gaudi and his beatboxer Danny Ladwa; ten-piece Cuban band Son Yambu and the Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan, a music troupe whose show involves dancers and fire eaters. Edinburgh rap outfit Northern Xposure and sometime Bhundu Boy Rise Kagona are also playing.

“We won’t be having a giant exploding birthday cake or anything,” laughs Purnell. “It’s about making the show as special and high quality as it has been, and consolidating what we’ve been doing year on year.

“We want it to be something people are excited to come down and see, and to keep it in the hearts and minds of the people of Edinburgh. It’s a people’s festival, after all, and a celebration of the city of Edinburgh.”

Edinburgh Mela is on Leith Links, 29-31 August. The King of Ghosts will be presented at the Mela on 29 August, then the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 5 September; Horsecross, Perth, 6 September; Eden Court, Inverness, 7 September. 

Originally published in The Scotsman

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