The World on Your Doorstep

Posted by in August's Magazine

Chris is right on schedule for our interview, I’m stuffing a hangover cure of ham hock terrine and fishcake down my throat with two similarly disorientated Texans. I make my apologies through stale lager soaked breath and, you know what, he couldn’t be more charming. Mr Purnell, new director of Edinburgh’s Mela Festival, says: “finish your food with your friends, I’ll wait.” Disarming.

We eventually repair to the quietude of the Isobar Lounge due to the inability of my Dictaphone to pick up anything that isn’t as loud as the speed of sound. And I ask if the Mela surfacing in Leith was happenstance.



“Edinburgh is actually one of the oldest Melas, it began at Meadowbank in 1995, before migrating to Pilrig Park and Ocean Terminal, finally settling in Leith Links. Leith is, for me, a breath of fresh air, I’m from outside Liverpool so I like places with a gritty history that have reinvented themselves. The location definitely appealed when I applied.”

Chris began his journey, appropriately, at Paradise Gardens, a smorgasbord of music, pyrotechnic theatre, art and world food…so moving on to London Mela was a natural fit. Boris Johnson and his cronies cut his funding by 60%, which he fairly describes as ‘disappointing’, so he had to find his own funding schemes. The success of that project was no doubt appealing to Edinburgh. Why was Edinburgh appealing to him?

“Well the Mela is now an official part of Edinburgh Festival(s), which was a crucial decision, I also think ours is the most community orientated and accessible to people on an ordinary income. Some people perceive the International Festival as elitist and expensive, but, like them, we can bring stuff from all over the world.”

“I was recently invited to Korea to see some stuff, they were paying, which is a big factor, I can’t go gallivanting around the world at the expense of the Mela. This year we have Kutumba, who are like the U2 of Nepal (he laughs uproariously), we are bringing them over and accommodating them, but they have generously waived their fee, or we couldn’t have afforded them.”

At this point one David Barnes – popular co-mine host of the Isobar, interrupts us. None of you will be the slightest surprised to know he has lost his wallet. Chris talks of the funding from Scottish Government Expo, which has allowed him to initiate a new Dance Feste strand as well as ‘his gift’ (my words) to us, an incendiary take on the story of Rama & Sita – a ‘big noise’ (his words) that is free to you and yours on the Friday night. Whilst Mr Barnes sticks his hand down a variety of sofas, I ask Chris what else we can expect…

“Well funding has allowed us to commission new work from contemporary dance artists like Adura Onashile. We’ve reinvented the mix tent, there will be beatboxers, breakdancers and hip-hop and, early on, some mellow folk. I’m looking forward to Mirza, DJ P45 and our new collaboration with Bright Night International as well as the classical and traditional stuff.”

And for the future?

“I want the Mela to feed the imagination, as well as being a great big family party. It has to look outwards not inwards, remain vibrant and relevant, bring communities together. It should not be mono-cultural, though it was inspired and founded by the Asian community and we have to keep that close to our hearts.”

When we parted, Chris asked me to be kind, it would be difficult not to be, he is an engaging fellow and his festival – affordable to all – emblazoned with colour and good nature is choc full of innovative, imaginative and classically traditional work. As autumn closes in on Leith Links this weekend, the grand total of £3 will entitle you to a last burst of glorious summer. At least metaphorically!

Info: Edinburgh Mela, 31st Aug – 2nd Sept 2012.

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