Comment: Edinburgh’s Mela was born to beat adversity

Mela stalwarts were hoping for some sunshine. Picture: Jon Savage
Mela stalwarts were hoping for some sunshine. Picture: Jon Savage
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Disappointed at being rained off, Chris Purnell takes heart from great community spirit and beats drum for 2014 celebrations

The decision to close the 19th annual Edinburgh Mela early on Sunday was not one we took lightly. Public safety will always come first at the Mela, but the festival means so much to so many people that the Mela team tried everything they could to re-open the site to the public.

Until around 4.45pm on Sunday, when the wind speeds began to breach our safety levels, we were enjoying what looked set to be the most successful festival yet. On Saturday, we’d broken all previous box office records for our opening day, with more than 13,000 visitors through the doors between noon and 4pm.

Our World Dance Feste stage enjoyed packed out audiences throughout the whole weekend for tango, capoeira, kathak, and dance from across Africa and Asia.
Over at the Kidzone, children from all over Scotland were learning about our country’s natural resources; dhol drummers and stiltwalkers were interacting with the crowds, and Asian-Celtic fusion act Delhi 2 Dublin had the dancing, whooping main stage audience utterly in love with them.

The atmosphere was magical – the sort of community spirit that is unique to the Edinburgh Mela.

The Mela movement in the UK was born in the 1980s, organised by disparate community groups from all over the country, at the very time when Margaret Thatcher was famously asserting that there was no such thing as society and many of our British and Scottish community traditions were under attack from apathy, self interest and social unrest.

With the popularity of the Mela – which means “meeting place” – the UK’s Asian communities found an outlet to express their identity in the best possible way, not by confrontation but by celebration. What better response can there be to the negativity of others than to invite them to a party?

The Edinburgh Mela grew out of this movement in 1995, starting as a small gathering of food and fashion stalls in Meadowbank Stadium. Nineteen years and three venue moves on, we were prepared to host a programme of more than 500 artists in 75 performances on three huge stages, along with 65 stall holders. We’ve also built up a hugely loyal audience, which we hope will continue to grow.

One of the ways our Mela has become unique is that we seek to engage with more of the enormous range of diasporas which make up the increasingly diverse population of Edinburgh and Scotland. This year, our programme featured African dance, authentic Cuban song, Sengalese rhythms, traditional Chinese song and Argentinian tango, to name but a few.

If we could, we’d like to wrap our arms around the world and bring it all down to Leith Links. After Sunday’s early closure, the huge outpouring of support for the Mela, which has moved and touched us enormously, reminded us once again of the importance of this sort of celebration of community. We’re looking forward to welcoming you all to the 20th Edinburgh Mela in 2014.

• Chris Purnell is the artistic director of the Edinburgh Mela