The World in a Tent 

A display of oriental dance with colorful scarves
The World in a tent: A display of oriental dance with colourful scarves, Still from YouTube video by the

This ‘World in a Tent’ festival took place on Saturday 9 July in Victoria Park, Ashford, between 12noon and 8 pm. The tent was oblong and bright red, emblazoned with information about Nepal and its ‘90 different languages’. The Nepalese are the largest immigrant group in Ashford, comprising at least 600 families, all originally connected to the Gurkha regiment and military service. The programme however listed more diverse groups: Romany, Syrian, Chinese, Indian, African drumming.

Dancing Duo and a musician from Beijing Opera

When I arrived, the Chinese dancers were just beginning. They were a duo wearing light blue jeans with pink T-shirts, moving with grace and agility, sometimes waving scarves or umbrellas. They then introduced a musician from the Beijing Opera tradition. Unusually, she is skilled at several different Chinese musical instruments, of which she demonstrated at least five, both string and wind. She also told us a little of the history of Beijing opera, and how she received rigorous training at a boarding school.

She showed us how the tones of ordinary Chinese language differ from the exaggerated tones of the female opera singer and then got us, the audience, to imitate her tones. I must admit I found these screeching tones hard on the ears, but wondered whether what spoiled the effect is that they were also pushed through the electronic microphone, and in the traditional setting would presumably not have this electronic boost.

Gossamer scarves

Her colleagues, the two dancers, were also good at involving the audience. They invited children up on stage to wave the lovely gossamer scarves around to the Chinese tunes, while the parents took photos on their phones. I felt a gasp of nostalgia for my children’s childhood: that is where my three girls would be, dancing in a multi-cultural scene. And indeed I spotted several local mixed heritage children enjoying the occasion.

Compared to Leicester, which was multi-cultural decades ago, the South East is still learning. So I was interested to discover who initiated this festival and how it is being financed. Leicester, governed by Labour in those days of the large festivals I recall, would dispense generous dollops of funding for cultural events. I suspect “blue” councils of Kent would be stingier, not really understanding the cultural, community-binding value of such events – or even their economic potential. Leicester cannily covered some of the staging costs by charging stall-holders, even the charities, if I recall correctly.

Organised by Priti Paintal from Tenterden

The “World in a Tent” project is basically the creation of a cultural entrepreneur by the name of Priti Paintal. There is further information about the aims of her two linked organisations, and She is of Indian origin, and started out with a musical career that included combining classical with jazz. For over three decades with these projects, she has been organising performance events in London and the South East. She is now a resident of Tenterden.

The leaflet for World in a Tent also features other cultural music sessions in South Ashford, Bollywood and Nepalese Dance weekly at St Francis Church hall, African drumming in Repton Community Centre, and there is mention of outreach into schools on the websites.

However, on Saturday afternoon she was somewhat troubled by gaps in the programme for non-appearances, some due to Covid, and some of the Nepalese dancers were engaged at weddings and would come only later, if at all. 

The Borough Council doesn’t seem to care

When I interviewed her briefly she wanted to mention the problems with Ashford Borough Council. They had known of the booking months ago but had not provided any cleaners for the toilets or even alerted her to the need for this. There is supposed to be a contractor who is receiving money for the development of Victoria Park this year. Shouldn’t the same be responsible for ensuring the toilets are clean for these new events?

One wonders what other details the borough is not attentive to, such as hygiene of the food vendors. There are lots of rules in the bylaws about running stalls in public places but, as I have discovered when trying to organise a street stall, when there are infringements, there is in practice nobody who takes responsibility for implementation at the weekends.

Council concerned with ‘cost’

By chance, I sat next to Liz Wright who is a local councillor for the Greens and, when I commented on some of this, she told me that her attempts to suggest the Council designate someone for ‘diversity’ is met with the blue wall argument of ‘cost’.

I am troubled by the lack of awareness of the economic potential of the arts. This is all of a piece, of course, with populist ignorance about how Brexit would affect travelling musicians and Britain’s music industry.

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Well-funded festivals elsewhere

In the past, I have enjoyed many big arts festivals. The Billingham Folk Dance festival for example, in the 1980s, drew performing troupes from across the globe, including from the various ethnicities of the Soviet Union and China. It was a wonderful festival of colour, rhythm and movement in a rust-belt part of the North East. I guess it was financed by lots of public money, both by the hosts, and also by the countries that were proud to take part.

Then in South Africa, there is the national arts festival every year in Grahamstown. This draws drama groups, artists and musicians from across the nation, sponsored by grants and banks, and also by the enthusiastic crowds who flock to that somewhat impoverished old colonial town in the coldest part of the winter, showering it with the money required to feed and stay there. Alongside the arts there is a large craft market, with the crafters paying for their stalls – and also needing overnight accomodation and food – thus spending in the local economy.

Turn-out might have been greater with help

Thus with remembrance of these rather large festivals in the back of my memory, I was somewhat disappointed to find an audience of only about 50 in the tent in mid-afternoon, and about five stalls around it. I do not wish to state the event was a flop. The part that I attended was enjoyable. Priti is making a valiant effort. With more encouragement local people and businesses might wish to participate. I don’t think such festivals should be dependent only on grant money or crowd-funding.

If the council set up the right framework, businesses could buy into this – the food vendors seeing it as worth their while to book stalls and businesses with information for the public, and crafters with products to sell. This would be a sort of local entrepreneurial wrap around for the multicultural performers’ event. It should bring money to the town in the same way as the South Bank festival brings the spending public to the south of the Thames. Wake up Ashford! – and see the opportunities.

Someone invite the Morris men!

There also needs to be some programming of those ‘foreign’ folk traditions with the local ones. Tenterden hosts an annual folk dancing event. Some of the morris dancers should dance along to the World in a Tent too.