Blog: Jim McLaughlin

The director of a world music festival in Whitby on taking to the moors

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I’ve been organising the annual Musicport Festival, based in Whitby, for the last 19 years – a labour of love rather than a sensible economic choice. The festival, which happens in October, is all indoors in one venue, with five stages overlooking the sea. Over the years we have attracted artists from all around the world to a small town on the Yorkshire coast and it does have a uniquely intimate and friendly atmosphere that would be hard to create elsewhere. We’ve recently started taking the festival on tour to the local villages during the days following the main event and that has proved very successful particularly as it is half term.

The impetus for starting the festival is that having moved to the area in around 1990 and having spent my early life in the diverse culture that is South London – Brixton was just around the corner – my wife and I were very aware, despite its many wonderful attributes, how mono-cultural Whitby was. Having both worked with young people in inner-city Nottingham and Leicester we realised that young people from Whitby would probably have to go to college in places that were far removed from their early life experience in terms of understanding different religions, ethnicities. We didn’t want our daughter to grow up not appreciating the diversity of cultural opportunities that there are out there. One of my first jobs on leaving college was working in a hospital that employed one of the country’s first music therapists to work with children with severe learning and physical disabilities. This was a revelation to me as I realised music – which had always been my abiding passion – could have life-changing effects on individuals and help them relate to the world around them.

In the late 1990s, when my wife and I ran a bookshop/café in Robin Hood’s Bay that had a concert hall above, we started putting on gigs. It was a house-shaking performance by a Congolese band led by Teesside’s Robert Maseko that inspired the festival in the first place. Because it was the millennium we got Arts Council funding for a one-off world music festival in Whitby and, having only sold under 40 tickets in advance, we were amazed to get 350 people through the door, who all said they would be coming back next year. And so it started. Thankfully Arts Council England has supported it yearly ever since.

There have been so many highlights over the following 19 years it’s hard to single any out, but having the amazing Buena Vista Social Club in Whitby was definitely a high point. They watched a band from the Western Sahara in their colourful robes in freezing weather staring out to sea – something they had never seen before. What is also wonderful is seeing young people who came to the festival in its early days returning either as musicians themselves or bringing their own children to the festival.

This year we’ve decided to start an additional smaller festival in May – Musicport On The Moors in Goathland. This event will pose challenges we have not faced before, like organising camping and using outdoor spaces for events, but it’s an exciting prospect and seems to be getting a lot of interest. It will be great to do something that is based in the beautiful moorland area and to use the countryside as part of the festival. We are also in the process of taking on an historic building in the village – a community arts resource that hopefully will be up and running in time for the May event.

My wife Sue and I work on the festival all year. I do all the programming but she does the essential and unglamorous stuff like keeping the finances on track and making funding applications, as well as running our independent music instrument shop in Whitby. We also have a great and long-established team who help us, particularly around the time of the event itself.

Every year we look at whether it’s about time we handed the festival on to a new generation but we end up thinking we’ll give it another year or two. However, I think once we’re over the 20th anniversary and with the visa issues that Brexit is likely to throw up for travelling musicians we may very well think again.

Musicport on the Moors is on 4-7 May in Goathland in the North York Moors. For line-up and more information click here

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