Compass Point International Festival of Urban Music
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
A story of Madness, Ambition, Welsh Rain & Inflatable Churches: The UK's first International Urban Arts Festival
Biffy Clyro, 2005
In the late 1990s place centred community arts festival either weren't cool or of any scale. This is the story of how a small group of dedicated people tried to change the perceptions of community arts and of Wales, developing a youth led approach to international arts, training and scale. A number of key elements were essential to the development of what became Compass Point International Festival of Urban Arts
The first element was the parks and community. As Director of Community Music Wales (CMW), I'd set up a programme with the lovely Cardiff City Council Park's lead, Bernadette Shepherd, called Music in The Parks in 1999. I'd held this long belief that community arts could have scope, scale and ambition and used this small scale series of performances and workshops in Cardiff parks as the blueprint of something much more ambitious. CMW had pioneered early technical music training in DJ skills amongst other areas and even predated cultural apprenticeships running the New Deal for Musicians Scheme (thanks Stuart Earp!)
The second element was the international. As part of an EU funded programme called Creative Cooperations, I'd been working with a group of Community Arts organisations from across Europe. We'd jointly developed what was the then most ambitious EU/Latin American joint programme. I oversaw the musical direction for a project that involved Wales, Holland, Finland, Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia, with performances in every country. I had the idea of taking these artists and bringing them all to Cardiff. I also wanted to show Cardiff and Wales to do something first and at scale
Streetwise EU programme 2000
The third element was hip hop and metal/rock. The lingua franca of music common to all the countries I was visiting around 2000 was the holy triumvirate of hip hop: rap, graffiti art and breakdancing. This initial outsider culture, alongside the also outsider nature of metal, especially from the South Wales valleys, was the final ingredient.
Coopers Field, next to Cardiff Castle was the choice of venue for the first Compass Point in 2001. One day of hip hop, one of rock/metal. All community artists, all free. We used young trainees from the New Deal for Musicians scheme we were running as sound engineers, stage managers and lighting techs and I'd managed to have one or two international small scale artists. A very young Huw Stephens and Bethan Elfyn from Radio1 presented. Four hundred people came, It was beautiful.
The second-year took two days on Friday the 5th and 6th of July. We pulled around eight hundred per day. Artists included Douglas, Manchild, Tetra Splendour, Kwan, Blac Twang and even a very young future Emmy winner, in Amy Wadge
Year three 2003 and I needed some help as the festival was growing. There had always been a small dedicated team from CMW, but we needed more help. Enter Emma Clark of Buzz Magazine and Jon Lenney of docks training initiative Immtech as partners, forming Music Academy Wales. The wonderful Charlotte Little did all the design; Richard 'chill' Hawkins took all the band stuff and sound; Jo Hunt organised the stages. The early days of the festival had seen a fairly laissez-faire approach to rigging and site erection, we brought in Red Man production who tightened things up no end. We built-in more graffiti artists and breakdancing and surrounded the site with boards and with artists coming from across Cuba, France Morroco and Germany, with Kieron from Cardiff's Oner Signs helping coordinate. We moved from two to three days and Tim Westwood, DJ Krust and Funeral for a Friend brought 10,000 people into the park.
By 2004 it was getting to be hard work and very, very expensive. It was all logistics and fundraising and events panels. In my head, it was about celebrating the international and the outsiders' communities who got ignored. It was about given these outsiders a chance to train and perform and even programme. It was about representing your community. And it was from Wales, not London, Manchester or Edinburgh. But it started to be about the money. Somehow we held it together and Mclusky and Jarcrew were astonishing and the crowds kept growing and artist came from more and more countries. https://youtu.be/ya1A0J3wJN8 For publicity, we even had an inflatable church and I ordained online as a Minister so we could marry people.
2005 saw us hit the wall. We had funding from commercial and public sources but it was hard to sustain. This was pre the big festival boom that began later that decade and people didn't get festivals, or communities or letting young people run everything. I also wanted to move on to something new. One last roll of the dice first though. A very early performance from the legendary Kano, Biffy Clyro and High Contrast led the bill and we'd even brought in a funfair. As I previously said, you have to remember this is pre the festival boom of the 2000s and we were making it up as we went along. It rained as only the way it can in Wales. Rain like stair rods. A solid grey coldness that eats your soul. For three full days before the festival. A quagmire of miasmic mud soup for a site. Somehow, it stopped and we ran as planned but it was hard work.
We always planned for the following year to happen, but fate intervened. I. I'm pretty proud of doing something so mad but also so original. It's also important to remember it was always team work. I have memories of bringing in some of the first Colombia hip hop artists to the UK, severed pigs heads thrown into crowds and working until dawn. Mostly though, I remember the art: amazing musicians, writers and breakers from everywhere. And that's enough. Bastante!
*Disclaimer. My memory may not be entirely accurate on names, dates etc. Happy to receive corrections and amendments and any photos too!. My thanks to Charlotte Little who designed all the exceptional artwork and helped with dates