When this band, specialising in cutting satire and social commentary, first burst on the local music scene some five years ago most of us were gobsmacked. In the good way. In the “please let us have more now” way, even. For many, their music represented a much-needed breakthrough for Maltese music. And by Maltese music, I mean music that comes complete with lyrics in Maltese and that doesn’t sound like it was trying to make it to the Eurovision contest from twenty years ago.
So used I was to the fact that most music in our native language tends to be less than awesome – unless you happen to be into għana, which I’m not – that I actually greeted the Brikkuni “experiment” (I guess that’s what it was at the time) with much scepticism. This despite the two founders’ unquestionable pedigree when it comes to delivering the goods. Meet Mario Vella (vocals) and Mike Galea (drums) the two musicians whose yearning for “good, Maltese pop music” resulted in Brikkuni and – some time later in 2008 – in the group’s first album Kuntrabanda, which Mario says was born out of this yearning for “this missing essential” on the music scene.
Kuntrabanda became an immediate cult hit with the indie music scene, the local literati and quite frankly anyone who enjoyed a good dig at our more insular social mores. This was about three years ago and since then, every time Brikkuni announce a gig, the excitement amongst their followers is almost tangible. And now, after much prodding and whining from said followers, the band – which also includes Danjeli Schembri on keyboards, Matthew Cuschieri and Steve Delia (better known as id-Delli) on guitars, Thomas Cuschieri on bass, Roberta on cello/violin and Mark Farrugia on trumpet – a second album is set to be foisted upon a somewhat unsuspecting public this February.
I caught up with Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella in the run-up to the launch of their second album, Trabokk. I kick off my interview with Mario by pointing out that even five years on, Brikkuni remain one of the very, very few groups that use Maltese as their language of choice.
“Brikkuni is Maltese music that eschews the usual vulgar trappings, providing words and music we can honestly relate to.. Which may sound rather ironic since we are regarded as vulgar in certain quarters. Given what we felt was a serious lack on the scene, the choice of language felt like the most obvious thing in the world. If anything we ended up asking ourselves why it took us so long to embrace the mother tongue,” Mario says with a sardonic smile.
Switching to Maltese can’t have been that simple, surely. Particularly given that prior to Brikkuni Mario was the frontman for Lumiere, which favoured the English language. How big a challenge was this change in language with respect to performance and to penning lyrics?
“Like I said it really felt natural. If anything it was with Lumiere that I had to occasionally struggle with my singing and writing. But then again I do invest a hell of a lot of time on song-writing for Brikkuni. In fact I think I have become pretty accomplished at it. Wish I could say the same thing about my guitar playing!”
Becoming part of Brikkuni also brought with it a change in musical genre for the majority of the members, whose names maybe were not associated with folk before this. How big a deal was this?
“Well, they heard the songs, loved them and were kind enough to let me lead. Although, let it be said that nowadays both Delli and Danjeli are as much in charge as I am. But it’s important not to have everyone chip in during the song-writing process. Otherwise you end up with a direction-less mishmash. The rest usually chip in during arrangements, which take up the lion’s share of time anyway.”
Of course, more than because they’re associated with a specific genre Brikkuni stand out precisely because of th cutting song lyrics, often directed at the island’s public figures. Given Malta’s size and the tendency of the islanders to take things rather personally, has Mario ever experienced any backlash because of this? The reply is a rather surprising and definite “no” – followed by an endearing “well, my parents occasionally tell me off but that’s about it.”
Ah well, it’s refreshing to know that not even a brikkun like Mario can fully escape those pesky familial judgements! Five years are a long time on the music scene and one thing I can’t help mentioning is the fact that the band’s following has consistently grown and become more diverse. What is Mario’s take on this?
“Actually since day one we have been lucky enough to draw a diverse audience. I am hoping things haven’t changed much. What we did notice though is that the mainstream is now fully aware of our existence. We are obviously quite happy with the situation since it provides us with a larger playing field and myriad possibilities to check how far we can push the envelope without being scathed,” Mario replies.
Has the fact that the band also left an impact on mainstream audiences had a bearing on the music or the performances? Not really, he assures me.
“We don’t feel we need an audience in order to further push ourselves creatively and seek pastures new. I think it should be the prerogative of any self-respecting musician who (god-forbid) harbours notions of an artistic nature. We owe it to ourselves.”
I turn the topic the new CD itself, Trabokk – which, for the benefit of non-Maltese speakers, loosely translates to trap, the kind in which you catch birds in to be precise. What kind of themes can we expect from the tracks?
“As the title itself suggests, most of the characters inhabiting our songs are somewhat stuck in a rut – be it existential, spiritual or domestic. There are shades of Kuntrabanda on a couple of tracks as well but on the whole, the overall effect is one of perpetual castration.”
More fun and games indeed. An example of this is Tiddi x-Xemx Fuq din l-Għodwa (the sun shines on this morning) which lyrics Mario tells me hark back to “those bleak Sunday afternoons, the ones that find you waking up to the mother of all headaches after what is usually described as a ‘debauched’ Saturday night. You feel your body changing and you just know that ‘you don’t have it in you anymore’. It’s a coming of age song of sorts. A farewell to misspent youth. Feedback so far has been generally positive but detractors usually keep a low profile. So if there are any potential detractors out there, please do express your dissent.”
When asked about the musicians who inspire Brikkuni, Mario mentions his “crush” on Fabrizio De Andre and Nick Cave. Exorcising them he says, would be a futile exercise. However he also believes that the group’s strong personalities and “omnivorous” nature mean that the music of Brikkuni don’t show any obvious influences. On the local front, Mario tends to look at authors, rather than musicians, for his inspiration. He mentions names like Gwann Mamo, Alfred Sant, Immanuel Mifsud, Alex Vella Gera.
“Movies are a major source of input as well. Directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Frederico Fellini, Emir Kusturica, Paolo Sorrentino. We could go on…”
From their own works, Mario mentions Tiddi X-xemx fuq din l-Għodwa Moħlija as his current favourite: “For once I really think I nailed a vocal and the subject matter remains close to my heart. There’s another track called Nixtieq which I am pretty fond of. An exercise in navel gazing that somehow paid off.” However, he acknowledges that the tracks Fil-Bar ta’ Taħt il-Knisja and Gadazz Giljan (from the album Kuntrabanda) are likely to remain firm crowd favourites: “I am not gonna fight that.”
Speaking of Kuntrabanda, one aspect of this album that has always fascinated me is how some of the lyrics point towards a sense of pride at being Maltese. Others go in the opposite direction, giving a sarcastic overview of some of our country’s worst traits. Which one is more true: are the Brikkuni patriots or a group of people who are disillusioned with the ways of their country?
“Pride is a big word. I do not see why one should be proud of being born in a country he didn’t choose. I am more concerned with the ridiculous shame some of my peers feel toward their land of birth and fellow countrymen. One should never feel hindered by his roots and expectation should not rest squarely in the hands of lawmakers in a designated geographic location. As to the satire, I believe it wouldn’t have been any different had I been born in the U.K or Nigeria. The landscape changes but situations are analogous. I honestly don’t know who the disillusioned are. I can only have a stab at trying to convey what I feel and that in itself is interchangeable,” he tells me.
So how do Brikkuni fit on this landscape, particularly given that for a time, music productions in Maltese fell in one of two categories: old genres like għana or low quality, amateur productions whose main aim is to do the festival circuit. Have Brikkuni helped change this landscape?
“It’s too early to claim such a thing. There will always be a huge demand for lowbrow entertainment and so be it, as long as other forms of expressions are allowed to thrive as well. I will stop at saying that the fact that Brikkuni are a reality should suffice for the time-being.”
A statement that fits in well with the band’s ethos of staying true to their music while respect their audience.
“We want to leave behind a body of work that in time will be looked upon not only as a valid but also as a vital contribution to Maltese music. Eventually we will work towards a third album – but I am not allowed to utter those words as yet, after a laborious year spent toiling between studio and rehearsal place,” he concludes with a smile.
This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta). Brikkuni will be launching their new album on Saturday February 11 at City Theatre in Valletta. For more information look up the events page on Facebook.