So cool they’re hot – 2013 culture roundup

unnamedAn edited version of this feature was published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

It’s been a strange year on the culture front. As we move one year closer to the big year – that’s 2018 – when Valletta will be officially crowned Capital of Culture, we’ve had hits, misses and glitches that are making the journey there lively, if not exactly smooth. But it’s nearing the year’s end and everyone is in a benevolent mood, so I’ll focus (mostly) on the good stuff.

Starting with my favourite area – music. We’ve had some local talent shining bright, we’ve had some foreign names adding that extra bit of nous to the calendar and we’ve had the locals who successfully went international (cue Cable 35, Carrie Haber, no snow/no alps and others).

Certainly, deserving of a big round of applause (or shouts of encore), are all those who have contributed towards helping music in the Maltese language make a massive comeback.

Brikkuni, for starters, who took the system head on and secured the open-air theatre in Valletta for a packed concert. They successfully put our language back on the music map and removed it from the niche audience it typically attracted.

They weren’t alone, of course. Kantilena, combining traditional folk with classical and with some beautifully poetic lyrics, were just as invaluable in giving the kiss of life back to Maltese language in music. Add Fastidju, Andrew Alamango’s Lost Voices, Ħolma Qattusa, Kultural, Xtruppaw and KażinSka, as well as a revamped Għanja tal-Poplu and Għanafest… and the whole recipe seems to have worked. Maltese is back.

Brikkuni. Photo David Schembri.

Brikkuni. Photo David Schembri.

Also scoring high on the cool barometer are those teenagers who, instead of sitting on their butts and Facebooking all day long, actually went out there and did something to further their talents. I’m thinking of rapper Kid Crisis (Julian Gatt), who started rapping aged 13 and who, this year, at 17, made it to Number 3 on the BMAT PRS chart with Miss Me. He was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Bay Music Awards, and is currently recording an album.

Kid Crisis's single, Miss Me

Kid Crisis’s single, Miss Me

Equally enterprising are Clandestines, who had already released a host of EPs before reaching 18 and who this year consolidated their achievements with a killer of a full-length album, Saturday As Usual. The committing to regular rehearsals, the talent to actually write the music and the balls to actually set up gigs and release albums at that age…, I guess the current generation isn’t that hopeless, after all.

Last hurrah on the music front goes to all those who have, in some way, helped make classical music more accessible to the masses. We’ve had enterprising programmes like Toi Toi at the Manoel Theatre being a massive hit with the kiddies, and the Valletta International Baroque Festival popularising a niche genre that ordinarily gets the man in the street a tad apprehensive. These are but two examples.

Onto books and literature, where, once again, the Maltese language is back in triumph. I’m not one of those who will advocate reading in Maltese just for the sake of it – a good plotline and equally good grammer, vocab and syntax are essential.

And the reality is that in past decades, the quality of Melitensia (I’m only referring to fiction here) had taken a nosedive.

What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels

What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels

So, kudos to those authors like Clare Azzopardi, Loranne Vella, Pierre Meilak, Ġuże Stagno, John Bonello and Alex Vella Gera (among others), who took the plunge, published in Maltese, and proved once and for all that a good book will always be read, even by those who used to turn their noses at the mother language. You guys rock – now go write another book.

Which brings me to visual arts. Three cheers to the ingenuity of artists, who have finally tumbled on to the fact that it’s okay to set up an exhibition in a non-traditional space. You don’t need to wait until you get an invite from the Museum of Fine Arts to show your collection. We’ve had exhibitions at restaurants, at hotels, at local council offices, in shops, at banks… I’m all for offering people exposure to art wherever they happen to be and this trend definitely gets my vote.

I’m also loving the strength with which the younger, budding artists are coming out of their shells. We’ve had a number of projects specifically aimed at enabling the younger set of arts students – Blitz, the project by photographer Alexandra Pace, immediately springs to mind. Nationwide festivals like Notte Bianca, ŻiguŻajg International Children’s Festival, the Malta Arts Festival and Science in the City have also pulled their weight in the drive to encourage those who have yet to establish themselves.

A refreshing development is the increase in experimental art. Photographer Ritty Tacsum has by now firmly established herself as one of the prime movers of the genre on the local front. Her Four Rooms exhibition was eerily beautiful, and it gave me pleasure to see that her talent is recognised even away from our shores (she was recently invited to take part in a collective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei).

This spirit of experimentation was also present in other exhibitions like C, which brought together artists, models and designers in the creation of a fashion exhibition that was not quite what we’re used to, and Two Heads and A City, by Nadine Noko, with its surreal focus on the capital.

There are a lot of positive things happening on the scene. You just need to know where to find them, and how to sift the wheat from the chaff

Other intriguing offerings included Divergent Thinkers 2, a multi-media exhibition that saw some 13 artists – all known for different styles and media – contribute sketches, raw footage, and everything that contributes to the creative process, into one weirdly fascinating exhibition.

Moving on to theatre, a high-five goes to all those who dared defy the local current, which was veering towards comedy, comedy and more comedy. While I acknowledge that laughter sells, the scene went through a period where it seemed like the balance was tilted too heavily towards light and slapstick humour.

Alan Montanaro and Mikhail Basmadjian in The Lockerbie Bomber.

Not so this year. DnA’s The Lockerbie Bomber, directed by Herman Grech, not only went against the current, but also made waves on the international media, by raising more questions about what really happened on the day of the bombing.

The theatre trend this year was very much geared towards taking on controversial topics – Exit Stage Right’s I Am My Own Wife, the story of one of the most famous transgenders in history, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf – was performed by Alan Paris to a packed theatre, laughter and tears every night it ran.

Unifaun’s adaptation of Trevor Żahra’s tastefuly racy Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa likewise broke a number of boundaries, as did MTMC’s In-Nisa Maltin Jafu Kif.

Not quite theatre, but almost, the rise and rise of stand-up comedy also gets a big hand. We have had the massive productions like the Eden Comedy Club and Lol Stand Up Comedy bringing in the big guns from the international circuit. But more heartening are the Maltese names that are now doing regular gigs to decent attendance, mostly as part of The Wembley Store Boys and of Punch Fist Production’s Hey, That’s My Joke.

Steve Hili, Matt Bonanno, Marie-Claire Pellegrini, David Chircop, Philip Leone-Ganado, Joseph Zammit and Nathan Brimmer spring to mind as leaders on the local front, with respect also going to venues like Coach & Horses, Hard Rock Bar and Wignacourt Wine Gardens for taking the gamble and hosting such events. Considering that all this activity was born just over a year ago, not bad going at all.

Naupaca Dance Factory's The Death of Snow White.

Naupaca Dance Factory’s The Death of Snow White.

Experimentation has also taken a huge leap forward in the dance sector. People like Mavin Khoo are still pioneers on the local front, and a lot of invaluable work has been done with the students. The Rubberbodies Collective takes experimentation to the next level, combining dance with theatre and a host of other arts, and the Naupaca Dance Factory also got things off to a good start staging The Death of Snow White exactly a year ago, followed by Immaculate earlier this year.

Film is the final frontier, mostly because I’m still a bit unsure. Local full-length feature films like Adormidera and Silhouette were the centre of many a controversy. It is clear that a lot of work still needs to be done. On the positive side, many small production houses, as well as individual students and film-makers, are giving out some seriously good stuff with respect to short films.

To conclude, there are a lot of positive things happening on the scene. You just need to know where to find them, and how to sift the wheat from the chaff. Because along with the good comes the bad, and the spectacularly bad. But we’ll save that for a less congenial occasion – for now, roll on an events-filled 2014.

And a big thumbs down goes to…

• Those who only show their faces at free events – come on guys, if you enjoyed a particular musician’s/company’s production during one of the free events, show your support at the paid ones.

• Reducing culture to value for money – culture is never about money, although it can also financially contribute to a country’s assets.

• Culture secretary José Herrera’s press goofs – it’s definitely time to research and experience your subject, sir.

Our performance in the international surveys – we don’t read, we don’t go to theatre, we don’t appreciate music. All the statistics released this year were a sad indictment.