Brodu – Bambinella

Arts and Live Entertainment Reviews

Brodu gave four shows at St James Cavalier’s Spazju Kreattiv between 12th and 14th November 2021. I attended the first of these shows.

‘Ħello, grazzi talli ġejtu. Aħna l-Brodu. Nippruvaw indoqqu l-aħjar li nistgħu.’ Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

It was with this self-effacing remark that Mark (iż-Żiżża) Abela, Brodu’s frontman, welcomed his eager audience on the evening of Friday 12th November.

I walked in a good twenty minutes before showtime. The intimate space at Spazju Kreattiv which housed Taralalla just a few days ago was radically different. Gone was the fog, and the imposing scaffolding was also nowhere to be seen. An assortment of instruments and PA systems were strewn across the floor in its place.

From my point of view.

  The attending crowd was pleasant enough. It looked like it was largely composed of hipster MCASTy people…perhaps a tad too reserved and well behaved for my liking during what was after all, a rock concert. Having said that, the mandatory mask-wearing in addition to the general hallowed-grounds aura at Spazju Kreattiv is quite sobering.

Suffarin: The Supporting Act

Adolf Formosa a.k.a Suffarin

  A young Leonard Cohen came to mind during Suffarin’s four to five song set. This made a lot of sense; much of Brodu’s output also frequently conjures Cohen to my mind’s eye. Its like Żiżża and the Poet of Brokenness are inspired by and find solace in pretty much similar themes; namely loss, thirst (in its various forms) and religion. For this reason, it was great to see that Brodu had Suffarin open their show. Suffarin, simply introduced by Żiżża as Adolf (and Pawlu), perfectly set the mood for the main event that followed. Formosa’s act served as the perfect appetiser; his music and Brodu’s just go so well together, in the same way that Passenger’s & Nutini’s do. Suffarin comes from the same world and offers up more of the same sublime bounty of brash poetry and naked truths.

Adolf and Pawlu. Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

  Both visually and sonically, Formosa’s act is quite stripped down, the quintessential bard and his guitar. His arrangements are raw, barely electric. I was quite impressed with his first number which brought Cohen’s Story of Isaac to mind. Formosa’s strumming serves as the perfect backdrop to the story being told, further embellished by Pawlu’s additional flourishes. I really enjoyed Suffarin’s set and am sure I would have even more, had I been seated on the opposite side, and able to look at the performers’ faces rather than at  the back of their heads.  

Adolf and Pawlu. Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

  Suffarin performed five numbers before diving into the last one which I understood to be written (or co-written) by Brodu’s Żiżża. Abela himself performed this with Suffarin, albeit crouched on the floor as if he were trying to hide himself from the audience’s view (an impossible feat at Spazju Kreattiv) or at least, in a gallant attempt to not hog the limelight. The lyrics were easier to understand this time round, maybe because they were being sung by both men.


Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

Għax għal hawn m’aħniex…Għalfejn? Għal xiex? Għal min?’
Ibqa’ għaddej sieħeb, teħlix ħini w’ħinek…
tħabbel żobbok xejn… għax għal hawn m’aħniex… u wara hawn m’hemm xejn…’

And just like that, the theatre was awash in profoundly cynical nihilism, making this track the perfect bridge between Suffarin’s set and Brodu’s. 

Important disclaimer

  Before continuing with my review of Brodu’s show, I think it would be only right for me to state that this review isn’t in any way objective and doesn’t attempt to be. I’m a Brodu fan.

My Brodu treasure!

  I’ve been awed by the breadth and scope of their work since they released Ħabullabullojb back in 2014. I heard it first a few months after it came out. I remember picking it up from D’Amato and popping it in my car stereo, not knowing at all what to expect. I remember expecting them to sound like Brikkuni, no idea why.

Ħabullabullojb (2014)

   Listening to the album from beginning to end in one go gave me the singular experience that can only be had when listening to a really great album for the first time. Such as Abbey Road…or All things Must Pass. Its no exaggeration. Big albums yes, and in both cases (but especially the latter’s), brilliant especially for the fact that they’re a result of many months build-up of unrealised songs. Which is what Habullabullojb, Brodu’s debut, always felt like to me. The distillation of years’ worth of pent-up, inspired gems. The result is a multi-genre epic that showcases what an eclectic band this really is. To date, it remains my favourite…although I equally enjoy listening to Blu (2021) while preferring to reserve 2017’s Tfejt vinyl for those cold whiskey and fireplace evenings.

Ok…on with the show.

Brodu in Concert: Technically

Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

  So I was, naturally, still sitting in my same spot when Suffarin stepped off and Brodu came on. I could clearly see Żiżża and drummer Chris Mallia’s profile view. Standing opposite me, facing my direction was id-Drinu. Backing vocalist Fiona stood beside him throughout much of the show. The two I was least able to watch were bass guitarist il-Fre and keyboardist Samuel as they were standing almost directly beneath my balcony.

Drinu’s Clockwork Orange shirt was as iconic as his guitar playing. Zizza’s leopard-print-hat-wearing, boyish on-stage image belied the vulnerable, introspective man who is much more evident on the records. Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

The acoustics were top-notch, each sound was crystal clear. So much so that at certain times, the renditions were so close to the mastered tracks it was uncanny. This is also testament to the band’s many hours of rehearsal and perfectionism, even if on their website, they summarily describe themselves as an ‘undisciplined rock band’.

There’s no doubt that Brodu enjoy themselves on stage as much as they do in the studio. The banter was incessant. The way they constantly teased and joked with each other (as well as with rival band Djun’s ‘Justin Galea’), also evidenced undeniable chemistry, a unity that is only found between friends who really enjoy being in each other’s company. Not even the only female member of the group was spared the teasing as Żiżża made when he remarked about her ukulele-playing and singing combo. Fiona can by now be regarded a fully-fledged ‘Brodu’ (what does one call a singular member of the band? ‘Mgħarfa?’ ‘Kuċċarun?’), and a welcome addition she is. Her harmonies not only blend impeccably with the boys’ vocals, but are actually what give the band their distinct sound. The harmonies, that is, and Samuel’s instantly recognisable 70s-inspired quivering keyboard riffs which make my three year old shout, ‘Isma’, Brodu!’ the moment Inċedi Le starts playing in my car hi-fi.

The Songs

Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

Inċedi Le, from their latest LP Blu (2021) is the natural concert opener. The tune (and particularly the opening riff) is pure Brodu, a humble up-tempo retro-ish number with an inspired arrangement. This is something I particularly like about most Brodu songs; most of their studio tracks, intricate as they may be, can still be recreated effortlessly live as each instrument (and in turn, each musician’s talent) is easily detected and recognised in the mix. This is naturally also equally the result of Temple Studio’s David Vella’s brilliant ears and vision. They definitely found the right producer in him. Inċedi Le is all about perseverance and not giving up in the face of unrequited love.

Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

‘Nipprova ngħatti d-diżappunt tant evidenti,
wara li għidtli le u komplejt tiddiskuti l-ġrajjiet kurrenti.

  The song starts out that way, anyway. The girl Żiżża is singing about dismisses his affections while going on to swaddle him in heartfelt advice, ‘Iċċedi le! Tixkana iva ‘mma ċċedi le!’ perhaps oblivious to the fact that its her unavailability that’s causing the author so much angst in the first place. Its a sweet song; never overstays its welcome and I especially enjoy the witty, intentional beat-miss during the final nah-nah-nah, a little bit of studio magic which they admirably also tried to recreate live with so-so results.

‘Julia’. Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

  Another Blu track followed, Julia. Żiżża was quite an impressive sight during this track; playing keyboard with one hand, microphone in the other, his eyes closed, whole body seemingly possessed by the music. Undoubtedly, a very personal track to him. Speaking for myself though, the lyric has yet to grow on me, even after (many) repeated listens. I do, however have a lot of respect towards the arrangement. 

  Once Brodu had warmed the audience up nice enough, the ever self-effacing front-man made his official opening statement. ‘Issa se ndoqqu diski mill-Black Album, White Album u Abbey Road…iii! Tkun vera pretentious!’

  This tounge-in-cheek, devil-may-care attitude the band goes by is a major part of the band’s allure, and also what makes them appear as the less-than-disciplined band they proclaim they are. However, and I don’t want to harp on too much about this point, would an undisciplined band be able to perform Balzmu live in that way? Also from the album Blu, Balzmu is a less-than-straightforward, mostly spoken-word poem set to a jazz-inspired musical backdrop, again beautifully showcasing Żiżża’s strength when it comes to penning insecurity and carnal thirst.

‘Julia’. Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

“Jaf forsi nidher tajjeb, nidher sielem, nidher bniedem mingħajr gdiedem, nidher qisni xi iljun; qisni Mario il-brikkun. Mma jien biss selħa fil-ħajt tas-sejjieħ, u fi ħdanek nixtieq nistrieħ.”

Chris Mallia is a bloody inventive drummer who’s thundering pounding makes each track instantly recognisable.
Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

  Mallia’s distinctive intro quickly wasted no time in taking us to the next track, Kif se Nagħmlu, Żiż? off the Intimita’ EP (2018), which is one of their most melancholic songs. The lyrics may be quite ambiguous, but the melody and instruments explicitly convey what the words perhaps struggle to. This performance was one of the first highlights of the evening.

  If Kif se Nagħmlu Żiż?’s lyricism is ambiguous, the same can be said for the majority of the Bambinella EP (2021), of which Neoprene, the next track, is the opener. On this track, Żiżża assumes the point of view of the synthetic rubber used to make wet suits…or maybe I’ve got it backwards and this is in fact, a love song addressed to said rubber. God only knows. It is a cute song, although I do find the lyrics a bit too heavy handed for me to imagine the song to be about anything else but what it appears to about be on the surface; neoprene.

Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

“Neoprene; ma’ ġismek indur
Ma’ kull kisra u daħla
Iġġebbidt, tiegħek sura ħadt.
Qatt ma gdibtlek. Just ridtek.”

 

Similarly, the EP title-track Bambinella also seems to be a love song to an inanimate object; the Maltese June Pear. But is it really? Whatever the answer, I simply adored the sparse and yet impeccable arrangement on the night. Mainly driven by Chris playing a percussive loop on what, from where I was sitting, appeared to be a bell. Then there were Samuel’s synth strings and Żiżża’s masterful chord work. The end result was something that belongs somewhere between Extreme’s More than Words and Wings’ Bluebird. Either way, a totally new ‘Brodu’ sound to my ears.

  Then came the third track off the EP; Żball Kbir. On this track, Żiżża ponders on all the missteps he’s commited, the time he’s wasted and the worries he misplaced. He shouted his lines, inviting his bandmates to echo back his words as if in a litany. In this song he takes on the role of a thinker while the backing voices personify his conscience, just as Paul and John coaxed further reflection from Ringo on With a Little Help from My Friends. I much preferred this version to the recorded one, which I feel is a tad too clinical and which has a habit of tiring me out before Żiżża even gets to the words.

The studio version of Żball Kbir is a new-wave inspired, quite long, and perhaps over-indulgent track which brings 8-bit gaming to mind. If Bambinella is Żiżża being Band On The Run-era McCartney, here he is definitely in McCartney II territory. Which is far from a bad thing; the fact that Brodu can effortlessly and convincingly pull off so many genres just goes to show how proficient they are at adapting to practically any style they attempt. ‘Rock band mhux dixxiplinata’…my foot.

Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

‘Id-diska li jmiss hija hit single tal-Brodu’…

The much lauded and already-much discussed Għandi L-Għatx, from Brodu’s second album Tfejt followed before the band jumped into what they introduced as a ‘high-energy, dance track.’ As it turned out, this was to be a complete refurbishment/cover of Kung-Fu Karate, an oldie in the truest sense of the word previously made famous by Fredu Abela il-Bamboċċu in għana style.

Yes, you read that right.

Żiżża suggested the track would be featured in the upcoming album (‘ija, hekk suppost’) and I can’t wait to hear it in its mastered glory. It was such good fun live. They turned such a well-known, straightforward għana on its’ head, not only thoroughly making it their own, but finally making it sound like the sports-song it perhaps was always meant to be. Once again, Brodu proved why they are so damn good; they can make a fifty-something year old għana track come alive like nobody else.

Kanzunetta biex Timla (lit. Translation; just another filler track) followed next, a number that I might not have cared for much when I heard it first, but which I thought was given a new lease of life live and became another track I thoroughly enjoyed on the night.

And then came the EP’s singularly epic single; Chips.

Screengrab from the ‘Chips’ video

Even after listening to it a number of times, I still can’t pinpoint what the song is about or who it is referring to. The video heavily references the football anime Captain Tsubasa, better known as Holly e Benji which I myself was never too familiar with and as a result, don’t feel equipped enough to be able to deconstruct any intended reference between the two products. It doesn’t matter, though. This song ROCKS. Chips is Brodu at their most anthemic and definitely at their most epic.

This is their glorious stadium song, with its uplifting ELO-inspired vocals and foot-stomping beat. It is ballsy, witty and simply eargasmic (to steal a phrase from the late, great Jon Lukas Woodenman), with its heartfelt ‘Kemm int tal-ostja!’ coda effortlessly turning it into a boisterous crowd-rouser. It is definitely the song that received the loudest applause on the night, prompting Chris to cheekily comment, ‘Naħseb din biss daqqejna tajjeb!’ to which Żiżża retorted meekly ‘U le, ma morniex ħażin, naħseb fl-oħrajn.’

Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

The band then dove into the (first) final song, Fl-Univers Maġembek, a sort of cosmic love song carried by Lara’s tropical ukelele strumming. It is a sweet, humble number which serves as a satisfying closer for the EP and, with its embellishments of Spanish and Hungarian (I may be wrong on this one) would also have been an adequate enough closer for the evening, cementing Brodu’s legacy not only as a great local band, but rather, universal one. (‘Eeey, how pretentious!’ I imagine would be Żiżża’s natural response to this observation). Alas, Brodu had saved three of their best songs for last, and after some (internal) bickering about whether encores should be a thing anymore (Fre doesn’t see the point!), they delved into the classics Erġajt Waqajt f’Koma, and Kemm Jiena Cool before closing with the natural choice, their evergreen Iċ-Ċimiterju, one of the most beautiful acoustic ballads any Maltese artist has ever produced, period.

In Conclusion

This is a band at its peak. While I’m writing this piece, these men (and woman) are going through their golden age. Who knows how long the peak will last? I hope, for many, many years. They’ve got all the right ingredients, the right measures of talent, wit, humility and drive that make their act so uniquely exceptional.  Brodu can be trusted to rock hard, to write lines that tear away at your soul, and frankly, to deliver much, much more than your money’s worth with every new album, single or EP they produce. 

I had long since given up on finding a local musical artist that really got me. And I say ‘got me’ instead of ‘I got’ purposely. Because that’s how we fickle music consumers are and that’s how fans are many times born. We either listen to music and poetry and say, ‘hey, that sounds a lot like how I feel!…That’s exactly what I wanted to say,’ or else, we just go ‘meh.’ I doubt any consumer ever feels the need to adapts to any artist’s style or innate spirituality. The connection is either there or it isn’t.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that wonderful afternoon in late May 2015, just me and Ħabullabullojb in the Floriana car park. I remember it as a defining moment in my personal life; finally finding an artist, a band, I feel connected to. A band worthy of my time, dime and respect. That band’s name is Brodu.

Grazzi Brodu.

Photo: Elisa von Brockdorff

Get to know Brodu; follow their story, read their lyrics, buy their merch and listen to their music here: https://www.brodu.band/?p=24

Taralalla

Arts and Live Entertainment Reviews

I’ve always believed that one of the primary roles of the theatre is to provoke discourse and hopefully, change. Good theatre, that is. When faced with situations we believe we have no control over, it is undoubtedly easier for us to resort to primal emotions such as anger or panic than to reflect on them critically and if possibly, objectively. Thankfully, texts such as Taralalla exist, providing us with the perfect opportunity to reflect on ourselves as individuals and also, as a society. Any dream of change, if ever possible, can only happen as a result of such an exercise.

I went in to see Taralalla without having an inkling as to what the play is about or how it would affect me. I might have gone in a wiser man had I deigned to study the poster a bit better.

What’s it all about?

Taralalla is about 2021 Malta, in all its construction boom-splendour and the affect all this has on the everyday Challies and Marios.

The Writing

Lara Calleja is an exceptional observer and writer and her Taralalla script could very well be one of the most important and era-defining scripts. While I haven’t yet gotten around to read her award winning Kissirtu Kullimkien, I felt there was an intended connection of sorts between the two. This belief was no doubt further fuelled by the blatant, perhaps cheeky reference to the book cover (which I won’t go on and spoil here. I’m sure you’ll get it once it happens).

Perhaps the most powerful line was uttered by Karmni (the wonderful Lilian Pace Vassallo) when she states, ‘Jien ma nifhimx, ara. Ma nifhimx.’ We use this defensive line so much in our everyday discourse, many times as a preamble to feeble attempts at critique, that its become an unacknowledged cliché in itself. When confronted with the horrors of what is clearly the result of selfishness, so many prefer to bury their heads in the sand, declare their ignorance and leave it up to the powers that be (or an NGO or two) to fight their battles for them.

‘Imdejqin il-pjanti, aħseb u ara l-bniedem hux!’

I see this particular line as representative of two strata of Maltese society. The first are those who, like Karmni, toil with their backs bent and their heads low, content with the little they have. They are the ignorant (i.e. ‘uninformed’) section of people who were always taught not to discuss or talk about politics as a subject, let alone be critical of it. Secondly, it also brings to mind the war cries of the loud majority of the lemon-wielding populace who, when faced with whatever embarrassingly uncomfortable situations which shame their preferred political party, put it down to be the result of politically-related jealousy. These people are not so quick to declare ‘ma nifhimx.’ What they do scream – with a smile even, is ‘erbgħin elf lumi!’ which, in my book, also translates to, ‘ma nifhimx.’

Which is exactly what corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen want; they are experts at playing a general consensus of ignorance to their advantage. It pays to keep the voter uninformed, and this particular strain of ignorance is a recurring theme in Taralalla. Most of the protagonists are well-meaning, law-abiding, and most probably, let’s face it, church-going people who also unwittingly ooze racist believes and prejudices. 

‘Nies u mhux nies, klandestini jibqgħu u hawn wisq minnhom mas-saqajn.’

Taralalla’s unforgiving script perfectly exemplifies Lara Calleja’s powerhouse writing. Each of the five principal characters presented here are fully fleshed out. I was especially taken in by Busuttil and Spiteri’s characters. They are the typical Maltese buddies, relentlessly teasing and arguing with each other about petty issues, blaming each other’s voting choices for the state Malta finds itself in, but never really realising or perhaps willing to face the fact that they themselves are vital cogs in the same machine they so despise. It will never occur to them that in a way, they also are abetting and encouraging such a criminally unjust system.

I especially enjoyed a particular moment where they are trying to recall the name of a particularly well known (real-life) person, to no avail. They end up referring to him in many ways, ranging from his stints acting on a sitcom to his appearances on Xarabank, to the flashy car he drives. We know who they’re talking about, they know who they’re talking about, but his actual name and profession keeps eluding them. Perhaps the message here is that that’s all one of the most powerful men is perceived as in the eyes of most locals, just another performer acting in a role. ‘Dak li rreċta f’Becky.’ This is hilarious on the surface (it in fact garnered a number of laughs) but on further thought highlights a tragic truth regarding one of the most prevalent problems in our society; amateurism, self-glorification and rent-seeking actually translate success.

Set Design and Direction

Director Lee-N Abela pulls no punches when visualising Calleja’s story. It is a story saturated in anger and pain. Such raw emotions are brilliantly conveyed in the way space and sound is utilised. To start off with, the theatre at Spazju Kreattiv is as intimate as they come, almost adopting a chapel-like aesthetic. The already constricted space becomes further limited due to the scaffolding piping structure standing over the entire area like a giant, mechanical spider biding its time, waiting to pounce.

The design is intrusive and brash. If set designer Romualdo Moretti’s intention was for the stage to feel ‘raped’ by this structure, well, he succeeded. Taralalla’s Malta is nothing more than a construction site. Everyone and everything; from Maltese mothers, to immigrants to even flora pay the dearest of prices in order for the select few to prosper in the L-Aqwa Żmien development boom. Throughout the play, dry ice wisps around the space above and amongst the actors, perfectly emulating dust and pollution emanating from ongoing construction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the humble fog machine used in such an intelligent manner before. Oh, and then there is the sound design. Constant clanging, drilling, and chasing assault our hearing throughout. I guess most of us are used to it by now.

Characters & Acting

Taralalla’s characters are everyday people; village people…savvy enough to realise what is wrong with the country’s soul and yet, too blinkered to admit that they are also, in a way, perpetrators of the crimes that disgust them so.

Taralalla stars six actors and each of them delivered such beautifully nuanced work. The actors clearly understood their characters and respected them – no caricatures are to be found here. In the play’s approximate hour runtime, each of the characters, even the ones we’re bound to dislike (and that’s putting it mildly) are given enough time to prove their humanity or at least, to argue their innocence before their judge and jury – us – the audience.

As an audience, we may start off looking to pin the blame on someone or other…but who should take the fall? The old woman who steadfastly refuses to leave her home despite the construction works next door driving her insane? The family man who despises and criticises the rampant corruption going on, while doing zilch to bring change about himself? Or perhaps, his friend who, while being the first to call him out on his faults, has no qualms about having curried favour himself when his party was in power. Then there’s the mother trying to change her life for the better through development of a plot she inherited. Is she to blame for being a part of the problem? Or maybe… just maybe…the blame should fall squarely on the developer’s shoulders – even though, in his words, he is simply doing his job according to his client’s wishes.

While I especially enjoyed the scenes with Busuttil, Spiteri and Vassallo together, due to above all, the wonderful tit-for-tat comic timing between the three, I was also equally impressed with the scene Sarah Camilleri and Clive Piscopo had together.

Sarah never disappoints. She gives a very sincere performance in her portrayal of a mother of two trying her best to make the most of her limited time and resources while also following up on her children’s schooling. I couldn’t help hating Piscopo’s Contractor-cum-Developer Stefan, from the moment he walked onto the stage; what with his evident lack of respect to anything and anyone but money and his ever-ringing mobile phone. If there’s anyone close to an antagonist in Taralalla, it is definitely him. Having said that, the skilful Piscopo manages to make him humane enough, rendering him quite realistic and…well…human. The manner in which he gives such a character (who represents a faction of society which has been, perhaps justifiably, vilified through and through) a sympathetic touch is clearly testament to the man’s immense talent as an actor, as much as it is to Lara’s brilliant writing.

‘Nitkellmu għada!’

A Contemporary Tragedy

Taralalla is a tragedy, no two ways about it. Initially it does attempt to deceive you into thinking you’re in for a lighter satire. In fact, during the first scene there were more than a few moments where most of us laughed out loud at what felt like the jibes of characters in a traditional village comedy. Most of these giggles were triggered by the to and fro between Charlie and Mario, the characters beautifully played by Christopher Spiteri and Toni Busuttil. The humour however only serves to hook the audience before reeling it violently in; the metaphoric spoonful of sugar before the much-needed medicine. The levity quickly peters out, forcing the audience to confront one terrifying reality after the other, securely strapped in a fast train to hell until the narrative reaches its explosive, cinematic climax.

Taralalla is a discomforting and many times terrifying watch. Certainly not amongst the most ‘fun’ plays I’ve ever been to, but unquestionably one of the, if not the most important. It raises a mirror to society’s face and forces us to look and address what we see, even if just by asking these questions sincerely; What kind of citizen am I? What do I stand for? What could my contribution be, other than lamenting corruption, a failed system and contemplating migrating?

Taralalla is on at St James Cavalier from Wednesday 3rd to Sunday 7th November. Definitely not to be missed.
Read more about it and get your tickets here - https://www.kreattivita.org/en/event/taralalla/2021-10-30/

Fr.Karm Debattista: The Rhythm to the Melody Line

Arts and Live Entertainment Reviews, Uncategorized

  The Rhythm to The Melody Line took place at St. Agatha’s Auditorium on the 8th of February 2019, with a second concert at Oratory Don Bosco, Gozo on the 23rd of March. Supporting him on stage were the Zone 5 band, a colorful collection of friends Fr.Karm has kept close to his heart for the last 30 years (or thereabouts).

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© CPi Media, 2019

  It would be futile to attempt to comment on the concert experience as if it were any other concert by any other artist for one reason; Fr.Karm is by far and large no ordinary person, and no ordinary priest for that matter. Most topics which most religious people address in harsh tones of black and white, he approaches in tones of grey. His theological perspectives are always fresh and habitually different from what we’ve probably heard before. While he’s talking about God, he is actually speaking about about the constant voyage we’re on called life.

  ‘(Fr.Karm) jafni ħafna iżgħar u ħafna irqaq!’ quips the proudly roundish figure of Andrew Cauchi, himself a veteran and staple of local Christian Praise music as he carries a stool on stage to join his old Maranatha brother for a charged performance of Imxi Warajja Illum mid-concert

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© CPi Media, 2019

  ‘Imma int ma nbdiltx!’ Cauchi concludes. Feigning embarrassment, Fr Karm says nothing but blushes and nods at the audience. He really hasn’t aged that much throughout the years, and something about the way he conducts himself day after day tells us this sprightly, smiling priest with the guitar isn’t just lucky in the genes department, but perhaps keeps himself young in another way. Any one of us who work and live with him day in, day out can attest to the positive aura that seems to accompany him with every step he takes.

  In order to better understand how, at the young age of 58 this man appears to have a handle on the most fundamental issues most of us struggle with day in day out, I had a short chat with Fr Karm a few days preceding the concert. I started by asking him the question which I thought defined what to me, is the fulcrum his songs. Most importantly, why is he always going on about this ‘journey’ he’s on? Doesn’t he think of anything else? When will he have enough?

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© CPi Media, 2019

  Karm: God’s presence is always there. Even if you don’t recognize it, it is there in different ways. I think this wish to embrace God’s presence is present in all of my songs. But the most recurrent theme in all of my homilies, talks and songs is the walk – the voyage or journey. So the concept of searching and journeying go hand in hand. Our aim on earth is to be on this journey.

  ‘Searching for what?’ I ask. For Fr.Karm, the journey seems to be an aim in itself and I find this thought daunting, to put it mildly. Its definitely not an easy or conventional approach towards life. I mean: who in their right mind wants to keep on searching without respite? To walk for the sake of walking?

 Karm: It doesn’t have to lead to anywhere. The problem happens when we think about a destination. The aim of life is the journey – not the destination.  You don’t have to arrive anywhere.

  It is evident in his songs that he knows the destination he is walking towards – as Imxi Warajja Illum directly implies. This song is easily the highlight of the whole concert. A gorgeous rendition carried by the duo’s tight harmonies and the band and choir’s undeniable chemistry.

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© CPi Media, 2019

  During our same talk, we touched on other themes that frequently crop up amongst the most pertinent dilemmas humanity faces and which I was intrigued to hear his thoughts on. He sings more love songs and shows more yearning towards one person than most probably any other artist did towards any other muse. To put it in perspective, Pattie Boyd had three songs written for or about her; Something by George Harrison (her first husband) and Layla and Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton (her second). God had at least 93 original songs written or composed about him by Fr Karm, which automatically shows that God and himself have a lot going on between them.

  This begs the question ‘If God exists and is ever present, where is he when he can’t be felt?’

  Fr.Karm isn’t phased in the least. God takes you through the tunnel of darkness and he does this purposely. He leaves us in darkness because we need to be there – when you place darkness and light against each other and experience one through the other…that is the mystery of faith. Not when you’re in between the two states. You can experience the power of light only through extreme darkness. Dark and light. Death and Life. Jesus born in the Eucharist. That’s it. God places you in a dilemma… and tells you to deal with it. That’s all he does.

  ‘So…when children get sick…’ I interject. ‘Why should a small child contract meningitis? he cuts in.

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© CPi Media, 2019

 Karm: Because meningitis is a part of life. It is also coming from what God created, which is all good. If you look at the microbe on its own, there is sickness. However, if you combine the pain the microbe brings with it with other ingredients, there is true healing.

  Pain and suffering along with the other reality heal you and help you live a life to the full. This is beyond our knowledge and understanding, although there are those who have experienced it. Famous mystics have been able to take these obstacles and just say all is well – all will be well. Whatever happens.

  Although he knows that what he’s saying isn’t at all easy to grasp, Fr Karm speaks assuredly. It is with this knowledge about the person that one can gain a better appreciation for the artist and the songs.

  The song Imla l Qalbi shows us a Fr.Karm that doesn’t want anything else but a relationship with God – ‘Imla l qalbi bik u xejn aktar.’ It also says a lot about the person and the MSSP mission and way of life. Who can really live without succumbing to materialism’s pull? In a way, its’ message echoes John Lennon’s Imagine.

  Another concert highlight would be the two songs he performed with Debbie Scerri, Inti d-Dawl and Kull Fejn Tmur. It is during the latter number’s instrumental break that he addresses the emptiness we many times experience in our lives. ‘Id-dinja toffri ħafna ħolm u faċli tinqabad minn ħafna affarjiet. Imma fil-fatt tiskopri li wara li tinqabad minnhom, jibqa’ ħafna vojt fil-ħajja tiegħek. Il-vojt li għandek f’qalbek għandu size u s-size li għandu dal-vojt huwa s-size ta’ Alla.’ Its remarks he seemingly nonchalantly throws away like this which makes one realize that his songs and words many times deserve a second and third listen.

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© CPi Media, 2019

Fr Karm’s core message comes through clearest when addressing the audience right before the fourth song, Mulej Nafda Fik.  ‘Il-mixja tieghi hi kemm bdejt nitghallem bil-mod il-mod nafda f’Alla,’ he tells the audience.  This theme of walking…of journeying without end is so important to him. During our previous conversation, we had also gone into detail on this topic. It gave me insight that a two minute song doesn’t allow.

  Karm: I was once criticized by a Dominican priest for the fact that I had stated that you will never attain God. And its’ true, you never will. God would be a puppet if he lets you attain him fully and completely. You can’t have him in your pocket and control him. God can never fully fill your life. He fills my life in this precise moment. Afterwards I realize that I need more. There’s always a need for more of Godthere’s never enough. If today I think I’ve reached fulfillment, tomorrow’s meditation will show me a new God, a God very different to the one I met yesterday.

  Words that can easily confuse. They make me realize I myself may have misjudged Karm, assuming through reading the lyrics to his songs that he wanted to prove attainment of God.

 Karm: That’s why the walk is so important. You can never say you’ve reached the destination. Discovering God is a journey…I already found you, you are everything for me and I want nothing more. But I’m still far away. I will never be ready, not even in eternity!

  Again, this goes against one of the fundamental ideas I was taught in chatachism. What about meeting God at the pearly gates and finally finding respite from all the toil and suffering of this life…and from all the walking? What about resting forever from a safe place far, far away?

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© CPi Media, 2019

  Karm: I will continue growing in eternity. What’s the point of walking and growing all my life on earth and never walking again? We will always continue to grow. That’s why my only point, my only focus is the voyage. Everything I do needs to reflect this.

  Fr.Karm Debattista has such a vast body of work that it wasn’t really a surprise that this concert omitted his most famous contribution to Maltese Praise and Christian music, the Christmas classic Armonija from his first album, Fittixtek. After our discussion, I couldn’t help but replay it’s refrain in my mind and realizing that, ever since he first started his performing in the 1990s, in almost all of his songs Fr Karm has really been trying to say the same thing; God is found by searching for him and by wanting to find him. And he’s found in the most commonly misplaced but at the same time, easily attained locations – love. All else simply serves as distraction.

  The third and final highlight of the concert was without a doubt, Nizfen Ghalik, during which the MSSP priest skipped and pranced on stage in an adorable performance I don’t think anybody really expected or is likely to witness again.

Unless you catch the The Rhythm to the Melody Line on TVM2, Easter Day at 3.15pm.

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© CPi Media, 2019

For more information about Fr Karm and his albums, feel free to visit his website.

 

Raymond (Fight) Beck

Arts and Live Entertainment Reviews

Name Your Price

Just a few minutes to go and the theatre is flooded in blue light and smoke. One by one, seats start filling in. The setting is so intimate that it’s impossible not to find yourself locking eyes with other audience members opposite you at one point or another, and even more so, to not share the feeling of excitement (or dread) of what is yet to come.

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© Lindsey Bahia (2018)

The play starts. Through a few seconds of audio recording, we get to know quite a bit of backstory regarding Raymond’s (that’s our hero) childhood, and what may have ignited early flames to his eventually becoming a celebrated boxer.

John Montanaro is Raymond Beck, a boxer well past his golden years who earns his day to day crust grinding away in a sweaty Zejtun bar. From the moment he first appears, one can’t help being reminded of Christian Bale’s turn as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (2010), another poignant story about a boxer and his brother’s respective plights. Montanaro successfully loses himself behind Raymond’s raw nerves and working class heart which can easily be mistaken for brute ignorance. He is believable from the very first words he utters, laden with heavy Zejtun accent.

I was pleasantly surprised by Żep Camilleri’s performance as il-Gustuz, Raymond’s employer-cum-boxing-coach. He is genuinely convincing from the first words he utters, persuading Raymond to step back into the ring after a long absence. Personally, Camilleri’s performance was extremely satisfying for the simple reason that until the moment he first walked onto the stage, I was still unfamiliar with the actor, a fact rendering his performance all the more authentic.

Davide Tucci and Kim Dalli are also quite believable as the young, ridiculously good looking boxer with an attitude and his picture-perfect girlfriend who he treats as an afterthought. Boxing always comes first! Neither of whom need introductions, they both radiated confidence and a concoction of anger, sex, frustration and disappointment in no particular order. And he’s just showing off with those fuckin pushups, I thought while sneaking a sad glance at my ever growing gut.

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© Lindsey Bahia (2018)

Two other supporting actors (if such a word can be applied in this case), Peter Galea as the charismatic and sneaky ‘sinktu’ and Lilian Pace as Raymond’s ailing grandmother also give fine performances. Galea is his usual wiry, upbeat and slightly dangerous. Pace gave a role reminiscent of the one she gave in Triq Waħda back in the early 90s. The mature, motherly figure who won’t be around taking care of everyone for ever. Such skilful acting.

The Writing

Is fast paced, witty and pulls no punches (pun intended). All the characters are fast with their tongue, (even the lovable, permanently inebriated Il-Lover (Hector Bruno) and the somewhat gruff but totally endearing il-Grillu (Jesmond Tedesco Triccas). These two masters of their art clearly enjoyed every second on stage, playing the drunk drinking buddies with such heart it would put Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons to shame.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

Their respective characters are very much like the typical village bum idling their days away with a Verdun secured under their armpits taking the piss out of everything and everyone and who today still reference Bin Laden u l-Amerikani in their everyday colloquial. I couldn’t help likening them with the kind of men Mastru Gerfex would hang out with, or re-incarnations of Guzeppi and Karmenu from the Enzo Guzman classic Fil-Pjazza tar-Rahal.

The language is Maltese, colourful swearing and all. What was amusing is that even the respective characters’ styles and techniques of swearing differ according to their situation and background. Bruno and Triccas’ swearing, for example, is mild and friendly. Toni Busuttil’s iċ-Ċalie’s (a hardened criminal with a softened heart) lingo is crass and full of anger, if the most imaginative.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

Fact is, playwright Andre’ Mangion is quickly becoming a heavyweight in his own right.

The Direction

Is sublime. This was the first time in a long while where I’ve attended something which was presented so innovatively in so confined a space. Each scene works. Not one person laughed when they weren’t supposed to. A whole lot of us laughed out loud at the uncomfortable awkwardness brought on by the vulgarities we are faced with day in, day out presented in such a blunt manner.

Every scene begins with flash-forwards to the fights we see Raymond working towards having. These short scenes scattered throughout the narrative were brilliantly executed.

Another interesting factor is the soundtrack. Each scene during the first half of the play is scattered with live performances by a DJ and rapper. The music is raw and moody… pity it was incomprehensible at times. As the lyrics served to further narrate the story, one thing I was genuinely frustrated at was that, more often than not, I couldn’t understand one syllable of the lyrics.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

The duo make a final appearance with a final performance late in the second half of the show, and the audio was much clearer then. So hopefully, this was a technical issue that was resolved once and for all and won’t be present in subsequent shows.

The one, very impressive thing that happens a number of times (although I never could get enough of it), was the masterfully executing time warping. You read that right. Time warping… as in the Matrix. Live on stage. Nuff said – go watch the fuckin play!

While aesthetically, the approach was minimalist, there is very intelligent use of props, light and space. The same few metres squared effectively serve as the boxing ring, the village square, the interior of the village bar and Raymond’s grandma’s house. The lighting is well designed, particularly from where I was sitting. Must have had the best damn seats in the house. But, as is emphasized over and over again in the play, everything has a price, and I almost paid mine.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

During one particularly fierce scene where Dyson (Raymond’s juvenile yet vicious opponent in the ring and outside of it empathetically played by the captivating Davide Tucci) gets lost in a fit of rage, he does two things. First of which, he throws a crumpled up sticky note at his estranged girlfriend who is looking down upon him from a balcony above. During yesterday’s viewing (I can’t imagine this was done on purpose), the paper bounced off the edge of the balcony and comically floated onto the head of an unsuspecting audience member. I was still smiling at this and trying to whisper some witty comment in my wife’s ear about safety precautions and what if he had hurled something heavier than a paper at the balcony…when Tucci wanted to emphasise once more how pissed off he was. There was a duffel bag by his foot which he proceeded to kick. And he’s a strapping lad, Davide is. He kicked it… in the direction of my silly smirking face. No time to think, least not about anything but ducking and about what I could possibly have done to offend him in any way. The duffel bag was not more than a metre from my nose, when Ray Abdilla (in the small but superbly interpreted role of a police inspector), stopped it with his foot. Someone saved, someone saved, someone saved my life tonight!

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

All in all, the experience was much more like watching a 4D movie than a play in the conventional sense. There was not one second of dead sound. Actors were on and off the stage in mere seconds. Which is no easy feat, considering they had to enter and exit the stage as they would a real life boxing ring – maneuvering boundary ropes and taking care not to fall onto audience members in pitch darkness. Each scene melded seamlessly into the next and sometimes two scenes played out at the same time.

I cannot emphasise enough, extremely intelligent use of space.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

A little bit more about the Acting

All the actors were in top shape and a joy to observe. Montanaro and Pace’s accents are authentic. Andre’ Mangion’s stuttering and silence are painful and sincere. It was quite amusing to observe Mangion, the storyteller who always seems to have so much to say, struggling to get a word in edgeways. Frank Zammit was fantastic as the rapid-fire, MC/ boxing referee with the outrageous facial hair.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

Philip Mizzi’s performance as Ġorġ Beck, Raymond’s father who has spent a lifetime paying for one grave mistake he made in his youth was gut-wrenching at times and amusing at others, especially when pitted against Toni Busuttil’s iċ-Ċalie, his ever-suffering cellmate. Toni is dynamite in his role, many times delivering verbal blows in such vibrant hues, it actually verges on the poetic.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

Compared to the larger roles he usually takes on, Ray Abdilla’s performance as the stern village inspector was quite believable, yet not a show-stopper by any measure. However in retrospect, it is subtlety that makes this play work so well. Each and every actor know their craft very well, delivering their lines with the respect each character deserves.

The final twist, (the very final one, I mean), I definitely didn’t see coming.

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© Liam Formosa (2018)

Such a play works so well for a number of reasons. It is not because the themes tackled are completely original, because they really aren’t. I can think of at least three or four films which expertly employ the rags-to-riches boxer theme as the driving force of the plot. Raymond Fight Beck works so well because of the heart everyone involved put into it. And because it is so true to our personal characteristic as a nation. Everything has a price, it’s true. Everything and everyone. Power and politics infiltrate and rot even those who seem unbendable to influence. In the ring, bones may shatter and blood may flow, but at the end of the day, it’s money that talks loudest.

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© Lindsey Bahia (2018)

Raymond (Fight) Beck mightn’t be a short play. Nevertheless, its’ almost two-hour running time flew by. It was indeed the perfect way to bring to an end our anniversary weekend. Fast and brutal as it is sweet, it was very easy to let go and roll with the punches. To say it is immersive would be an understatement.

Mikiel, down-an-out.

five-stars

 

Raymond Fight Beck is on at St.James Cavalier until the 18th of March. Not to be missed.