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.