I often ask myself, should I harangue some of our would-be ‘culture critics’ for writing like the lot of sour-faced, lemon-sucking presbiterians they are? No, because they can’t know any better. I only wish they had come aboard the XIIIth Biennal of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean held in the city of Bari. It would have got them sick as parrots.
Why so? The latest edition of the famed Biennal flies callously in my face. I enter the Fiera del Levante, the huge fairgrounds hosting this international arts festival. As I meander through hordes of revelling youngsters, I work my way through the events brochure. It surely is not lacking in promising acts, as I confirm later. I am intrigued by the performance of Sinolo Temperament, a Greek musical ensemble pitching their different rhythms against the passage of time. Our very own Esmeralda Galea Camilleri gives an astounding harp performance. Likewise MiStMa, a trio of Bulgarian actors, turn up with an autobiographical act that’s well worth following. Antoine Cassar, Malta’s miglior fabbro teams up with me for Run, Rhythm, Run!, a live poetry duet that gets us a sincere applause. Writers Immanuel Mifsud and Clare Azzopardi, visiting guest and co-ordinator of our trip, help us out in organizing the event. I get a humbling and strange feel that the Maltese contingent is a somewhat worthier protagoniste of this edition, its activities donning a more believable feel than most other scheduled events.
More often than not, the sombre, over-rehearsed act I am following starts fading before my eyes. Inside each pavilion I visit, I am increasingly lured to the incessant hum wafting in from outside. At 7pm every evening, a distant, almost irksome drumbeat wells up as it approaches the centre of the fiera. The mayhem outside the pavilion intensifies. I flip, and leave the hall. In the main piazza, I discover the first tammurriata. Out here, three African djembes, two tarboukahs, castanets and a saxophone are all the rage. The youngsters of Europe and the Med seem to have taken to the streets. Dreadlocked Brits, Germans, pluri-pierced Croat punks, moshing Egyptians, ethnic-clad pugliesi rave to the hypnotic beat: one-two-bom, one-two bom. A group of Baresi break into local song. As the official schedule runs sombre inside the echoing halls, the revelry kicks in outside, streetwise, growing, hungry and most certainly creole. The crowd of young artists sways with abandon. By midnight, two diminutive urchins have fixed a couple of speakers onto a trolley and lead a crowd of hundreds around the streets of the fiera. A DJ comes along and kick-starts a rasta bedlam that shows no signs of abating before daybreak. Hip-clad pavilions watch sneeringly in the background, as many of the scheduled events are wanting in attendance. A young Greek poet yells out his verses in a jam-packed, guitar-equipped corner. I tell myself, our young Europeans are choosing, and it is clearly the streetwise over the sombre. Throughout this Biennale I have noted a beating pulse around my region, and it is all about improvised and blatant crowds of artists breaking out of their solitary cocoons. They seek new ideas, solace and knowledge of the other in a spontaneous collective rather than the hollow hallways of introverted thought. Or so it seems. The Biennal leaves me with a wink and an impish adieu. I make my way to the artists’ after-party on the Adriatic coast. Stunned. And all the wiser.
A propos of street-wisdom, I truly enjoyed the Strada party adjacent to Valletta’s Strait Street, part of this summer’s Malta Arts Festival. It was organized by the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, who also sponsored the Maltese contingent’s journey to the Biennale. Strada is a sure step in the collective direction, and a means of expressing and enlivening the urban aspect of areas that have been obscured throughout our recent history. It also set me thinking about the streets of Malta’s south that I drove through on my recent visit home. The reason why we call the south by its name is, I believe, becoming ever more apparent. Many areas in and around Cottonera still remind one of post-war Dresden. How about taking on the onerous task of bringing more high-profile events into these godforsaken streets, be they political, touristic, educational or cultural? How about a breath of fresh air into those corners of our island muffled by the louder voices of history? And how about giving up on idiotic ideas such as golf-courses, Ulysses-lodges and new storeys around Lija belvederes, and thinking instead of fixing sites of historical value we have hitherto ignored, and using them more lucratively?
And last, where are the corporate and private endowments and funds devoted to our upcoming artists? Some chaps in this country have garnered their riches by reducing Malta to an island of rags and blinking eyesores. The least they could do now, having sucked the udder flat, is to take the cue from the Rockefellers and Gettys of the world, and give something back to local culture by promoting our upcoming people of talent. It is the very least they could, humbly and wretchedly, start giving back.