All photographs courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
OH, TO BE IN MALTA NOW THAT APRIL’S THERE
Once, when Robert Browning was in Italy, he waxed lyrical while reminiscing about the joy of being in England in the month of April. With apologies to this great poet, I’d like to do the same about my own dear Malta. I am not abroad — but I have been denied the joys of spring in the last two years because of the notorious pandemic. This year, all related restrictions are going to be lifted at the beginning of April.
I would like to invite our brotherly friends from Whitstable and beyond to take advantage of this new freedom. Travelling to Malta from England is guaranteed as a safe open air corridor, far from the threats in eastern Europe. We all have carte blanche to enjoy what Malta has to offer this spring.
Easter Sunday is on April 17, but two days before, on Good Friday, we have the open-air pageants in 17 different villages, re-enacting the passion of the Christ through the winding streets. Hundreds of villagers stay busy all year long to prepare their biblical costumes, props and dramatic life-size statues representing episodes from Christ’s passion. These realistic and colourful ensembles are carried on a platform, shoulder high, by some 12 bearers.
Those enthusiasts admitted to the elite groups who dress up as Roman legionaries invest a lot of money in their outfits. They are proud to wear gold-plated moulded breastplates. Penitents wearing white robes, have their heads covered in pointed hoods with two eyeholes. They slowly drag heavy chains tied to their ankles: an age-old part of our folklore.
The beauty of it all is that this re-enactment happens in the street. Visitors have a choice of many villages spread over the two islands — they never have to feel crowded. The whole proceedings take place in sepulchral silence, with large brass bands playing funeral marches along the way.
After this sober period of fasting during Lent, life explodes on Easter Sunday. Statues of the risen Christ are carried in almost every village, followed by brass bands playing triumphant tunes. When they get the statue to the foot of the parvis and the church bells are pealing hysterically in the air, a few score hardy young men race the statue up the steps of the parvis.
From then on, Malta and the Maltese take on a special mood of celebration throughout the spring. There is the annual fireworks festival to look forward to. It’s an international competition, showing off the prowess of artisan designers of fireworks displays, with creative artists from various countries including France, Italy and China competing for significant prizes for the best fireworks spectacle.
The competition includes mandatory repertoires to be followed by a session of feu d’artifice — artificial fire in French — which bursts its colourful petards in the night sky to the tune of symphonic music played by a live orchestra. It all ends up with the booms of aerial bombs and the never-ending rattle of feu de joie (fire of happiness), which imitates military musketry bursts — we Maltese just love noise, especially followed by local designer beer and French fries!
In a more sophisticated mood there is the annual Fashion Week. Local haute-couture designers vie with top fashion houses from Italy, France, eastern Europe and the Far East in catwalk displays of their latest creations. A catwalk is set up in the main square of the capital city, Valletta, and often an international singer or a world-famous band is invited to entertain the patrons while watching the fashion shows. During the day, visitors are welcome to view exhibitions of past designs and the better appreciated examples of past shows displayed in the halls of Valletta’s historical baroque palaces. The Maltese and foreign guests like to mingle with popular fashion models previously only seen on television. The whole week is a relaxed session of champagne sipping in the balmy shade of the trees surrounding the several open air cafes in Valletta’s squares and open spaces.
My favourite festival, though, if you will allow me to indulge my passion, is the Earth Festival. Every year, in the first week of June, the Maltese youth take over the entire Ta’ Qali national park and convert it to a 1960s-style hippy sort of love-in. Not carnal love, of course, but ethnic music love. There are hundreds of acts on numerous stages playing time-tested favourite live music styles from reggae and dub to techno and world music.
The four-day fest is frequented by many of the expatriates who live in Malta, of more than 200 nationalities. A colourful ethnic market is spread out over handmade carpets and shaded by large translucent awnings of kaleidoscopic batik art prints. Visitors can enjoy browsing through stalls filled with ethnic artefacts from all over the world, and there are also many food stands steaming with exotic spices and perfumed aromas.
There is a garden area reserved for artists who hold workshops and masterclasses in their special arts including belly dancing, pottery, soft Maltese stone sculpting and many other arts. This artistic space also hosts visual arts exhibitions that change from one day to another. If there is a festival where everyone can let their hair down and relax with the whole family, this is the one. It always reminds me that I was young once!
To close with a bang — it’s that noisiness again! — I must remind you that we also have a street brass band festival and competition. This is held in villages spread all over the two islands. Each village shows off the musicality of the local band and its ability to entertain the villagers in their homes — it works because the bands march down the streets while playing and stop at crossroads, from where they can be heard by locals at home. The elderly can often be seen enjoying the festive mood while they sit comfortably on their open balconies sipping coffee, while visitors, if they wish, can walk along with the bands, which are often proudly manned by over 60 instrumentalists.
The competition factor includes a mandatory concert of a brass and woodwind band, sometimes with added stringed instruments, in which they have to play a repertory of standard classic pieces and often a selection of film music. The organisers lay out rows of chairs for the public who like to enjoy a couple of hours listening to live music by large bands. The locals stand on rooftops and balconies, eager to applaud their family members who often form part of the band. This is a happy week, with some very good music played all over the islands, even during the day.
You may well ask me why I did not mention Malta’s beaches and the open sea sport. That comes after spring, in the long hot summer. In spring we are landbound and we dance to happy tunes. And those of us who do not like physical effort any more can always wait for the open-air National Cultural Festival in late June and throughout July. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reciting my favourite lines: “Oh, to be in Malta/Now that April’s there.”
For more information go to:
Narcy Calamatta is a veteran writer, designer, actor and director on stage, TV and film. A militant in social causes, he regularly contributes to local print media in Malta in English and Maltese.
He has been editor of a left-wing political satirical bi-weekly gazette and a stringer for the international issue of the Hollywood Reporter. He was the drama and art critic on the first local electronic newspaper, maltastar.com.
His essays on the tourism and film industries have been published in a guide book in three languages and he has published a book with a collection of four of his plays in English and their translation in Maltese.
This year he published a dissertation on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame and its translation into Maltese. He is the editor of two books; Survivors II by international photographer Joe P Smith and Somebody Up There Loves Me, his brother Peter’s saga in Maltese on his fight with cancer. Narcy has also written three scripts for award-winning short films and he wrote the scripts for seven episodes of a TV comedy series. His dissertation on The Beheading of St John, the Caravaggio masterpiece that hangs in St John’s Cathedral in Valletta, was published locally and he delivered it as a lecture at the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
Whitstable Views: How You Can Help
- Make sure you share and like our articles on Facebook and Twitter, and whatever other social-media platforms you use.
- Follow the site to get regular updates about new articles when they appear. Press the “Follow” icon in the bottom right hand corner of your screen and that will take you to the option to sign up. (It disappears as you move the text down, then reappears as you move it back up again!)
- Leave comments on the site rather than on Facebook. Let’s get a debate going. All of our contributors are willing to engage with you if you leave a comment.
- To all writers out there, we would LOVE you to make a contribution. Read our submissions page for details on how to go about that: https://whitstableviews.com/submissions/
- Finally you can donate. As little as £1 would help. Details on the donations page here: https://whitstableviews.com/donate/