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category: Gazette,Music,Review

“This is a song about child exploitation.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 by

I turned the corner and found a closed gate. Swearing and sweating like only the Maltese in summer can, I took off my top and trekked back up out of the quarry, where the questionably-positioned sign that first sent me down there was. After walking further on, past a gargantuan unleashed dog outside someone’s fuck-me-I’m-rich mansion that barked and growled with its muscles practically twerking with the effort to not eat me for supper, I found further signs indicating that I was on the right path.

As it turns out, having a concert at an obscure location might be good PR, but it sure creates problems for those walking it from the nearest bus stop in the oppressive heat. By the time I arrived, I was a shirtless and panting simian; the opening band, the curiously-named guitar duo Mistura, had finished their set, and I was wondering whether any of this was worth my time.

47, it turns out, is a beautiful setting for artsy endeavours, with plenty of greenery on the side of the steps going down into an open area with a Pinto or De Redin-style tower rising from the middle of it. There were people standing and sitting all along the stairs, with the band positioned a few meters away surrounded by large rocks set up to resemble the Neolithic temples.

The crowd was a mix of ages, with most over 30 and a good smattering of straight up old ‘uns. At 22, I could have easily been the youngest person there. The dress was surprisingly formal for a small fusion concert, but maybe the venue had a part in that.

When I entered KulTural were midway through their third track, and the first thing that was immediately noticeable was the significant chatter that was audible under (and sometimes over) the music. It wasn’t that the sound was bad – it was very clear and if the volume were any louder it would neither have been good for the neighbours (#residentialareaproblems) nor would it have mattered, since people would have just talked louder to make themselves heard.

Here's Bertu Aquilina playing two instruments at the same time and sounding crystal-clear on both. Even though one of them is SomeThing.
Here’s Bertu Aquilina playing at least two instruments at the same time and sounding crystal-clear on both. Even though one of them is SomeThing.

The ‘problem’, as it were, was the intimacy, and relative sobriety, of the setting. When a song starts, finishes, due clapping is given, next song announced and starts, all with this loud buzzing of people speaking, it makes the whole thing seem miscalculated and misguided.

KulTural have a tendency at times to fall into cliche or under-supported statements in their lyrics, particularly in their earlier songs, but that forgivable lapse in lyricism was magnified to cringe-inducing awkwardness in the pauses between aforementioned songs, with the track Ġugarell introduced with a sombre voice and a pained expression by Aaron Debattista, the guitarist and singer.

“This is a song (POINTED PAUSE) about child exploitation.”

Then it turned out percussionist Bertu Aquilina had to change a hi-hat, so what followed were about 20-30 seconds of half the crowd staring at the band, unable to make small talk with that weighty expression hanging on their heads, the other half chattering away as they had been for the last few minutes, and the band looking around with Bertu grinning shyly away as he handled his business.

The song was memorable only in its averageness and the sighed final lines of ‘jiena m’hinix ġugarell’ which sounded sentimental in a bad way. Its ending coincided with a random whistle from the back that somehow left the audience dumb. After a few seconds, some clapping started, but it seemed more like clapping of encouragement, or audience guilt at not clapping, than of appreciation.

After that, the next song’s introduction was stopped mid-sentence to make sure errybody was ready.

What followed was some tuning and the band’s first lyrical song Il-Bidu, though I don’t remember in what order. I’m not sure whether the guitar just sounded so damn fine afterwards, rapper/beatboxer Ru Boo’s real entry to the show with that oh-so-sweet Maltese rapping, or the climax of the song that straddles the line between Ġugarell’s sentimentalism and Tribali’s crowd-urging chanting without becoming entrapped in the pitfalls of either, but the band’s level went up a notch and from then on they had the audience’s rapt attention.

Maybe it was the hat. I hear snapbacks are all the rage nowadays.
Maybe it was the hat. I hear snapbacks are all the rage nowadays.

KulTural’s mixture of sounds lends itself well to these spaces and audiences, so I was pleased that the show had found the right track, because what followed was little short of magical.

Pictured: Magic
Pictured: Magic

Songs like l-Iżvog, Irmied u Ġmied and another related to matters of the heart show what KulTural do best, and that is employ more instruments in a song than many others would see in a lifetime in an earnest expression of deep feeling, with both singers more than capable at conveying emotion. Gabriel Gauci handled backing vocals and made up the band’s instrumental repertoire with violin, which I feel is generally the most under-represented of instruments. Violin everywhere, monsieur, s’il vous plait!

Can you help but feel?
Can you help but feel?

Take the climax of Irmied u Ġmied. Ru Boo’s laying into the rhymes like the wounds are still fresh. The percussion and guitar work together to provide the thumping, urgent rhythm. The violin soars and falls like a fucking bird, man. It’s wild, it’s organised chaos, and it’s great.

The band’s patriotic side (is there any other country where this phrase can be applied to almost every band out there?) was put on display with an adaptation of Kilin’s L-Għanja tal-Imgħallaq and the band’s Għanja tal-Poplu winner Malta Tieghi, and the crowd responded heartily, with these bringing in the biggest cheers. Malta, as ever, is the Maltese people’s favourite topic, and it shows little signs of waning in the polls.

Their latest release, the upbeat Priscilla about a man’s infatuation with a stripper, introduced yet another style of music to the evening, which went down well. A black guy (possibly the only one there) went to the front and danced along to it, and it was cute seeing people not feel threatened by black people since there was only one and he was diggin’ it.

Apart from the first few songs (which admittedly probably made up a good quarter or third of the concert), the mood was upbeat and the band was having as much fun as the crowd. In fact, Bertu and Gabriel have to be the happiest musicians I’ve ever seen. It was impossible not to smile at Bertu’s beaming face as he played a massive didgeridoo, or at Gabriel’s joyous tone as he spoke to the crowd between songs, or when he announced that they would end off with one of their signature jamming sessions.

Their image helps with the older crowd, with each band member sticking out from the others like a sore thumb, but all still managing to look the part of the nice guy. The only thing I’d change was Ru Boo’s sunglasses, since they jarred with the intimacy of the setting, though he did remove them for Irmied u Ġmied which made that song just that much more powerful, so that’s a 50-50.

Nice Guy Inc.
Nice Guy Inc.

Kudos again to the soundman who had to keep up with the percussion’s complex set-up made up of drums, didgeridoos, a box doubling up as a chair, bongos and a variety of other pieces, and figure out the best levels for everything else. A mistake on his part could have easily ruined the show, but as it was, even the tiniest little scratchy thing Bertu played was audible and fit into place, so thanks Mr. Soundguy.

And thanks KulTural for a great show. It’s this kind of talent we should be nurturing and supporting – innovative fusion of instruments and genres, innovative locations, bringing in different crowds – an expression of the melting pot our country is. If V.18 is going to have any measure of success, it needs to build on these previous successes. Throwing money at bands for garages to practice in is a small step, not the ‘solution to Malta’s music scene’ it was hailed as. If that’s the be-all and end-all of Labour’s plans for music, then the path to V.18 is going to be an uphill battle.

All photo credits belong to Laurence Saliba.

Category Gazette,Music,Review

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