“Moving on to the new, Halycon have released a demo of a song called To the End. If you like your music rough then you'll like this band. They're simply a bunch of post-pubescent punks and there's no harm in that. This is a band I'm keeping an eye on, however, because there's something about them that makes them stand out from all the other performing monkeys of their ilk. For some reason I have a feeling that this band will be around in one guise or another for some years to come.” - Mużika Mod Ieħor ma' Toni Sant, #89
At the age of seventeen and having just recorded in a studio for the first time, having a small paragraph written about my (now defunct) band by Toni Sant was all I needed to feel legitimized in my role as a “rough, post-pubescent punk.” Sanctioned by Malta’s residing auditory auditor, I, just as many other aspiring musicians of Maltese nationality or descent, felt like someone was actually paying attention to my creative output; so I continued to create.
Toni Sant’s interest in music and rapidly changing technologies led to the creation of Malta’s longest running podcast: Mużika Mod Ieħor, which comes out weekly and features new Maltese music, four (or thereabouts) tracks at a time. He then topped that by creating the Malta Music Memory project – or m3p.com.mt – an online database that aims to preserve the legacy of all Maltese musicians; easily one of the largest databases of Maltese output there is around, online or offline.
It is this focused enthusiasm for this particular artform, along with his PhD in Performance Studies from New York University and his Readership in Digital Curation at the University of Hull, that has landed him the role of Artistic Director at St. James Cavalier’s Centre for Creativity.
However, St. James Cavalier (SJC), since its inception as a building, has never really settled into a role. From its original use as a pragmatic defensive structure to becoming an officer’s mess, then a part of the national water system, a food store and even turning into a printing press, it has recently found itself housing a “Centre for Creativity” for nigh on fifteen years. Its role relating to culture and artistic creation in a country that sorely lacks these kinds of institutions has led to an image of SJC passing as a cultural hub – even though its annual output falls short of what that term usually defines.
This Centre for Creativity has never really had a strict Artistic Director before. The Centre’s previous General Manager, Chris Gatt, mostly filled that role, and he’s said that he has seen his ‘baby’ grow into a ‘teenager,’ and called for ‘any revolutionary out there’ to succeed him. With SJC in a great position to ride atop the sometimes choppy, sometimes non-existent waters of V.18 and its related incoming elevating ways, 2015 may be the year SJC and its mythically held Centre for Creativity comes into its own. But does this ship have the correct ‘revolutionary’ at its helm?
“I look for things I don’t know. Then I listen to them. I am genre-agnostic, it’s not about the genre. It’s about the type of music, and there are only two types of music: good and bad. I can happily listen to anything for hours – as long as it’s good.”
Toni Sant leans back on a sofa outside the arts cinema deep within SJC’s walls. He is someone who has been on the pulse of Maltese music for (at least) the past two decades – an exceptional feat considering he has lived abroad so much in that time. He continues to explain his three criteria for a good song: “composition, execution, and production.” Maybe dealing with Malta’s hotchpotch of small but resilient scenes, from the old school hip-hop heads to the hardy metal and punk scenes, the trance and techno sound systems to the newer R&B crooners, has influenced the way he sees music. I saw him go from extolling the virtues of Slayer to praising Muxu for his talent within a couple of minutes, which was something I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime.
His acceptance of all types of music is important; as he himself points out, he’s “been listening to a mix of Brodu, esoteric, and jungle music this week.” As artistic director of the Centre for Creativity, he will be tasked with seeing and evaluating not just the submitted works from every musical genre, but from every genre in every art form there is – at least, those that are represented and practised in Malta.
With his new official capacity beginning last October, he’s already eyed the areas he wants to start working on. “The first place people will see my presence will be in the creation of a programme. Instead of a list of events, it will be a whole, with strains and threads running through the year. We don’t want to just have, say, a Science in the City here, or a Żigużajg there, and then you don’t know if there is a continuation of this programme,” he explains.
One of the criticisms levelled at SJC is that the building is to art what Palazzo Parisio is to weddings: a good place to rent when you want to show something nice to your friends, without any linking ideology or theme. Toni sees it differently: “We provide space, not rent it. And we must ensure we provide a space for creativity, and not for weddings. I don’t think we should take this building for granted, it is a privilege to work in here. It’s got an incredible history,” he points out.
“That said,” he continues, “it was not constructed with creative production in mind, so it is not adequate for creativity production. It’s logistical. Some place like, say, Smart City, would be much more adequate for a Centre for Creativity – and the South would love that, too. However, here in SJC we have a beautifully post-modern situation; we are dealing with the contemporary in a non-contemporary space. It’s all about the juxtaposition between the old and the new, between the exhibitions and the walls that house them.”
This juxtaposition is taking place all over Valletta, from the City Gate project to the new vintage themed bars popping up all over Strait Street. As creatives begin to take advantage of Valletta’s slow regeneration, the increased commercial opportunities that come with it, and the country’s drive towards professionalism, venues are increasingly in demand for exhibitions and shows. Seeing as the newly opened Pjazza Teatru Rjal has yet to be fully utilised as a contemporary art/performance structure, SJC is still seen as one of the premier places to host an event in Malta.
“People have to realize that SJC is not a culture hub,” Toni stresses. “It is a centre for creativity, there’s a difference. There is a lack of understanding that where there is a culture, there is creativity – but they are not the same thing. Creativity is a basic human activity. For example, I am interested in developing a Black-Maltese history theme. Two decades we’ve had African immigrants in Malta, and I would hate to think we’re entering a third without documenting it. We are even looking into getting support for this initiative from other countries that have a black history alongside a European heritage.”
SJC is envisaged by Toni Sant not as a venue for events and exhibitions, but as a place to support initiatives and ideas. If this involves an exhibition, that it fine, but that is not the end goal. Toni is not asking “which artist can we rent space to this month?” but rather “What is Black-Maltese music? Is that even the correct term? What is their creative drive in Malta? They will soon be running for office – let’s see what they can offer.”
Is Anybody Listening?
As if the juxtapositioning wasn’t enough already, Toni follows up his call for increased variation in creativity for an increase in documentation of Malta’s creative output. “We need to stop producing and start preserving. That said, I am breaking my own imperative – I am Maltese, after all. Cognitive dissonance is kind of our thing,” he says impishly. Similar to what local music label Filfla Records is doing with the first Maltese music ever recorded – in the 1930s – Toni believes that before we continue creating further Maltese productions in all forms, we need to start documenting them.
“We are definitely not doing enough to preserve – I am not doing enough. We have a government who has an electoral manifesto with pledges directly linked to conservation of our cultural heritage – consolidation of archives, preservation of our national audio/visual heritage, amongst other things – and they need to act on it.” Toni’s strategic vision – Identity, Diversity, and Legacy – makes it clear that what Malta has done in the past is as important to our modern identity as what it is doing contemporarily.
With their new strategic vision in mind, the Centre for Creativity issued its first call for proposals for 2015/16 earlier this year – which mainly “received applications for the things we’d normally see; we haven’t as yet seen enough engagement with the core concepts of Identity, Diversity, and Legacy. But this call is a pilot. We are leading on this. There’s a second call now and we will always have a call that is open.”
“I hope people will realize what this idea of legacy related to V.18 really is. That it is really not about what happens in 2018 itself, but what we can take forward from January 1st, 2019,” finishes Toni pointedly. Having dedicated so much time to supporting and documenting Malta’s musical aspirations, it must be clear to Toni Sant how important every Maltese production could be – and how the best quality work can be found in the most uncanny of places. A Centre for Creativity, be it in St. James Cavalier or elsewhere, could have an exceedingly important role in galvanising Malta’s creative growth. It may be time this “teenager”, as Gatt called it, came into its own; and Toni Sant’s support, with his “Good or Bad” dichotomy of taste, will certainly not be misplaced.
Written by Johnathan Cilia
Photography by Ryan Galea
This article appears in The Quality Issue of Patron Magazine
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