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Music as the multicultural frontier | Renzo Spiteri

ERIC MONTFORT highlights Renzo Spiteri’s finest moments and interviews him about his new position as Artistic Director of Ghanafest

5 May 2016, 8:00am
Renzo Spiteri
Renzo Spiteri
Ten years ago, I described Renzo Spiteri as “someone who creates mesmerising music whenever he performs”. His instrumental base is percussion, yet it has also been the point of departure for several projects, covering over a thousand concerts across a 25-year span. He has collaborated in projects which took him across the world and talents as diverse as N’fale Kouyate’ from Guinea, Mousse Ndaiye from Senegal, the great Trilok Gurtu from India, Mercan Dede from Turkey and Dan Moore from the USA. Spiteri’s music and his projects have crossed boundaries and redefined the so-called grey areas of various musical genres.

Now, he is also pursuing a new role. He has lately been appointed as Għanafest musical director. I believe that such a role will open new directions, though Spiteri is also quite at home with our local traditional and the more progressive, and indeed our own new folk movement. Spiteri and his music have been featured on MTV music channel and BBC radio stations, and as featured music in art exhibitions in Malta, Florence and Tokyo.

I caught up with Spiteri in between his very busy schedule. Most recently, he was very busy preparing for an inaugural concert for the European Graduate School at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. He seems to be reining in the strains gracefully, and remains as ever, forward-looking, calm and decisive.

As an Artistic Director, how did you face this new post?
This is a new venture for me, a challenge in some respect but I also see it as a progression to all that I have been involved in or created within my long musical career. The fact that I have been so intensely involved in various genres of music and travelled so much with different projects is an asset that brings with it a lot of knowledge and experience that I’m committed to channel into Għanafest Malta World Music Festival.

How do you look at Maltese folk music as an experimentalist?
My solo career has evolved in a way that I’ve become pretty much synonymous with what one might term as experimental. I do experiment with a lot of ideas and modes of expression and practice, and in the end I like to see the sounds that I create as a catalyst for an aural experience, where sound takes on another dimension, a journey. But that’s just one side of my musical identity.

I have also been involved, for many years and with so many different international and local artists, in the jazz, folk and world music circuit. I like to see the combination of these facets as a big plus when assessing the local folk scene from inside and out. So, for example, I do think that local folk musicians should be a bit more adventurous and seek to create collaborations and experiment with new forms. I do believe that when folk singers move a bit away from a certain comfort zone and start experimenting, new forms of expression are born – rooted in tradition but forward-thinking. I feel that with the very strong line-up of foreign artists that I’ve chosen for this year’s edition, this important element is surely to come out.

How much do you think that Maltese performance has improved through Għanafest?
Għanafest has always served as a platform for Maltese folk singers and maltese singers/songwriters. The degree of commitment towards quality has always varied between different folk singers (għannejja). For those who do see Għanafest as an important date with concert goers, the festival has fulfilled one of its purposes – that of promoting an important aspect of our cultural identity through quality performances.

What is also significant to me is the fact that we have more local bands who are committed to using the Maltese language as their mode of lyrical expression. And Għanafest has to serve as a significant platform for these musicians and I would like to see more bands taking on this direction and make this festival a priority in their performance calendar.

Music has a huge influence on education. Your comments…
I would start off by saying that I would like to see music play a bigger role in our education system because, yes, it does have a major influence on education, on us as cultured beings. Education here is not limited to the classroom situations as some might perhaps see it. Music has the power to open our ears, eyes and minds to different cultures.

This is why I want people to see Għanafest as a multinational get-together, a feast of cultural diversity, where borders are non-existent. Let’s all absorb the different styles that we will be exposed to over a three-day period in June – with music from the African desert, Estonian rock-folk, our local folk singers, local artists fusing Indian elements and so much more. This, I believe, is part of our education too.   

You have been and are still being involved in quite a lot of creative projects. How much of a delicate balancing act can it be when it comes to find the time and creative resources in preparing for your projects and being an artistic director?
I am currently touring with my solo performance ‘Quintessence’. Next stop is Northern Ireland and then back to the UK to perform this work at the LSO St Lukes’s prestigious Jerwood Hall. I’m also part of a collective called Open Works Lab and we’re working in collaboration with Valletta 2018 on research and practice-based projects and I’ve also started working on a new music project, which is slowly but surely taking a very nice shape. It is a very delicate balance and it’s all about time-management. Thank goodness, nowadays one can do so much work online that I can be anywhere and still get a lot of work done, be it for my projects or artistic direction.

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