What is Valletta? The sum of its people | Alex Vella Gregory

‘Festa freak’ Alex Vella Gregory gets in deep about his PhD thesis on the soundscapes of Valletta, offering a creative re-interpretation of them which takes into account the multi-faceted and ever-shifting social and cultural fabric of our capital city

Through both musical composition and academic analysis and informed by countless interviews with Valletta locals, Alex Vella Gregory’s PhD pays homage to the capital city’s dynamic socio-cultural make-up, beyond the commercial and tourist-friendly postcard impressions
Through both musical composition and academic analysis and informed by countless interviews with Valletta locals, Alex Vella Gregory’s PhD pays homage to the capital city’s dynamic socio-cultural make-up, beyond the commercial and tourist-friendly postcard impressions

What personal impressions of Valletta did you take with you upon embarking on the thesis, and how did these impressions change along the way, if at all?

Valletta has always fascinated me, therefore I was already very familiar with the city prior to embarking on my research. However, the most amazing experience was discovering how much more there was to the city than I could have ever imagined. What started off as an interest in the city’s landscape and spaces, quickly developed into a love affair with its stories and communities. I have also seen the city change very rapidly. Some changes were good (no-one misses the car park in St George’s Square, and no-one was sad to see the old City Gate go). But I have also witnessed first-hand the depopulation of the city through gentrification and misguided economic policies that only consider the city’s physical assets rather than its human assets. But what is Valletta? The pretty buildings? The nice views? The restaurants and boutique hotels? No – it is the sum of its people – those who live with the city whose stories create a rich tapestry of human aspirations.

Your research involved a lot of work with the community. What are some of the key ways in which these contacts helped you craft a more authentic and ‘lived-in’ series of musical works, and what do you cherish the most from the connections you made during those days?

They made me rethink all that I knew about the city (and cities in general). Cities are complex living organisms. They are also very fragile ecosystems. I could sense the mixture of pride and defeat – the sense of history and being the last generation. They are witnessing all the buildings they have lived in being emptied and in some cases completely gutted. Some pretend that this is ‘natural progress’ while others acknowledge the loss. My musical works about Valletta have less to do with the grand historical narrative (often inaccurate and distorted for political gain), and more to do with real people and their stories. I have made new friendships and gained new insights. I cherish those moments of honesty – the stories they have shared with me. I was a stranger and they welcomed me.

Alex Vella Gregory: “I was a stranger and the beltin welcomed me”
Alex Vella Gregory: “I was a stranger and the beltin welcomed me”

Your thesis was submitted just as Valletta’s bid to become European Capital of Culture was about to kick into high gear. How was the impact of this felt in the early stages of your research, and how do you look back upon its impact on Valletta’s social and cultural fabric now, in retrospect?

The change was enormous. On a superficial level, the city looked cleaner and better kept, but deep down it became an empty shell. The community found it harder to organise activities in its own city space often having to battle with bureaucracy, business interests, political interests, and a drastically reduced demographic. I interviewed 95 individuals for my research most of which lived and/or worked in Valletta. That was in 2014. By the time I was writing my thesis the number of those living and/or working in Valletta had dropped by half. That is a massive upheaval. I could also see most shops and businesses being turned over to the tourism industry – and being turned into generic boutique hotels and cafeterias with mostly foreign personnel. I could also notice that unlike those foreign businesses and residents who had moved into Valletta in the early 2000s, who felt a connection and integrated with the community, the new wave was completely detached from the community.

The Valletta community lost decades old businesses (from Allied Newspaper offices down to the small specialised shops across town), the Valletta food market (one of the biggest failures of the Valletta 2018 projects), whole stretches of residential areas (I counted at least a dozen boutique hotels on St Ursula Street from Ta’ Ġieżu Church to St Ursula’s monastery – a stretch of a mere three blocks), they lost whole streets and squares to tables and chairs (Old Theatre Street, Republic Square, St John Square, Merchant Street, St John Street, etc), they have lost the Marsamxett skyline with the hideous overdevelopment of the Gżira/Sliema/St Julians area and most importantly they have lost a huge percentage of its residents because of an over inflated and unregulated property market.

Valletta is our capital city. Whatever happens in the city is a reflection of what happens all over the country. Their losses represent our losses, and the sooner we wake up to that reality the better. We think money can buy us happiness – that it is the solution to all. But when that money runs out – and it will run out – what will be left? Nothing but our stories. Am I being nostalgic or idealistic? Well look at our lockdown social media feeds: they are all about people sharing stories.

“Beltin are witnessing all the buildings they have lived in being emptied and in some cases completely gutted. Some pretend that this is ‘natural progress’ while others acknowledge the loss”
“Beltin are witnessing all the buildings they have lived in being emptied and in some cases completely gutted. Some pretend that this is ‘natural progress’ while others acknowledge the loss”

Could you tell us a little bit about your upcoming project ‘Ritwali’? What were some of the main prompts that led you to structuring a project of that kind, and what kind of parameters are you envisioning for it?

First off – a confession. I am what my friends term a ‘mejda tal-qubbajd’ (an untranslatable term but basically means a ‘festa freak’). I am fascinated by human rituals. They represent a mixture of ancient and modern stories – a series of communal actions that bind us together and help us understand each other. These rituals can cover a wide range of events from festas, Christmas, Carnival, Lent, Easter, and so on. The project RITWALI started off with a desire to seek a more holistic understanding of ritual beyond the entertaining or the spectacular. What are the common elements? How are these rituals enacted? What symbols and actions do they use? Very often those who participate in these rituals operate in a very closed environment and lack the time and means to explore their own rituals deeper.

On the other hand, the current pandemic has led to the cancellation of many rituals. We already live in a hectic world where the current politico-economic model is obsessed with the generation of capital, and ignores and discourages things like communal ritual. Many of these rituals are struggling to find participants – often turning to commercial activities to sustain themselves. This risks destroying rituals or at the very best stripping them of meaning.

RITWALI is thus a project that seeks to bring these rituals together and address these issues. It works along three strands. The first is the collection of crowdsourced material to create a digital archive that showcases those rituals to a wider audience. The second is devoted to critical writing and academic research on rituals that helps us in the understanding of these rituals. The third would be an interactive calendar that showcases these rituals.

All three will be interconnected allowing users to navigate from one to the other. Thus, we aim to increase awareness and participation, encourage critical thinking, invite new audiences, and facilitate growth.

For more information on the musical pieces presented as part of Alex Vella Gregory’s thesis, visit: http://alexvellagregory.com/

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