Carnival gets its bite back

‘People were getting tired of the same old, innocuous cartoon-character carnival floats’

Jason Busuttil - out with the old and in with the new
Jason Busuttil - out with the old and in with the new

'Out with the new, in with the old' appears to be the motto of this year's edition of the Maltese carnival. This was first made clear by the announcement that the annual summer carnival will be reinstated; and the decision - while perceived as overkill by some - seems to have yielded fruit, as a generous crowd gathered to witness the colourful proceedings in the Bugibba Square last August.

But of course, all eyes really are on the big one - the Valletta Carnival, this year taking place between February 28 and March 4. With a generally more streamlined and detailed schedule compared to recent years - and organised in collaboration with the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts - this year's Carnival will herald two major 'developments' which in fact signal a revival of older carnival traditions.

It's safe to say that one of these will be welcome across the board. Lifting the ban on political satire - a curiously durable imposition: until it was finally disintegrated last year, it had been squatting in the rulebook since the 1930s - means that carnival floats will be given their bite back.

"People were getting tired of the same old, innocuous cartoon-character carnival floats," Chairman for the Malta Carnival Committee Jason Busuttil says.

"I'm confident that satirical floats of known politicians will rekindle an interest for carnival amongst older audiences. Of course, they require skill and attention detail, so there's that to consider too. But I know they'll be a key attraction, and let's face it - all politicians land themselves in some sort of pickle once or twice a year, so I'm pretty sure we'll never be short of ideas!"

This year will also mark the return of the Valletta Carnival to its old home, St George's Square in Valletta. Having been shoved away from the capital city which it owes its name to in recent years, it is perhaps understandable that the organisers of the carnival are proud about this development. So much so that the Carnival 2014 programme is subtitled 'Lura fil-qalba tal-Belt' ('back to the heart of Valletta').

But it does come with its particular challenges. "We wanted to do our utmost to respect the aesthetic of St George's Square - it's a beautiful square, especially in that it overlooks the President's Palace... the area of which we certainly won't be encroaching upon. Since the square is paved, we needed to create a level surface, which is especially important since we'll be hosting dance performances. This didn't come cheaply of course," Busuttil says, while expressing gratitude towards the Arts Council and the Parliamentary Secretary for Culture for their enduring support (tellingly perhaps, he refers to PS Jose Herrera by his first name throughout most of our conversation).

But though a return to other traditions like the Qarcilla - a traditional 'farce' involving a notary and two newlyweds - will be paired with new developments like a partnership with London's Notting Hill Carnival (organised thanks to the efforts of the British High Commission, it'll serve as a sort of cultural exchange), perhaps what's really interesting is how Malta's carnival heritage will be preserved and cultivated by the Committee.

"Plans to set up a 'carnival village' in Marsa are well underway now, and we should see it come into effect as of next year. This will finally provide an adequate space for float-makers, with regular workshops taking place too. It will also allow us to concentrate more on the quality of the floats themselves," Busuttil says.

In the same breath, Busuttil also speaks about plans to set up a carnival museum, which would hopefully lead visitors to appreciate the historical context and development of the Maltese carnival over the ages.

It's something that composer Ruben Zahra is sensitive to, having done research into the culture of carnival masks, particularly in the way it pertains to his native village of Zejtun. Zahra speaks not of spectacular celebrations held in the centre of our capital city, but rural communities gathering on an annual basis to mark the coming of the harvest, garbed in crude attire and masks which would be anathema to the primary-coloured dazzle we've learned to associate with the Valletta carnival.

Zahra's particular area of interest hints at a more home-grown angle to the carnival, and one which could fade away if we don't pay attention to it.

"One of the things which I think we should invest in is the idea of a heritage gift. A heritage gift is different to a souvenir - souvenirs could be just mass-produced in China, or wherever. Think of the Venice Carnival masks: on the costly side, yes, but you know you're buying something locally produced and that has a real connection to the carnival in question.

"I think that this is a gap in the market that we really should consider filling," Zahra said.

For a full programme of Carnival 2014 activities, log on to:

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