Swinging through the festival | Ruben Zahra

Busy musician and composer Ruben Zahra speaks to us about Bandli, his interactive contribution to this year’s edition of the Malta Arts Festival, taking place from July 8 to 18 this year 

Ruben Zahra
Ruben Zahra

You could be counted as one of Malta’s most pro-active musicians, as you’re seen being involved in a variety of eclectic events at any given time, while also often making an effort to promote Maltese music abroad. How did you manage to get to this point with your music?

Eclectic is a very appropriate term to describe my approach to music and to art in general! For the past five years my calendar includes (at least) one concert abroad each month on the international festival network: from contemporary music festivals to World Music arenas, contemporary ballet and education programmes for opera houses all around Europe.

Getting to where I am now is a combination of many different strands. Entrepreneurship and strategy on one hand … and of course artistic excellence. With my work I always make sure to preset a very high benchmark but most importantly I offer something that a festival cannot find on its own turf. If they can find the same thing in their own city, why should they bother booking it from Malta?

Your work is deeply concerned with locating and promoting local sounds and their heritage. Why did you decide to follow on this particular track and why would you say it's a worthwhile pursuit?

Music heritage is just one aspect of my work. In recent years I’ve been mainly committed to contemporary expression rather than folk music. Nonetheless I consider the revival of Maltese traditional instruments important for several reasons: by the 1970s the Maltese traditional instruments were practically extinct.

I believe that the folk music is an important part of the cultural identity of any country. Malta has its own language as well as its own music. Having said that, I am more interested in the transposition of folk material to new music. I am not interested in the Żaqq (Maltese bagpipe) as a museum artifact but rather as an instrument that can reach out new audiences on the international World Music stage.

What have been some of the most significant recent highlights of your career, and why would you say they are important?

My most recent highlight would have to be touring with my children’s opera KIRANA in France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Cyprus and Latvia. I really enjoy travelling with my own projects. KIRANA is currently my flagship project. I travel with my own team and get the opportunity to conduct workshops with children and artists from all these countries. It’s very rewarding. I am also very proud of the work I am doing for the Valletta 2018 Foundation: namely the Modern Music Days concert series in collaboration with Teatru Manoel and the Vrbe Nova project which comprises a virtual choir of 2018 voices singing together via webcam uploads.

Could talk a little bit about BANDLI (SWINGS), which you will be helping present at this year's edition of the Malta Arts Festival? What role did you play in devising this event, and what were its initial aims?

BANDLI is one of the flagship projects of the Malta International Arts Festival (MIAF) that is taking place between July 8 and 18. As a programming team member of the Malta International Arts Festival I proposed BANDLI – an interactive sound-art installation. We all love to swing and BANDLI builds upon this instinctive mode of entertainment to create an interactive sound installation.

Each swing is equipped with a motion sensor so that music is triggered through the swinging action. Furthermore, different instruments are assigned to the eight swings so that the whole structure functions like a music ensemble that is brought to life through the interactive engagement of the public.

If two persons are swinging, it’s a duo; four swings makes a quartet… all the way up to an eight-piece ensemble. BANDLI will be installed at St George’s Square in Valletta and has the capacity to engage thousands, swinging and making music together. This is a project that in many ways represents the ethos and vision of the MIAF: artistic excellence that reaches out to the community by taking music out of the concert hall to the people out in the street.

BANDLI engages crowds and in doing so educates through entertainment and fosters audience development. BANDLI is being produced by the Malta Association for Contemporary Music which is committed to introduce new music to new audiences. The technical aspect is being developed by Sergio Costa while I am focusing more on the musical and artistic attributes of the project.

The concept of a ‘musical swing’ has been developed by several artists and we researched several prototypes for inspiration, however we are evolving the concept further for the MIAF and adopting a totally unique aesthetic. BANDLI is a collaboration between the MIAF and the Manoel Theatre’s Modern Music Days concert as part of the Valletta 2018 Cultural Programme in the run up to the European Capital of Culture year.

How would you describe the Maltese musical scene? What would you change about it?

Over the last few years Arts Council Malta has developed a solid funding scheme for musicians and artists to produce their work as well as travel with their art internationally. I think this is a great opportunity and musicians should really take advantage of these funding schemes. Today it is possible in Malta to work as a freelance musician… but you have to work your butt off.

The work has to be excellent and you need to develop entrepreneurship skills. It’s a learning curve and each artist needs to navigate his or her own journey. Personally I would not have it any other way.

What I would change is infrastructure… the cultural infrastructure of Malta is very poor. We lack concert halls, performance space, cultural clusters. We even lack the basis musical instruments available for rent to present a classical music concert with the basic percussion instruments. That needs to change.

What’s next for you?

A lot of touring. I am very happy to announce that my application for the Cultural Export Fund was successful. I will be touring to present the KIRANA children’s opera project at the opera houses of Copenhagen and Aarhus n Denmark as well as a major contemporary music festival in Riga, Latvia. I’m also working on a new multi-media production which I intend to premier in 2017. In June I will be performing at the Ashdod Mediterranean Music Festival in Tel Aviv with my NAFRA folk-fusion ensemble. While I am in Israel I intend to cross over to Jordan to spend a day in Petra and another day in a Bedouine campsite in the Wadi Rum desert. I’m really looking forward to Petra … it’s been on my travel checklist for years!

Malta Arts Festival 2016 will take place across various venues in Valletta. For more information log on to: http://maltaartsfestival.org/

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