From Paris with love | Sandro Zerafa

Paris-based guitarist and Artistic Director of the Malta Jazz Festival Sandro Zerafa speaks to us about the struggle to restore the Festival to its former glory after a three-year lull.

Sandro Zerafa: “Having your ass constantly kicked by talented 20-something-year-old musicians makes you get your act together”. Photo by Laurent Coq.
Sandro Zerafa: “Having your ass constantly kicked by talented 20-something-year-old musicians makes you get your act together”. Photo by Laurent Coq.

The triumphant return of the Malta Jazz Festival - first founded by veteran musician Charles 'ic-City' Gatt in 1990, to its former glory - is heartening precisely because it's so untypical.

Really, it's a David and Goliath story, and you wouldn't have been blamed for thinking that after 2006, Malta's long-running annual showcase of jazz music - having served as a springboard for many budding Maltese musicians while also hosting some of the biggest names of the genre - would have gone away for good.

But even though the argument was depressingly typical - tickets sales for the festival were declining, so naturally the show would have had to become more of a mainstream affair - and even though the festival was made to limp on for three years as a 'rock and jazz' hybrid under the leadership of arena pop rock concert organisers NnG Promotions, the story swerved into an unexpected happy ending in 2009.

In that year, jazz musician Sandro Zerafa, one of the most vocal critics of the festival's new direction, was given the ambitious (though welcome) task of restoring the artistic prestige of the Jazz Festival.

Splitting his time between Paris and Malta, he has served as the Festival's Artistic Director ever since, while also sustaining a solo musical career.

"After the three-year hiatus, during which the jazz festival was outsourced to a private company who had an extremely populist approach, my main task was to restore the festival's integrity and bring back the audience. I think that was the hardest part and I think I did a good job," Zerafa says, while also hinting at what makes his approach tenable.

"At the Malta Jazz Festival I try to find a balance between the more 'high-brow' forms of jazz and jazz with a wider public appeal. I think festival directors should be careful to avoid the pitfalls of complacency, as in finding the easy way out to cost-effectiveness with watered-down versions of jazz (which is unfortunately happening in major jazz festivals around the world).

"One has to take risks for sure. After all, this music is about risk-taking!"

The risk seems to have paid off. A casual glance at some of the festival's more recent guests will reveal the likes of veteran Brazilian singer-songwriter Joao Bosco - who headlined the festival in 2011 - while the decidedly younger Esperanza Spalding graced the Ta' Liesse stage in 2010... before going on to snatch the Best New Artist Grammy award from Justin Bieber just a few months after.

But the Jazz Festival is not just about devising an attractive 'who's who' of international jazz luminaries (in other words, it most certainly is not the jazz scene's response to Isle of MTV), because Zerafa, though a musical expat, is eager to push local talent to the forefront too.

"In the past three years I also gave an important slot to Maltese participation and I also provide the opportunity for collaborations with foreign musicians. I think it is a festival director's responsibility to involve the local jazz community."

These moments of live international collaboration included a performance by Maltese vocalist Francesca Galea, alongside Brazilian pianist Leonardo Montana, interpreting the Brazilian repertoire - which Zerafa describes as "one of the most memorable opening acts in the last years in the jazz festival".

"These musicians never met before. They just rehearsed for a day before the concert. They sounded like they had been playing together for years. In these kind of situations you never know, sometimes it can sound a bit fragile, sometimes it can be magical. That's the beauty of the spontaneity of this music..."

Perhaps Zerafa's ability to plug into what makes jazz work across all borders is down to his cosmopolitan outlook. After all, his travels are intimately tied to the way he experiences music.

Having moved to France to pursue his musical studies in Lyons, he has since made Paris his second home... though transitioning from tranquil island life to a "tough", culturally competitive European capital was not that easy.

"In France, Paris is where it happens. Unlike Italy or Germany, in France, most of the things are centralised in Paris. Paris is a big city, quite tough and not really welcoming. It took me some time to integrate - rents are high (and finding a flat is not easy either),  people tend to be a bit blasé and the musical scene is saturated.

"Luckily enough, I met the right people and I started working regularly as a musician and started developing my own artistic projects. In Paris there are some amazing musicians and I'm lucky to be playing with them. All this helped me improve."

As it turns out, it's a baptism of fire that Zerafa would recommend to any budding musician.

"Having your ass constantly kicked by talented 20-something-year-old musicians makes you get your act together. I feel that this environment is necessary for a musician to improve."

Given this, I can't help but wonder what Zerafa's relationship to Malta is like now... at least from a professional, musical standpoint.

The answer I get is not entirely unpredictable. As is typical, Malta's charms can never be entirely obliterated from the heart and the intimate memory - though its limitations tend to drive anybody with artistic ambitions in search of greener pastures.

"I feel I am very attached to Malta although I find myself in this paradoxical situation where when I am in Malta I do not feel Maltese and the locals do not consider me Maltese, and over here I do not feel French, and I will never be.

"At the present time though, Paris feels more like home and I do not feel that I can live in Malta as a musician. I think that in Malta there are many talented musicians, however they lack the necessary environment to develop their artistic projects.

"One can never compare the situation in Malta to any large city in Europe or elsewhere. Jazz in general thrives in big cities where there is a huge influx of musicians from different corners of the world.

"Jazz needs that kind of dynamism to survive. Personally I try to contribute to the Maltese jazz scene as much as I can, especially through the Jazz Festival, by encouraging young musicians and helping them out..."

The line-up for this year's edition of the festival appears to be as high-powered and eclectic as ever.

An innovation is introduced too: Chano Rodriguez will combine jazz and flamenco dancing. The big "crowd puller" this time will be Al di Meola, who will be joined by his fellow New Yorker Will Vinson, while vocalist Dianne Reeves and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington will once again regale the festival with some Grammy-Award heft - among many others.

And true to his word, Zerafa will once again enable local artists to jam with their international counterparts - Maltese performers will collaborate with Italian and Hungarian musicians.

Zerafa also points out that the Jazz Festival's audience is becoming "younger, and more international". For this reason, he has made an effort to expand its confines with the affiliated OFF Festival. Taking place across different parts of the island in parallel to the Festival proper, the mini 'spinoff' festival is a more relaxed, casual alternative to the main event at Ta' Liesse.

Perhaps because it has inspired so many generations, and endured a number of obstacles in order to once again become a notable celebration of the art of jazz, Zerafa is unambiguously optimistic about this year's edition.

"I think it's going to be another great festival."

The Malta Jazz Festival will run from July 19-21, with the OFF Festival starting this Tuesday and running until July 23. For more information and a full programme, log on to: