The beat of the earth | Renzo Spiteri

With a career that spans over two decades and several continents, percussionist Renzo Spiteri speaks to us about his musical journey and its most recent destination – a challenging multicultural dance showcase whose brief was to make ‘nothing’ sound like ‘something’..

Malta’s ubiquitous percussionist Renzo Spiteri. Photo by Gaby Giacchono.
Malta’s ubiquitous percussionist Renzo Spiteri. Photo by Gaby Giacchono.

Percussionist Renzo Spiteri is a busy man. He arrives to our offices practically out of breath, and enjoys an audible sigh of relief as he finally sits down, graciously accepting the offer of a (strong) coffee.

This interview will be sandwiched between two, three other commitments that day, he confesses... but there's very little exasperation in that (soft-spoken) voice. Because despite the bustle that such a career entails, you get the feeling that, here's someone who enjoys what he does.

And what's even more rare: in a country that requires most creative individuals to take on ancillary careers - 'day jobs' - to support themselves, Spiteri has managed to make music his full time career.

"The raw passion of it, and the creative process itself is what really excites me, and what keeps me going day by day," Spiteri says. The shock of electrified hair, and his penetrating blue eyes, stand in sharp contrast to his relaxed - though sometimes hesitant - delivery.

"Then there's also the challenges that come with it - both with local, though especially foreign collaborations. There's an exhilaration that comes with working with people for the first time, especially in a different country... you can never be sure whether things are going to work out or not; however most of the time it turns out to be a great experience, and this is what really excites me, in the long term..."

It's hardly surprising that he mentions the international scope of his career so early on in our conversation, because almost from the word go, Spiteri's musical experience and output has been coloured by a multicultural tint, largely thanks to him pairing up with musicians from all over the globe, while also absorbing an equally rich panoply of sounds for his own recording.

The fact that he simply can't remember his first gig abroad (and he does try, pausing for more than a couple of seconds in mid-sentence) is indicative of his pro-active, and prolific approach to music. He credits his less-than-sharp memory to the fact that since his entry point into the world of music, one thing tended to follow another.

"Like a lot of young musicians, I suppose, I first got into percussion as I was playing drums in my teens, as part of a band... though at the back of mind I always have a memory of 'going around hitting things', as my parents would say. When I was around 15 or 16 I'd already realised that drums had a lot to give, musically speaking, but the real breakthrough happened when a friend of mine introduced me to a particular kind of World Music which incorporated jazz with Indian and African rhythms, and I started to follow through on the percussion elements I found there..."

Spiteri has since stacked up over 1,000 worldwide live performances into his CV, at venues in Europe, America, Africa and Asia.

I immediately become curious about what this musical journey looks like from the inside. How does one balance out different cultures in their own sound?

"When I'm working on intercultural projects, there's always a two-way relationship. You can't go into it by trying to 'invade' someone's culture - the point is to bring whatever you have to the table and mix it all together. In most cases, you end up with something that's quite different from what is generally produced in either of your countries, but somehow it'll remain deeply rooted in your specific cultural backgrounds..."

In the same way, one of the highlights of - and something of a breakthrough in - Spiteri's career came during just such an episode of cultural intersection, which was borne out of a moment of spontaneous mutual creativity, rather than any calculated desire to combine different 'ingredients'.

"One of the things that first opened doors for me was a collaboration I did with a musician from the Ivory Coast some years ago. We were going to perform at the MITP in Valletta, and we began to jam together pretty much right after he stepped off the plane. After two or three hours of jamming, we decided that it would actually be a better idea to just go out there and present an improvised performance to the audience...

"I remember him telling me: 'you have something very special; go out there and do it, and don't be afraid of it'. I carry that with me to this day. And sure enough, pretty much right after that collaboration, more opportunities came about, and one thing led to another..."

Asked to pinpoint some of the projects he has enjoyed working on the most, Spiteri flags up his most recent album - Silent Sounds and Spaces (released last November), which consists of compositions based on Maltese heritage sites. Perhaps it's understandable why historical landmarks like the Maltese temples will automatically attract the interest of an inspire any number of artists (working across various media) - but how does one transform the sites into sound as it were?

According to Spiteri, however, you simply don't.

"In no way did I try to 're-enact' anything about these sites. It's a very personal interpretation of the sensations and memories these sites have given me over the time I've spent in them. So when it then came to identifying sounds with particular spaces, it wasn't all that hard to do: because you know the particular 'texture' of your instruments and you can easily tie it up to the site.

"So it really came about in a natural way: I used stone, clay, metal and other things that would resonate in that space..."

His latest project - providing the soundscape to Malaysian dancer Mavin Khoo's latest showcase at the Manoel Theatre, Akasha - comes with similar conceptual baggage.

'Akasha' (which is a Sanskrit word for the 'ether') is a cross-spiritual concept, generally referring to an ineffable force that is at the root of all existence. A pretty tall order for an artist - dancer, musician or otherwise - to make manifest, one would think...

READ MORE: Interview with Mavin Khoo.

"Yes, it's a nice, fat challenge actually," Spiteri says. "With Akasha I had a big, open field, and I didn't want to get lost in it. It was very important for me to collaborate closely with Mavin on this, so I started pretty much from day one and got to doing my own research. And since the concept of Akasha incorporates so many religious and cultural backgrounds, I actually began to devise the music based on the research itself."

The conceptual root of the show itself - "the 'nothingness' that is Akasha" - also took Spiteri to some unpredictable musical directions.

Video preview of Akasha

"Because I'm in charge with supplying the music for the show, people might think that it'll all be all percussion; drums, gongs and so on... but it won't, because what I'm going for is a soundscape that reflects the intangible nature of Akasha. So I was after visualising that aspect of it - this energy that lies between earth and the heavens..."

With such an ambitious project on his mind, you can forgive him for not recalling his first gig abroad. But sure enough, a few minutes after our interview wraps up, he sends me a triumphant little text message, declaring that he's remembered his 'first engagement abroad': it was a solo percussion piece with the late Charles Camilleri at the Royal School of Music in London, two decades ago.

"Off with a bang!"

Akasha will be performed at the Manoel Theatre tonight at 20:00.