Freddie Portelli: A tonic for Malta’s soul

There was a sentiment of bittersweet nostalgia, bringing back floods of memories and a melancholic ache for our island, but also a fierce pride to be Maltese

Freddie Portelli
Freddie Portelli

There was a scintillating moment during the musical Il-Kbir Għadu Ġej, when a young Freddie Portelli (Kevin Borg) bends down on one knee to hastily scribble a song for the Black Train competition.

As he utters the first few words of the iconic song “Viva Malta”, an excited shiver seemed to pass through the audience, who picked up the lyrics and sang them back to him. It was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced in a theatre.

There was a sentiment of bittersweet nostalgia, bringing back floods of memories and a melancholic ache for our island, but also a fierce pride to be Maltese. The audience was happy and appreciative, united by a common bond which was made possible as much by Freddie’s music which we all know by heart, as it was by the typical colloquial banter of the original script. A valiant attempt to provide subtitles on screens at the sides was probably appreciated by non-Maltese members of the audience, but there were times when the real flavour of the joke in the vernacular was lost because, as often happens with humour, it is often linguistically untranslatable.

This uplifting musical was a much-needed tonic for our souls, and I can perfectly understand why it was sold out for six nights, and why an extra night had to be added. We are at a crucial crossroads in this country, torn between wanting to be cosmopolitan and forward-looking, with an emphasis on constant “progress” and wanting and yearning to keep the elements of Malta as it was, warts and all.

The preservation and honouring of a nation’s cultural identity, including its pop culture identity, is important and, in fact, crucial for its people, because, without that touchstone of who we are, where we came from, what shapes us and what makes us intrinsically unique, we become bland and shallow. Without the intricacies and inexplicable quirks which define what it is to be ‘Maltese’, we become indistinguishable from any other nation, and why should that be something to aspire to?

So I applaud Balzunetta Productions who took up this project, produced and directed by Sean Buhagiar and Dominic Galea (who also did the musical arrangements), and so well written by Malcolm Galea. The perfectly cast singers/actors and their incredible voices did full justice to the classic tunes of our own homegrown Elvis, Freddie Portelli, whose lyrics spoke of love and heartbreak, breaking up and making up again; the ups and downs which all couples go through. In their eloquent simplicity they get straight to the point (“leave me alone and get lost, because I’m so fed up of you” .. there is never any ambiguity about a Freddie song). The words are unforgettable, as the audience which sang along with them unprompted, illustrated so well.

Thanks for the memories, and thank you for the music.

Pushing our buttons, triggering our emotions

If a Freddie Portelli pop song can immediately transport us back to our youth and a time when the island could cope easily with the ebb and flow of seasonal tourists, then there is something about the undercurrents swirling between the Maltese people and the ‘foreigner’ which also easily pushes our buttons.

Every other discussion seems to quickly degenerate into an us vs them situation: foreigners are blamed for everything which is wrong with the country, while quite a few of those who have come to live here are turning equally nasty and disparaging towards the Maltese. I read all of these comments and inwardly wince, forcing myself not to reply because I know that on certain threads it is simply futile and time-wasting and you can easily fritter away a whole afternoon. The conversation quickly spirals into an ugly confrontation and who needs that kind of aggro when summer beckons?

It is not too difficult to understand why our emotions are so easily triggered about this issue. You cannot open the floodgates without any planning on a small island and with an infrastructure which was not intended for these additional thousands, and expect everyone to simply get along like a feel-good Walt Disney movie.

However the finger keeps being persistently pointed in the wrong direction: if a young man is in danger of dying after falling on a bus after the driver had to stop abruptly because a car cut into the lane in front of him, the blame should not be on “too much overcrowding on the buses because of foreigners!” The blame is on the reckless car driver who caused the bus driver to slam his brakes.

If a couple decided that having sex while at a popular crowded beach was a good idea, the fault lies in the utter lack of enforcement (did someone say Tourism Police?). “These foreigners are taking over and trying to change Malta” is something I hear daily; but again if all the plans to maintain order in tourist areas never materialised, and tourists assume that it is acceptable to go skinny dipping, whose fault is that, if not of the authorities?

Similarly, the antagonism from those who have settled here towards the Maltese is also growing. Sometimes it is justified because the default position of some Maltese people when they come across a foreigner just going about their business is to glare and scowl at them. If I were living in a foreign land and made to feel so unwelcome on a daily basis, in between being ripped off by my landlord, ARMs, the vegetable man and my employer, I doubt I would be well disposed towards the country’s locals either.

However, those who have relocated here also need to be reasonable as well. I truly cannot imagine landing in a new country without first, having a proper job and accommodation lined up, and secondly, finding out as much as possible about the country beforehand to see if it will suit me. Yes, we have fireworks and big loud bangs throughout the summer, streets are closed off and everything seems to come to a halt - if you came to live in Malta without knowing all that then you really should have done much more research.

I would never dream of going to live in a country and demand that it changes and conforms to my own specifications. It is not only silly and unrealistic, but I dare say downright arrogant as well.