Hamrun’s polite rivalry: Inside Malta’s noisiest and most contested of festas

Today Hamrun turns into a sea of red and blue in one of the island’s noisiest and most contested of festas. MASSIMO COSTA finds out how the century-old rivalry is played out across band clubs, but also politics...

Today Hamrun turns into a sea of red and blue in one of the island’s noisiest and most contested of festas
Today Hamrun turns into a sea of red and blue in one of the island’s noisiest and most contested of festas

Don’t call it ‘rivalry’, Nigel Vella, the secretary of the San Gejtanu band club says of Hamrun’s fabled red and blue divide straddling the St Joseph High Street.

On 12 August the town celebrates the feast of patron saint San Gejtanu (St Cajetan) – patron saint of the unemployed – but the community celebrating the saint will be squarely divided into two rival band clubs.

Long engaged in fierce competition, the rivalry between the San Gejtanu and San Guzepp (St Joseph) band clubs reached its climax in 1987, when a fight between the supporters of both clubs led to an infamous incident when the statues of angels were seen “flying” across the town’s main street.

Originally, the San Gejtanu band club was formed in 1906 by former members of the St Joseph club, which itself was founded in 1889. The St Joseph band had been invited to perform a musical programme in Floriana, but when some musicians failed to attend, they were summarily sacked by the committee – an action which prompted a split inside the band club. The rivalry is expressed in the soubriquets each club gave to each other: the St Joseph club dubbed the splinter band club ‘tat-Tamal’ because their premises was first sited next to a date-cake seller, while San Gejtanu taunted the now decimated St Joseph club with the ‘tal-Miskina’ moniker.

Additionally, the rivalry is split across the ‘festa-partiti’ axis: the San Gejtanu supporters in their red shirts and red headbands, are portrayed to have a political affinity with the Labour Party. It is no surprise that Nigel Vella happens to be a long-time Labour Party official who is now a communications coordinator in the Office of the Prime Minister. The St Joseph blues on the other hand, are ostensibly Nationalist sympathisers.

It is this heady mix of the sacred and the profane, with insults hurled as both camps claim unto their own the hallowed San Gejtanu, that makes this feast such a popular expression of Maltese traditional festa culture, and community rivalry.

Keith Micallef, a journalist with The Times, is the public relations officer of the St Joseph band club. “The rivalry is still very much felt. But those not from Hamrun might not really understand it – you might have two people who one minute are insulting each other, and the next having a drink together. It might not be as apparent as before, but the fierce competition is still there, you cannot deny it.”

But Nigel Vella is unwilling to fuel the notion of an unrequited rivalry between the two sides. “Rivalry is too strong a word. The truth is we are in constant contact with one another, and we have strong relations. Last week they welcomed us for dinner at their club, and we invited them to come to ours once the feast is over,” he told MaltaToday.

“There will always be some competitive pique between the two clubs – it’s normal when there are people with different views.

“But Hamrun’s problem is that many persons from outside the town come to the feast – there is more of a rivalry between the non-residents who have different political allegiances than between the people from here who are involved in the feast. It’s unfortunate that sometimes people who visit Hamrun for the feast don’t only come for the celebrations, but also introduce a political element to it all,” he said.

Micallef points out the obvious political element that exists to the rivalry, but he said this was so even within the band clubs themselves.

“It’s a fact that there are political allegiances. We have no problem with people from outside Hamrun coming to the feast,” he said. “The issues start when they cause trouble, since it’s difficult to deal with non-residents, because you don’t really know who they are. If a local is causing trouble, you can manage that, in one way or another, because we know each other.”

Indeed, the 1987 incident signalled an end to the violent confrontation of the two band clubs. A year later, the two clubs signed a public contract agreeing to regulate the outdoor celebrations, which saw the two clubs form one band on Saturday evening to play the anthem dedicated to St Cajetan.

Both band clubs start from opposite ends of the St Joseph High Street to meet face-to-face outside the parish church in the middle of the road, separated by a cordon of police officers – at least 100 officers will be on duty on the day.

But beyond the waning rivalry of the two band clubs, it is the sustained interest among local youths involved in the preparations of the feast that gives the Maltese festa its staying power.

“In terms of young people, the band club’s youth committee has 17 members, but there are then those volunteers who come by every year to help with the preparations for the feast. Year in, year out, we always get that certain nucleus of people who offer their assistance when we need it,” Vella said.

It is a statement redolent of the humble admission by Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain, renowned for his landmark work on Malta, that his prediction about Maltese festi disappearing from the scene altogether was wrong. Writing in the 1950s, Boissevain thought public attention was increasingly being diverted away from entrenched religious traditions. But the Maltese festa grew noisier, more contested and more popular in the 1970s, with Boissevain realising that festas fomented a communal nostalgia that brought back ex-villagers and kin to meet up again.

“In general, volunteering in Malta has decreased across the board, due to people having more obligations to meet in their daily lives. So, while the number of volunteers has gone down, we still get certain people each year who come over during the week of the feast to give a helping hand,” Vella said.

Very much in the same vein as Vella, Micallef said young people are still interested in the feast, albeit not as much as before.

“The decrease in youth involvement in voluntary activity is a phenomenon happening across all sectors in Malta, because of all the commitments people have… We are the only feast in Malta, as far as I know, in which the bands playing all through the week are from Hamrun, with no outside bands involved, so the preparations are on a large scale,” Micallef adds.

Vella reassuringly says that the oft-touted Hamrun rivalry that turns the former port town into a sea of blue and red, will simply be a colourful display of festive bonhomie. “We’ve met with the police and officials from the St Joseph band club. And we have an excellent relationship with them.”

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