What an interesting, beautiful, compact country!
I've had a great week in Malta with some excellent sightseeing, agreeable weather, interesting walks in historic environments and literally hundreds of pictures of cats (my fiancée asked me to take them). Malta is a dream holiday destination but its culture is equally fascinating, stuck between the east and west, between the past and the present.
Close out the modernity for a moment and you could almost be in some far-off tropical land, with gaudily painted old 50s buses, tailors sitting behind unmarked wizened doors and a strange semitic language full of harsh sounds and glottal stops. Yet it's also recognisably modern and western with all the trappings of our culture, like handicap parking spaces, a powerful environmental lobby, and skate parks.
The mixed heritage of a succession of different reigning powers has left an indelible mark on Malta, not least in the housing which happily mixes Arabic flat-roofed buildings, Spanish balconies and British terraced rows. That creolisation mixed with some other curious aspects of maltese culture (like the extreme and very public Catholicism) makes it a potential goldmine for any social or cultural scientist.
That goes for the muisic too, to some extent. Ghana, the traditional working-class music that's Malta's equivalent to greek Rebetika or portugese Fado, is a fascinating mixture of Neapolitan or Sicilan song and strange foreign-sounding microtonality. An island of its diminuitive size (roughly a third of the size of Stockholm, both geographically and population-wise) is never going to be a hotbed of cultural diversity, but it's remarkable how many unique things they've pressed out.
My mother (who is Hungarian, another frequently occupied nation) offers up the theory that an opressed culture holds on very tightly to its own visible (or audible!) expressions and will try to retain as many as possible in the face of a dominant ruler. That would also help explain why nothing very much new seems to be appearing on the music scene except for fairly dull western rip-offs and a bit of house - they're holding on to traditions and don't have room for any more.
I'm hoping another invasive group will give the music scene the boost it needs to get started. Malta, as Europe's southern outpost, recieves thousands of African refugees that travel in small boats, paretas, hoping to make it to shore. These predominantly young men are recieved with some hostility by the homogenous Maltese society and mostly (for now) live in the refugee camps of Marsa and Hal Far. The camps are free to access and free to leave and many take illegal unskilled jobs to supplement their meagre government allowance.
I visited both camps (by mistake, call me the accidental social tourist) and there was plenty of music playing all round in the little camp bars. Since Africans (from all over west and north africa, we met Ghanaians, Togolese people, Moroccans...) are increasingly becoing very prevalent in the society, that music is likely to spread. Malta has a no deportations policy and it's likely we'll see plenty of interesting mix culture coming along in a generation's time. There's definately hope.
I bought some CDs while on Malta that I will be posting assessments of in my next post. Meanwhile, here's some more photos from the journey.