An Unlikely Folk Ensemble

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Sunday 09 November 2008 (Michael Bugeja - The Sunday Times of Malta)

They’ve only performed live a few times, and that was years ago, back when the actual band was still finding its feet. Yet even then, there was something special about Brikkuni and their original blend of bastardized folk. Part of the attraction lies in the fact that they sing in Maltese, but the directness of the lyrics and the broad spectrum of genres they bring into the mix, along with the interesting variety of topics providing the lyrical inspiration also play a big part in the equation.

I meet Mario Vella and Michael Galea - the band's frontman and drummer respectively – over three years since Vella had mentioned to me that he wanted to write and sing in Maltese. He was probably still fronting local indie band Lumiere at the time. “Yes, it has been a long time coming. Now that the album is finished, I feel a bit anxious; not so much on how it will be received but more to do with how the songs will carry themselves in a live setting”.

Over the years, there have been several personnel changes; Vella and Galea are the only original core members in the present line-up, because, as Vella puts it, “I couldn’t imagine undertaking this kind of endeavour without having Galea on board”. But rather than being like-minded souls, Vella admits they often have volatile discussions about the music, which seems to have paid dividends, if the advance copy of the album I have been treating myself to for the past few weeks is anything to go by. Galea comments that despite the changes, the original idea – that of making music that has an instilled Maltese spirit - has remained pretty much intact.

Some of Vella’s lyrics have already seen the light of day in a recent poetry publication, but as he readily confirms, they were always intended to become songs. As anyone who knows Vella can corroborate, he is direct and pulls no punches, a streak that is all too clear in the vernacular trait of his lyrics. “There are some vulgar words in the songs, but not one of them is there gratuitously”, Vella explains. “We never felt the need to restrain ourselves because the words used truly enhance the theme of the songs concerned. They are suggestive as opposed to explicit”. This is what they probably mean when they describe themselves as ‘elegantly vulgar’ (hamalli b’eleganza).

Brikkuni’s aim is far from being neither a novelty act nor a fad. They both agree that Brikkuni’s intention is to filter through all of society’s strata – from the so-called ‘intellectuals’ to the everyday person who simply enjoys a good tune and appreciates their songs for their musical content. They also feel there is something in their songs that everyone can relate to at some point or other. This is very likely as they deal with anything from illegal immigration to the EU; from local TV to Parliament to…love? Ix-Xewk u x-Xwiek is my favourite song on the album”. Vella sets the song apart for its subtle qualities. “There have been many love songs written in Maltese, but most of them are pretty superficial and don’t really convey a genuine feeling. I wrote the song intending it to be the anti-thesis to those hollow festival-type love songs”.

But while they do not mince words, Brikkuni are adamant they are not out to claim any ‘pioneering’ crown. “Most definitely not”, Galea emphasises, “We don’t want to be perceived as some band that’s gone out of its way to sound ‘typically Maltese’. The core of this band comes from an alternative background, but what we decided from the get-go was to abandon any of the musical inclinations we were used to and pursue something more genuine”. Vella feels that their sound is more Mediterranean than Maltese, probably because he’s not convinced that Malta has its own unique musical sound. Of course għana (folk singing) gets mentioned and a discussion about its possible origins ensues; a tiny example of what everyday life in the Brikkuni camp must be like, I find myself thinking. With time pressing, they agree to disagree, basically that every country’s ‘typical music’, like its language, must have been contaminated at some point.

Fair enough, after all Brikkuni aren’t about creating intrinsically Maltese music, but rather to blend what Vella regards as our most typical characteristic – the language – with other genres and see what can be produced from the various elements in the mix. In the space of the 12 songs on their upcoming album Kuntrabanda, they merge elements of tango, ska, spaghetti westerns, fairground muzak and band marches, to name just a few, into a folk hybrid that strangely enough, still sounds predominantly Maltese, most notably in attitude. Apart from a couple of tracks by keyboard player DanjeliIl-funeral tal-Baberun and Zufjett, the latter an organic reworking of the original version of Danjeli’s acclaimed 2007 Kakofonija solo album - Vella wrote the rest using just voice and guitar, which Galea clarifies “automatically gave the songs a rootsy, folk character”.

How it will all be received is something that has yet to be seen and one track in particular, Kollox Suggettiv, focuses precisely on this aspect. Vella is quite critical of basically everything, especially himself. “I know I can be a bit crude in my opinions, but I do believe that criticism – good or bad – can lead to discussion and hopefully improvement, although in Malta it often sparks off unsavoury sentiment. There are too many sacred cows here; that’s the problem”. Galea concurs, “It’s not only in the music scene – it’s everywhere. Art, music, education – you name it. Everyone seems to be wary of speaking out their honest opinion for fear of either retribution or because they may one day need the help of whoever it is they’re not criticizing”.

Faced with the question of how they will react to the criticism that will surely be levelled at their album, they admit they aren’t particularly worried. Vella in particular says “That all depends on how many people listen to it – the more that do, the bigger the chance. One must bear in mind that writing songs is a personal thing, so that should also be taken into consideration by whoever is dishing out criticism. Individual interpretation is fine by me as long as it doesn’t completely overturn the original context of the song”. Going back to the song itself, Galea adds that “It’s the one that has the most potential to irk people as it tackles practically everything and everyone stopping short of the Church, which I hope we will get round to when we start writing new material”.

For the time being however, all effort is focused on their upcoming live performance at Liquid Club in San Gwann a week from today. Brikkuni’s debut CD Kuntrabanda will be officially launched on the night.

Brikkuni at MySpace