A Voice For All Seasons

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Sunday 21 August 2011 (Michael Bugeja - The Sunday Times of Malta)

Justin Galea - Photo by Drinu Camilleri

Young of age, bubbly in personality and with an abundance of talent that he is eager to share with others, Maltese artist Justin Galea is the kind of person you won’t easily forget once you’ve met him. More often than not, he’s to be found with a smile on his face that is both charming and infectious, and for some reason gives me the impression that he embraces a laissez-faire attitude to life in general. Beyond all of this however, Galea is a singer and a musician; an integral element and a familiar face on the local music scene, particularly the folk and alternative circuit, although many will also recognise him as one of the more impressive lead vocalists that the popular Voices concerts has ever showcased. Galea speaks about his musical roots, his various activities and his upcoming concert in Marsascala this coming Sunday.

First a little history… what are your earliest musical memories? I come from a classical background, having started out at the Johann Strauss School of Music. When I was 6 I remember playing the magically-sounding glockenspiel and cymbals with orchestra mallet sticks. Next was the piano and music theory – at the time they seemed tedious, but have proved to be very beneficial to me, thanks largely to Ms Amodio Chircop, whose passion made her so much more than simply an excellent piano teacher.

I started to learn the flute at Attard’s La Stella Levantina band club, and later on a more professional level with Ms Natasha Chircop. The band club experience allowed me to deviate from classical music and gave me a different perspective in seeing music as something that was fun and that people enjoyed listening to informally. I think the mash-up of all of these years and diverse experiences were what actually drove me into pursuing music, as I don’t come from a very musical family apart from my mum’s uncle, a clergyman who used to play the church organ.

Did you discover your voice singing at home, and what were your first experiences of performing in public? I actually don’t recall ever singing at home. I was always interested in trying to, but my parents weren’t much into any kind of music except classical, so I couldn’t really practice at home. My first-ever attempt at singing in front of an audience came during my secondary school’s graduation ceremony Mass. I had volunteered to take care of the Mass music and ended up singing most of the songs to a packed auditorium.

My appetite for singing kicked in during my second year at University and I auditioned for Voices, although after being chosen I had to drop out due to exam commitments. I later joined two choirs - Symphonik and EnKor - the former a pop-rock-orientated choir; the latter more of a classical/gospel/soul choir. Both taught me a lot as regards vocal harmonies, soloing and also as a choir conductor.

My first-ever public performance came in 2006, as a soloist at the Strummin’ Home concerts at Temi Żammit Hall. Strummin’ Home is a great venture, giving opportunities to guitarists and singers to showcase their talents while raising money for a charitable cause. And while we’re on the subject, this year’s edition will be held on October 7 and 8…

You’re involved in many different genres and aspects of the local scene, perhaps most prominently on the alternative/folk scene… Yes, as from January last year I joined local experimental punk/folk group Plato’s Dream Machine (PDM). It was a cold Christmas Eve at the notorious Każin tad-Decelis and the whisky shots were hitting hard when Robert (il-Bobby) Farrugia Flores asked me if I was interested in joining the band. My role as flutist, ‘chanter’(as Bobby calls it) and playing melodica and various percussion instruments, enables me to express myself and perform freely with no inhibitions.

Besides PDM I also enjoy collaborating with a variety of artists on different projects. Under the direction of virtuoso pianist and musical director Kris Spiteri, I sang backing vocals in the first ever performances of Porn – The Musical and I’ve also performed as a pit singer during last year’s Cinderella pantomime at the Manoel Theatre.

But you’re also been involved in VOICES and Big Band Brothers… Voices was the real green light that made me realise I can sing more than a note or two. I auditioned for the 2008 concerts and was chosen to as a soloist, singing Grace Kelly and Caruso. That year I also won the Louis Naudi Award fund for professional development. Voices is one of the few serious and transparent large-scale fund-raising events; it gives an opportunity to amateur singers with potential to perform in a professional environment for a good cause.

After 2008’s Voices I was approached by Daniel Cauchi, leader of the Big Band Brothers to join on a part-time replacement basis. The band is very talented and performs incredible arrangements. Singing swing standards as well as pop/rock standards and local songs with an 18-piece band is always a good experience. Singing at the Big Band Brothers’ concert at Manoel Island, with the stage overlooking Valletta was an incredible experience.

You’re a familiar face in the L-Għanja tal-Poplu circuit too... L-Għanja tal-Poplu is an interesting festival promoting the Maltese language as well as live music, both of which are close to my heart. It is also a place where the young generation of singers/songwriters meets and various inspirational Maltese artists such as Walter Micallef and X-Tend. It was also the place were I first met my friends from Brikkuni. I think that good songs sung in Maltese, besides having their own colour and texture and being sometimes quite strident, reach a general Maltese audience more easily.

I’ve participated three times overall in L-Għanja tal-Poplu, mainly with songwriter/guitarist Antonio Olivari with the songs Isbaħ Jum, Attent and Bażar, placing third with Attent in 2009. Last year, I also performed with a rather impromptu band featuring Danjeli singing L-Għanja tal-Għażżien and with Plato’s Dream Machine on Lil Missierijietna. The songs should all be available on YouTube...

Some of the occasional projects you’re involved in, such as gigs with Claire Tonna and the more outré indulgence as part of Duo Kukkanja reveal a different side to you… Claire is ‘the light’…she’s a gem of a person whom I actually met quite recently and she’s always a great pleasure to collaborate with. She sings folk and reggae music with a deep resonant voice to which people react almost instantly. Together with other musicians we performed all over Malta during the past months from gigs at Veċċja and V-Gen to outdoor events such as Earth Garden and the Patches Market.

Duo Kukkanja on the other hand is something I wished to put together for some time and only found the chance to do so thanks to the M3P gig at V-Gen last June. The duo, basically guitarist/vocalist Steve Delia (id-Delli) and myself, is a way of playing Maltese songs in an informal and light way with some hints of comedy here and there. Id-Delli is a born comedian not only on a stage but also in everyday life. He’s written a number of songs in Maltese which have only reached an underground audience but which have lots of potential. In Duo Kukkanja we play these songs together with other old and recent Maltese songs which we like.

Speaking of Kukkanja, you’ll be performing with an extended line-up later this month, alongside Journeyman. I know it’s a special gig as you’ll be leaving Malta soon… what’s planned for the event first of all, a few words about Orkestra Kabataan, who will be receiving the money collected from this event? The event, which is the first I’ve ever organized, is called London Journey biz-Zalza LIVE and I have very positive expectations. First of all, it will be my farewell gathering before going to London to study for a year. Secondly, the event will have excellent live music from Journey Man and Zalza Kukkanja. Journey Man is essentially PDM with a stripped-down line-up who will play some original numbers as well as a few favourite folk covers, and. They will feature some of their own songs as well as folk covers of their likings.

Zalza Kukkanja is an extended version of the duo, featuring Id-Delli and Id-Drinu on Guitars, Ivan Il-Paqqanin on bass, Iz-Zizza on drums, Thomas on trumpets and myself on vocals, flute and melodica. We’ll be playing mostly reggae covers and adaptations of upbeat summery songs with a feelgood vibe. Last but not least, Il-Fre will be DJing, spinning massive Ska and Psychedelic tunes and whatever else comes to mind at the time. It will all be happening a week form today at the blissfully chilled-out reggae hangout Zion’s Backyard near St. Thomas Bay in Marsascala.

As you said, funds raised from this event will be going to the Orkestra Kabataan project, which is aimed at helping poor Philippine children and young people develop their musical talent. Music helps these youngsters to nurture their talents and appreciate themselves as potential future musicians.

Event info on Facebook: London Journey biz-Zalza Live