The World in One Evening

Babelmed | 17/03/2005

At a time when the issue of “irregular” immigration has made the Maltese people more aware of the presence of people from various African nations living on the island, a number of local NGOs got together to organize a small but significant festival of African food, crafts and music at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in Valletta, Malta’s foremost arts centre.

Dancing to Different Cultures

Apart from volunteers from Malta, the core organizing team included Joseph Mulume Ziha from the Democratic Republic of Congo, guitar player and leader of the Kilimanjaro band, and two volunteers, Alexia Papantchev from France and Martin Schillig from Germany, who are doing voluntary work in the cultural field in Malta with the support of the European Voluntary Service of the European Union’s Youth programme.

Joseph described the Ngoma Festival as “an occasion for people to enjoy different cultural activities, like the music of Africa. People from different places had the opportunity to join in the djembe circle we organized and actually play. They also had the chance to eat nice African food. For me and many others it was a really nice time to meet many different people. Then, of course, there was the super Kilimanjaro band, donc beaucoup de monde on apprécier la danse et la musique de tout un continent…!”

The festival also coincided with the organization of two interesting seminars on immigration in Malta by a group of lecturers at the University of Malta led by anthropologist Dr. Paul Clough. The first seminar focused on the fate of rejected asylum seekers who after 18 months in detention find themselves free but without any status. The second event was a a symposium of anthropologists entitled “Refugees and Immigrants – the View from Anthropology” chaired by Ranier Fsadni. Dr. Paul Clough talked about the countries of origin of the immigrants seeking asylum in Malta, mainly the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, the Ivory Coast and Liberia. Dr. Clough pointed out that many people have the wrong impression that all of Africa is in turmoil and that asylum seekers come from all over continent. Dr. David Zammit dwelt upon the “Legal Categories and Maltese Perceptions of Immigrants,” and Dr. Mark Anthony Falzon asked whether “Immigration in a Globalizing World” is “A Contradiction in Terms?”

The “Ngoma Festival – African Sounds and Flavours,” was held on Saturday, 12 February 2005, and was organized by the voluntary cultural organization Inizjamed with the financial support of the government of Malta, through its EU Familiarization Funds, and in collaboration with a host of other NGOs, including the Jesuit Refugee Service, Third World Group, the Maltese fair trade cooperative, Kopin, Moviment Graffitti, GAIA Foundation, and the Jesuit Faith and Justice Centre. Entrance to all events, including a live concert by the African band Kilimanjaro was free.

One of the main attractions was a stall selling African food cooked by Congolese women. But there were also crafts produced by asylum seekers in Malta, some of which were made by people who are still in detention. Another stand put up by the local fair trade cooperative Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust sold fair traded crafts, musical instruments, food items, and cds of world music.

A Maltese artist Pierre Portelli, and an art teacher, Georgina Portelli, led an art workshop for children from Malta, Congo and other countries. The workshop centred on the theme of the dream journey, the idea that we all have dreams that make us set out on a journey of creativity. For Pierre Portelli, the workshop was a journey within a journey inspired, amongst others, by Deleuze’s “lines of flight,” because he had started working on this theme of the dream journey in his artistic installation during the Klandestini festival in November 2004 also at St. James Cavalier.

Before the concert, the Nigerian drummer of Kilimanjaro led a djembe circle with the participation of people from Malta and various African countries, using fair traded djembes produced from the Tweneboa tree by craftspeople in the eastern region of Ghana Okoroase.

The climax of the Festival was the live concert by the African band Kilimanjaro, with musicians, singers and dancers from Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kilimanjaro play Afro-Cuban music, Afro-Raga, Soukous, Rumba, Zouk, and Salsa. In November they gave a performance full of energy and rhythm during the 2004 Taste the World fair trade Festival, “Spice Up Your Life” at St. James Cavalier. The band is led by Joseph Mulume Ziha who has also collaborated with a number of Maltese musicians and singers.

“Ngoma” is the general name for drum in Bantu language. This common term varies from central to southern Africa. When associated with festivities this drum becomes a dance instrument, but in ceremonies it is linked to royal or magical powers. Its form is generally conical or cylindrical, and can be played as an individual instrument or in an ensemble – sometimes with more than 25 players. According to The Dhow Countries Music Academy of Zanzibar, Tanzania, “Ngoma” literally translated means ‘drum’ and is a term used to encompass all local traditional forms of dancing, drumming and singing.

Art and Crafts from Malta and Africa

The art workshop for children aged 7 years and over was led by well-known artist Pierre Portelli who has already collaborated with Inizjamed on numerous other projects, including the Klandestini project for emerging mediterranean writers and the creative workshops for school children within the Bokkaporti Skejjel series.

Pierre Portelli (b.1961) works mainly in installation art. He designs stages (Malta Song for Europe 2001, 2002 and 2003), books and also sets for TV productions in Malta. He resided in the UK between 1977 and 1982 and studied at Swindon School of Art and Design. He is an active member of Contemporary art group START. He has exhibited his work in Malta, Gozo, Italy and the USA.

During the Ngoma festival at St. James Cavalier, the volunteers that run the fair trade shop L-Arka put up a stand selling products produced by disadvantaged communities in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It offered a selection of wooden, metal and soapstone crafts; musical instruments; food and beverages; cards and other paper products; jewelry; clothing, and more.

This event was organized by Inizjamed with the support of the EU Familiarization Funds provided by the Government of Malta, the Third World Group, JRS Malta, Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust, Kopin, Moviment Graffitti, GAIA Foundation, and the Jesuit Faith and Justice Centre.

An African person who attended the Festival (and preferred to remain anonymous) said that he enjoyed this “lovely event” very much: “Everyone around me was dancing and talking about their life experience. I got to meet many people with different life experiences – it was a bit like touring the world in one evening. The Festival gave me the opportunity to experience many different cultures in one small hall. I would love to see a similar activity being organized in the near future. The other refugees I spoke to were happy with the Festival too.”

Adrian Grima

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