On Becoming a Cultural Wasteland

Babelmed – 31/03/2006

Adrian Grima meets the Maltese jazz guitarist Sandro Zerafa before he returns to multicultural Paris. If Sandro were appointed Minister for Culture in Malta what would he do to promote music and culture in general? It’s a difficult one for someone who has just described Malta as “a big cultural wasteland.”

In 2000, after studying jazz guitar at the Conservatoire de Lyon with Jean Louis Almosnino and Mario Stantchev, Sandro Zerafa moved to Paris and started collaborating with various musicians and working in different contexts. He arrived with an interesting cv, having obtained a medaille d’or in jazz guitar in 1999 and a Diplôme d’Etudes Musicales in 2000.

Almost six years later, he seems to have settled in well. “Musically and creatively speaking, it is a very nice period for me. But I wouldn’t say that I am settled in Paris. It is difficult for me to settle anywhere. Maybe it’s because I have a very restless and transient side to my nature. And the irregularities in this life style suit me fine.”

With Emmanuel Brunet on double-bass and David Georgelet on drums Sandro formed his own trio, which became a quartet in 2003, featuring Sébastien Llado on trombone. This group was awarded the 3ème prix d’orchestre at the National Jazz Contest of ‘La Défense’ (27th edition) in June 2004. In 2003 he started a collaboration with saxophone player Olivier Zanot (The Jaywalkers). His encounter with clarinettist Nico Gori led to the creation of a new project featuring bass player Mauro Gargano and drummer David Georgelet. Sandro has also played with the Brazilian singer Aline de Lima and the Brazilian instrumental group Botafogo. He was awarded a Mention Spéciale du Jury for Composition at the 2005 National Jazz Contest of ‘La Défense’ (28th edition). His new quintet features Yoni Zelnik on bass, David Georgelet on drums, David Prez on tenor sax and Olivier Zanot on alto sax.

Sandro Zerafa, who is currently guitar teacher at the Ecole Municipale de Musique de Pontault Combault and at L’Apprentì Musicien (Paris 12ème), has performed at various venues in France, Greece, Italy and South Korea, including Duc des Lombards, Sunside, Café Universel, Studio des Islettes, Centre Culturel St. Exupery, Chet Baker Jazz Club, Jazz Festival de Bourges, Festival Jazz à Orléans, Seoul Jazz CT Festival. In Malta he has played at the renowned Malta International Jazz Festival, the Manoel Theatre (Sala Isouard) and the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity.

Sandro often meets up with other Maltese musicians who are living in France. There is Oliver Degabiele, double bass player, who also lives in Belleville, and Brian Schembri, pianist and conductor. The composer Alan Cassar lives near Avignon.

Playing in Paris – Thinking of Barcelona
We talk about Paris. “I do not consider Paris to be my new home, although I feel comfortable over there. I am already thinking of moving away, probably to a warmer place, like Barcelona. Life for a jazz musician is hard anywhere but it’s the life I chose so I am not complaining. Rents in Europe, especially capital cities like Paris, are expensive. Gigs are generally not well paid and the competition is harsh. When I visit Malta I tend to be attracted to the sedentary life-style over here, but I know it is not compatible with my profession.

Sandro Zerafa

When I ask him whether he considers himself Mediterranean or European, unlike many Maltese, he is categorical: “I am Mediterranean, no doubt about it. Maybe this will sound simplistic and is very much a cliché, but I think there is a very cerebral side to the Northern European people’s way of thinking, which I’ve never felt comfortable with. The weather and the sometimes sedentary life in the Mediterranean also conditions our rhythm, which is less harsh than in Europe.” Perhaps that is also why he wants to move to Barcelona.

In Paris Sandro is an immigrant. I ask him whether he feels welcome, and whether it would have been more difficult for him had he been black or Muslim.

“Paris is a big pole of attraction. Before Malta joined the EU and after Sarkozy was appointed Ministre de l’Interieur it was not easy for me to obtain residence and working permits. But at the prefecture I would observe how the North-African, Asian and African people were treated, and I have to say that for me obtaining papers was somewhat smoother. An Arab friend of mine once told me that she feels that the new wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe (even non-EU) in Paris are being treated by the authorities in a different, better manner than the previous generation of North Africans.”

When the deaths of Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, in Clichy-sous-Bois sparked three weeks of riots in Paris that spread to 300 French towns and cities in November 2005, with more than 9,000 vehicles burnt and €200m-worth of damage to shops and schools, people in Malta, including the so-called “mainstream” and far-right, talked about the problems caused by “immigrants” and the failure of multiculturalism. In one of his blog entries, in Maltese, Sandro suggested that the situation was rather more complex than that. He tells me that tensions in France are more social than racial.

“I live in an area, Belleville, which like Barbes and other so-called “popular” quarters are full of immigrants (both areas have been undergoing harsh gentrification, especially Belleville). I never felt any tensions whatsoever in Belleville, and when I first arrived in Paris I naively thought that the situation was like that everywhere. I think that in France the tensions are more social than racial. Living in Paris ‘intra-muros’ has become a luxury nowadays. There is a huge imbalance between this Paris and the suburbs. The malaise in the suburbs is a huge syndrome – related to the 70s housing projects, an identity crisis amongst youth, and the low economic development in these areas. The media in France has always amplified the ‘delinquent’ side of the suburbs, instilling a strong sense of insecurity amongst the people.” Like many others who actually live in Paris, Sandro argues that it is a complex situation that defies the stereotypes and easy explanations provided by a superficial media.

“I think that the over-simplistic interpretation of the French riots by the majority of the Maltese people demonstrates an insular mentality. These events, coinciding with the arrival of immigrants in Malta, combined with the post-11 september tensions in the Western world, and an economic crisis contribute to a great sense of insecurity. Ignorance and a lack of education in certain fields are the greatest source of problems in Malta.”

Committing Artistic Suicide
Although he loves Malta, Sandro Zerafa can’t see himself returning to his native island for good. “I think Malta is becoming a big cultural wasteland. For a musician it is important to be in a place where there is something happening, where there is a dynamic scene. For me, coming to Malta would be an artistic suicide; and yet I admire the perseverance of local talented artists who are trying to make it happen. It must be hard for them.”

I ask Sandro what Paris and France have to offer that Malta could never give an artist like himself. “It is very easy to feel marginal and an outcast in Malta, when you are passionate about something which is not run-of-the-mill. What I like about big cities is that you will always find your niche somewhere, no matter what you are, and you will find people who will support you in your beliefs. Cultural diversity is very important for me.”

Sandro started his guitar studies at the age of 8 with Tony Pace, and went on to study classical guitar with Charlotte Smith, obtaining an ALCM diploma in 1994. During this period he started attending jazz improvization classes with Paul Abela at the Johann Strauss School of Music, and started playing regularly at Maltese jazz venues with Joe Debono, the late Nicky Doublet and Bernard Scerri, and Charles ‘City’ Gatt.

Mention of Charles Gatt inevitably brings to mind an issue that has worried many lovers of jazz and good music in Malta; and Sandro has been particularly vociferous about it: the proposed changes to the Malta International Jazz Festival, created and directed by Charles Gatt, which has made an name for itself over the past 15 years in the international jazz scene. Sandro played with his band (Emmanuel Brunet on acoustic bass, Sebastian Llado on trombone and David Georgelet on drums) at the Festival in 2003.

The Malta Council for Culture and the Arts recently announced that it had “signed off the organization of the festival to NnG Promotions, the company behind the Elton John, Eros Ramazzotti and more recent Claudio Baglioni concerts” (The Times, 3.2.06). According to The Times, the organizers, claimed that the “formula of the jazz festival” would be “modified slightly” to “appeal to a broader spectrum of musical tastes.” I ask Sandro whether we’re in for a major, rather than a minor, change, and whether this would be for the better.

“This is one of the reasons why I don’t plan to return to Malta. These changes are disastrous. The Malta Jazz Festival was unique. It was the only jazz event of the year. Jazz is not a lucrative affair. You don’t organize a jazz festival to make big profits. It is much the same with many other art forms. The government has preferred to cut subsidies and follow in the footsteps of the Montreux jazz festival and attract a large audience. Privatization, lucrative arts, large audience appeal – culture is going downhill in Malta. It seems that the main acts this year will either feature watered-down jazz or acts that have nothing at all to do with jazz.”

Sandro’s participation in the Malta Jazz Festival of 2003 reminds me of something else. “You introduced your group in Maltese, a quite unusual, if logical, choice; and your blog, like that of some other Maltese artists and translators living abroad, is in Maltese too. What is your relationship with this language that many people in the often petty Maltese press love to hate?”

“My father was a teacher and translator of Arabic and he was always quite militant about the correct use of the Maltese language. I think I inherited that. When you are living away from your country many questions arise about your national identity. I think there might be a revival in the interest and popularity of the Maltese language in the years to come, as can be witnessed from the amount of blogs in the Maltese language.”

Melody and Generosity
Stella Cheung Houston of Jazznow.com described Sandro’s music at the Malta International International Jazz Festival in July 2003 as “on the advant garde side.” She wrote that the “sound was ‘out there,’ but to me, it was tolerable and understandable. The group was in-sync with each other. […] The basis was of straight ahead Jazz but new sound.” What is Sandro’s reaction to her judgement. “I’m not really a fan of the term “tolerable.” And I wouldn’t say there was anything avant-gardist about that group. But I respect the judgement.”

I mention the “irreverence” of works like his composition “Garbage Tales 2.” “There was a period when I was listening to a lot of ‘out’ stuff, mostly New York downtown guys. I tend to be influenced a lot by what I’m listening to when I compose. Now I consider this style to be just another element in my language.”

The Zerafa Georgelet Quartet, which was firmly anchored in the jazz tradition, belonged to a generation for whom rock, free, and jazz formed part of the same panorama of contemporary music. “Alternating between Ornette-like linear abstractions, ambient crystalline lyricism and angular rhythms in a constant contrapuntal dialogue between saxophone, guitar and an organic rhythm section, the quartet’s music was often festive, dissonant, bleak, fun, insolent…” However, the projects Sandro is working on at the moment have taken “a considerably different direction.”

“I am giving more and more importance to melody. Maybe it is a common trait found in the new generation of jazz musicians who were brought up on rock and pop music. Lately I have been listening a lot to Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet on Impulse, plenty of MPB (Brazilian Popular Music), Led Zeppelin and soul funk from the 70s. I also admire musicians like Bill Frisell, David Binney, Chris Cheek and the Fresh Sound New Talent artists (Fresh Sound is a record label in Barcelona, producing mainly young talents from New York). I have been particularly influenced by the Brian Blade Fellowship performance at the Malta Jazz Festival in 2005. With my new quintet I am looking for a ‘lighter,’ almost folkloric kind of sound, where melody plays an important role. This is far removed from be-bop or ‘purist’ jazz. My new approach is to treat the compositions like songs rather than a simple vehicle for improvization. This kind of aesthetic is closer to the pop idiom than pure jazz. But the format is that of a jazz quintet, we all have a be-bop background and we improvize. Jazz is opening up its doors, and I think this is quite a healthy period for this music.”

When I refer to another band of his, The Jaywalkers (guitar-saxophone-drums), with its unconventional no-bass formation, we find ourselves talking about innovation, communication and generosity. “I do not care much about being innovative. I am more concerned about communicating music. I think ‘generosity’ is very important in music. Jazz musicians tend to forget about that sometimes. Musicians who are too preoccupied with innovation nowadays produce cold ephemeral music. I will feel comfortable as long as I like the musicians I’m playing with, which is often the case, nowadays.

Believing in Culture
If he were appointed Minister for Culture in Malta what would he do to promote music and culture in general in a country that has become increasing obsessed with the superficiality of non-events like the Eurovision Song Contest and run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbusters? It’s a difficult one for someone who has just described Malta as “a big cultural wasteland.”

“I would insist on intervening in schools and collaborate with the Ministry of Education in order to increase awareness in children and youth about culture and art. The majority of youth in Malta seems to be wallowing in MTV culture, and they are not exposed enough to art. Education is a priority in this country. I would encourage diversity, and subsidize creative non-lucrative arts, and maybe cut the costs of the Eurovision Song Festival, which for me is one big joke.” Nor many Maltese artists, I suspect, would disagree.

Adrian Grima

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