Uncool deep down south

Posted in 1 by Editor on August 18, 2009

Click on this link, listen to this vintage piece and then read on…Bix Beiderbecke \”I\’m wondering who\” 1927

“One of the things I like about jazz, kid, is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?”  This oft quoted cool quip, attributed to jazz composer, cornetist and pianist Leon Bismark (Bix) Beiderbecke (1903-1931), is of the sort generally used to cut a long story short. It comes in handy when you need to deliver 500 words fast to publicise one of the countless jazz festivals in tourist resorts anywhere in the world from Woodyard Bottom (Catahoula, LA) to  Timbuktu.                                                                                                                                                      Says a lot but says nothing. Saves time. Tells a jazz audience what it already knows, that improvisation by an accomplished musician can be exhilarating. Also, preventively, like health hazard labels on tobacco products, it warns spectators to expect uneven quality. Some performances may be unforgettable, others best forgotten. Also, quoting Bix suggests you’re hip.
I mean, you must be cool to quote the guy who generated or co-generated stuff like “Davenport Blues”, “In a Mist (Bixology)”, “For No Reason at All in C”, “Candlelights”, “Flashes”, “In the Dark”.  And Bix, who recorded benchmark renditions of “Riverboat Shuffle”, “Clarinet Marmalade”, “Missisippi Mud” and “Deep down south”, was cool. Indeed, together with Frankie Trumbauer, he was the precursor of “cool jazz”.
Moreover Bix’s decline coincided with the first 22 months of the Great Depression and ended when he died, young, alone, unable to find work in the New York City area and broken by low quality prohibition era alcohol. Quoting Bix today, as the world experiences a momentous recession whose final outcome only fools dare predict, elicits pathos from the better read.


The chairman of the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, Adrian Mamo, quotes the Bix quip on the Malta Jazz Festival 2009 Blog (see http://maltajazzfestival.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/adrian-mamo-on-the-malta-jazz-festival/ ). You will recall that on the Monday before last, I invited the gentleman – qua chairman of MCCA – to reassure us that the Council he presides over has not acted in a manner that contradicts a fundamental guideline set by the Act of Parliament that created it, namely, that it should “promote […] freedom of artistic expression”.
If you wish to refresh your memory regarding why I am making such a fuss over why I regard the MCCA’s behaviour and attitude unacceptable in a European country today, see http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090803/opinion/for-nations-vague-as-weed and www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090720/opinion/unbecoming-europe.
The MCCA chairman’s choice not to respond to my invitation – I am not aware that he responded in this newspaper or, for all I know, anywhere else – adds insult to injury to those who feel that Malta deserves better, much better. It only goes to show how far some of us have to go to become the cool Europeans they think they are. I am afraid that down here, in Europe’s deep South, culture is definitely uncool. Quoting Bix is just not enough.
To take liberties with Beiderbecke’s famous words: “One of the things I don’t like about our culture, kid, is that I know what’s going to happen next. Do you?” Of course you do. Nothing. The MCCA should be there to promote freedom of artistic expression, an important element of freedom generally, and yet it does exactly the opposite. Its decision in the Raphael Vella case promotes a culture within which freedom of expression is not a priority. It promotes a culture wherein kowtowing to the powers that be is acceptable and unobjectionable.
Before you conclude that the problem is, after all, limited to the nine members of the said Council (including the chairman) – a very small minority of the population of Malta and Gozo, you will say, and perhaps not a representative sample – please contemplate the hypothesis that the tendency to kowtow to political power is not limited to a small minority. Let me be absolutely clear, had the MCCA acted the way it did under a different government – say one led by Dr Joseph Muscat – I would still be writing what I am writing now. Kowtowing to power is unbecoming in contemporary Europe, irrespective of which party is in government.
Journalists have a special responsibility in this regard. They should lead the effort to emancipate our culture from its tendency to promote servility towards power. Nationalist Party leaning journalists and their Labour Party as well as Green leaning colleagues ought to enter into a solemn agreement whereby whichever party or parties is/are in power, journalists leaning towards the party in government will refuse to knowingly mangle or fabricate “facts” to favour “their” government. Such a pact for truth would deal a fatal blow to the fine Maltese art of kowtowing. It would certainly have prevented some of the obscenities we have witnessed in the past few weeks… no, nothing to do with the MCCA this time.

Mario Vella

This article appeared on Monday, August 17, 2009  in Dr Vella’s regular fortnightly column on The Times of Malta. You can access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090817/opinion/uncool-deep-down-south

For nations vague as weed

Posted in 1 by Editor on August 4, 2009

Perhaps it’s the heat. Perhaps it would have been different in winter. Perhaps if it had happened at a higher latitude or at a higher altitude there would have been a public outcry of the sort that changes a national culture. Perhaps had there been a different party in government it would have happened. Perhaps had they excluded a different object from the exhibition, the reaction would have been different.
Perhaps had the moon been in a different phase…
But there was no outcry. There was hardly a whimper. A handful of columnists and bloggers expressed their concern. Another handful of correspondents responded with indignation. And that’s it. The whole issue has been swallowed up into the black hole of normality. Something unacceptable happened and, thanks to the indifference of all those who, in a less benighted provincial corner of Europe, would have considered it their duty to stand up to denounce it, the unacceptable has become acceptable.
Actually, it is more of a confirmation that in this country the unacceptable continues to be acceptable. We pose as a sophisticated nation and some of us go as far as reciting apparently sophisticated utterances, even radical ones, and yet, when it comes to the crunch, sophistication fades into mediocrity and radicals turn conservative. An island of litigants where the 11th commandment reads: Thou shalt sue thy neighbour, but when the roll is called we hide behind one another and form an indistinguishable mass.
We are one of those “nations vague as weed” for whose “small-statured cross-faced” inhabitants, to quote Larkin, “life is slow dying”. Like our lizards, “nomads among stones”, we scurry and scamper among overbuilt structures we can scarcely afford – habitations, public buildings, workplaces, graves – braving heat, dust, precipitous crevices, floods and the occasional predator. We pretend to be scandalised but will almost never stand up to be counted, preferring to don our camouflage and blend into the environment.
Two weeks ago in this column I wrote about the exclusion of Raphael Vella’s work from the Life Model exhibition organised by the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts. I mentioned no names, not even the MCCA, preferring to focus on the institutional dimension of the issue.
To refresh your memory go to www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090720/opinion/unbecoming-europe.
I received several phone calls from persons who said they agreed that whoever took the decision to exclude the art coordinator of our university’s Faculty of Education from this exhibition should give a more exhaustive explanation than has emerged so far. Needless to say, none of the callers volunteered to publicly demand such an explanation. In any case, they are right that the explanation that has emerged so far is unacceptable in a European country in 2009.
We have been told that the MCCA excluded the work concerned because of the possibility of libel action from politicians recognising themselves (or imagining they do) in the said work. This explanation is intended to deviate attention from the moral and political aspects of the issue and to switch it on to a technical-legal track. The bottom line is that it is unacceptable even by the guidelines set by the Act of Parliament that created the MCCA, according to which the council should “promote […] freedom of artistic expression”. That the artist involved is a respected pedagogue is relevant. What will his students make of the MCCA’s decision? How will it impact on their intellectual formation?
Another aspect that deserves attention, which attention it has to date conveniently escaped, is that of our “political class”. If the MCCA seriously fears that our politicians would have been aggrieved by the works concerned but was not expressly warned by any particular politician that including a particular work would have resulted in libel action, then we can only conclude that MCCA has a very poor idea of our politicians’ intellectual standards.
The matter is too important in terms of the MCCA’s own vision and mission statement to pretend that the whole thing never happened. If it is to accomplish its mission, live up to its vision and abide by the letter and the spirit of the law that brought it into existence, the MCCA cannot ignore the educational and cultural impact of its own actions. It must explain the principles and the considerations underlying its decisions. Purely legal explanations (a mere repetition of what has been said so far) will just not do. We want to know why MCCA has such a low opinion of our politicians’ cultural horizons.
In my previous article on this subject I mentioned no names. Now we need to go one step further. When organisations fail to give a satisfactory account of their actions, one is left with no choice but to invite specific individuals to speak up.
According to the MCCA’s website, the council is chaired by Adrian Mamo. I – and certainly a number of readers – would appreciate his views on this sad story. If he would rather not, we will not give up. We will invite each of the members of the council to do so.
We will surely find one of them unwilling to be silent.

Mario Vella

This article appeared on The Times of Malta on August 3, 2009. The original may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090803/opinion/for-nations-vague-as-weed