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


5 Responses

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  1. Adrian Mamo said, on August 18, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    I refer to Dr Mario Vella’s Opinion piece entitled “For nations vague as weed” (The Times, August 4, 2009) and his earlier contribution (“Unbecoming Europe”, The Times, 22 July, 2009), which aimed to question the decision by the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts (MCCA) to exclude the exhibits under the name “Pornolitics” from the collective exhibition “The Life Model” held last month.
    The decision was not one taken rashly and a meeting was held with the artist himself to discuss the matter beforehand. The decision had nothing to do with censorship and was deemed the right course of action when it was evident that the exhibits could give rise to libelous action. The artworks in question were subject to interpretation but, according to legal counsel, potentially libelous, with serious consequences. This may be an unacceptable reason for exclusion in Dr. Vella’s view, but a very valid one in the eyes of the MCCA, which is public-funded and not above the Law. In organising the Malta Arts Festival, of which the collective “Life Model” exhibition was one component, the MCCA currently has a responsibility to ensure its continuity for future editions. It therefore could not allow a situation which could give rise to any form of illegality. It would furthermore have been irresponsible of the MCCA to drag third parties into the issue.
    Admittedly the line between freedom of expression and the protection of the rights of the individual against attacks on his/her reputation (and the Law of Data Protection) is a fine one, and at most, the MCCA may be criticised for having taken the cautious side.
    The MCCA has no intention of sidelining the issue of artistic freedom of expression or of censorship. The MCCA is not content with current legislation and will address the matter in its proper forum. The upcoming Draft Cultural Policy, drawn up by the MCCA in conjunction with the Ministry for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, will be presented for public debate. It proposes, among various other policies, a revision of the regulation of artistic content in the visual and performing Arts.

    Adrian Mamo
    Chairman- Malta Council for Culture and the Arts

  2. A. Taliana said, on August 18, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    With kind apologies to Pete Seeger.

    “Where have all the artists gone?
    Long time passing.
    Where have all the critics gone?
    Long time ago.
    Where have all the intellectuals gone?
    Are they lilly-hearted everyone?
    When will they ever learn?
    Well … will they ever learn?”

    P.S. The above was sent to T.O.M. on-line who failed to show it up to the time of emailing same to this site. So much for t.o.m.’s penny half penny sportsmanship.

  3. Dennis Mallia Maraini said, on August 18, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    @ Adrian Mamo
    Why didn’t you reply to Dr Vella’s three articles on The Times where they originally appeared?

  4. Helen Calleja said, on August 18, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    99 per cent of our artists, art critics and intellectuals generally deserve organizations like the MCCA as much as they deserve the government of which the MCCA is an appendage. How many of them raised their voice to protest against the MCCA’s obscene decision to exclude Raphael Vella from the Life Model exhibiiton? Of course they deserve what they get!

  5. Education student said, on August 18, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    As far as I know, Raphael Vella’s Faculty of Education colleagues have not yet expressed themselves against the de facto censorship of his work (whatever Adrian Mamo may say) by the MCCA, a body set up by a law of Parliament with the express purpose of promotion freedom of expression. If Raphael Vella’s colleagues fail to raise their voice in favour of freedom of expression, what are we, their students to learn from all thsi?

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