Updated: Feb 18
Carnival festivities have been a constant on the Maltese calendar of celebrations for a very long time, and 2021 promises a programme to bring joy to people’s homes. Here, we take a walk down memory lane with some past reminiscences and look towards strengthening this popular feast.
It is touted as one of the oldest celebrations across the world and, since the first recorded carnival took place in Malta in 1470, one thing is sure. Its popularity has shown no signs of abating. To date, it remains the one feast that attracts young and old alike, as our popular carnival anthem describes it.
Throughout Malta’s history, Carnival has occupied a place of prominence in our calendar of celebrations and, as Festivals Malta director Annabelle Stivala assures us, the same is set to apply for this year, with some adjustments to safeguard everyone in view of the current necessities.
“Efforts have been made by Festivals Malta to find different ways to present cultural festivals and activities to our audiences. 2021 will be offering a different Carnival, with contemporary static installations in prominent locations which audiences can enjoy mostly online. We also have a number of other safe activities planned, such as a costume competition and the famous il-Qarċilla, which will be also shown on TV stations,” Ms Stivala explains.
Throughout these past years, as those whose names are intrinsically tied to carnival festivities tell me, work has been ongoing to ensure that the programme of events continues to gather strength while also seeing an evolved return to its rich legacy.
George Zahra is one such man – his introduction to carnival celebrations in Malta was very particular, back in 1952 and eager to be part of one of the companies, when suddenly King George died.
“Of course, carnival was suspended and it took place in April instead of February. This first taste hooked me. A year later I started my own company, even though I didn’t really know what the spirit of carnival really was,” he tells me.
The spirit of carnival is something all my interviewees believe in. For George, it means the amalgamation of various man-made forms of art into something larger-than-life.
“Carnival is about hyper-reality. Pink horses, giant kings, grotesque masks ... reality is taken up a notch or three, to create a dream. It took me a while to understand this, that carnival is but a dream,” he tells me with a grin.
And, once he unlocked that dream, there was no going back for George. His floats met with wild success, year after year, and he confesses that this was all thanks to a definite strategy he followed.
“I never copied what others were doing. My aim was to surprise people. Thus, I started the trend of portraying scary characters and themes in a comedic manner, and people responded very well to it.”
At the time, he adds, carnival was dominated by Sliema contestants, who were renowned for having the best costume designers, the best dancers, the best artists ...
“There were such original costumes created, so elaborate,” he reminisces. “Another thing that attracted me was the amount of wit, and thought, that went into creating the themes.”
He confides that people tended to be more spontaneous in his younger days, and that while the floats may have had a simpler concept, participants and viewers were quicker to actively join into unplanned revels.
His words are echoed by Francis Ripard, who believes that carnival remains a fantastic form of family entertainment.
“I remember initiating the process for schools to take part in competitions, and to invite people with disabilities to be part of the public festivities, including the dance shows,” he tells me.
He reminisces fondly on how these initiatives started out on a small scale, but then gathered enough momentum that most schools participated. Eventually, band clubs too were included on the programme and for years the carnival showcase included the majority of renowned band clubs on the island.
“Unfortunately, today this is no longer the case, but we are working to stage a return. Children still take part in droves, of course, albeit not necessarily through schools.”
The situation, however, is different with the younger generation of teens and tweens, Francis says, adding that even here a lot of focus is being given to ensure a regeneration of young people involving themselves in the official programming.
“I have so many wonderful memories of the work done as part of the committee throughout the years. Seeing the rise of carnival balls in schools, clubs ... everywhere. And the first time we held a carnival ball for people with disability, back in 1981 at the Radio City Hall. There were very few participants for the first edition, but this soon changed as the idea caught popularity, and they loved it of course!” Mr Ripard enthuses.
Logistics, organisation and safety have improved dramatically through the years, he adds – recalling one particularly eventful edition when part of a massive float collapsed, miraculously hurting no-one despite the throng of people surrounding it.
“Nowadays the safety standards are unparalleled. Many things have changed through the years, but the excitement of announcing the winners certainly hasn’t.”
Artistic Director Jason Busuttil assures us that this excitement is already very much present for the 2021 programme with a difference.
“We will be filling Valletta with massive static floats for passers-by to enjoy. King Carnival will have a place of honour at the city entrance, of course. Dance companies have been invited to create costumes which will be exhibited at Spazju Kreattiv and online, and there will also be float installations taking place around various villages,” he explains.
This digital trend appears to have caught on pretty successfully, as Ms Stivala also confirms.
“This is a great way to increase the audience for our events and also make a name for our country in terms of the cultural offer. The digital aspect of festivals has almost organically become another way of presenting the arts, making it more accessible to all. The pandemic has taught us a great deal and, although it’s been a tough 10 months, Festivals Malta is proud that we have given a great cultural programme and various opportunities to artists locally,” Ms Stivala concludes.
Article by Ramona Depares