Our Artistic Directors work tirelessly to be the creative face of each Festivals Malta festival. Their passion and experience ensure that every rendition does justice to a rich history while driving the festivals creatively into the future. In this series, we will be talking to each Artistic Director to find out what inspires them, what they have learned from their long careers in the cultural sector, and how these lessons come together to shape festival experiences.
And with the Carnival season just around the corner and the world still gripped by a pandemic, what better place to start than to sit down with Jason Busuttil, Artistic Director of Karnival ta’ Malta since 2013, about his efforts to keep the Carnival spirit alive despite the dramatic restrictions that shook the cultural world in 2020.
“I’ve been involved in Carnival since I was seven,” said Mr Busuttil when I asked him about his earliest recollections of Malta’s oldest festival. “The late Joseph Zerafa and his family used to build Carnival carts and cabs near my grandma’s house, and I would give him a hand. From that point onwards it became a passion that kept growing year after year.”
Busuttil got his break with Carnival at the age of 20 when he started his own company. Since then he has partnered up with other great Carnival artists, learning a lot from the collaborations. He tells me that his Carnival experience is broad and over the years he has participated in all the competition categories.
If it concerns culture in Malta, Busuttil has probably worked in it at some stage over his 26-year career. From stage management and props master for the theatre, to logistics coordination for TV, live concerts and many kinds of events, there is probably no cultural activity that he hasn’t been involved in. All of this experience working with some of the greatest artists and event organisers that Malta has to offer has taught him the importance of finding the right balance between creativity and logistics. It has also given him a front-row seat on the changes that have transformed the industry over the years.
“Over my career, I have learned not to be afraid to change,” he summarised. “Sometimes change can be difficult but if you believe in it you have to keep on going.”
And Busuttil has not shied away from making changes to Malta’s historic Carnival, stewarding the evolution of the format year after year. “I’ve made big changes to the Maltese Carnival and I don't regret it at all. Carnival improves every year and I am happy with the work of my team.”
Some of the successes that Busuttil highlights include expanding the list of competition categories, the return of the Carnival Piazza to its original venue in the St George’s Square, the spread of Carnival activities to villages and towns around Malta and the growing numbers of Maltese who participate in the yearly festivities.
But the Covid pandemic has left a dramatic mark on the 2021 edition of Carnival, in much the same way as it has affected festivals and events around the world. With social distancing rules that prohibit large social gatherings, hosting the usual Carnival parades involving elaborately designed floats and costumed dancers is just not an option.
The pandemic represents a temporary disruption to Busuttil’s efforts to gradually evolve Carnival over time. “We had to think outside the box”, explained Busuttil. “Instead of the floats moving through the streets of Valletta there will be installations featuring different subjects fixed on sites around Malta. We collaborated with local artists to come up with creative designs that the float builders have brought to life. What’s more, each dance company has contributed two original costumes that will form part of an exhibition at Spazju Kreattiv, which will be displayed in the Atrium.”
In addition to the installations and physical events, the organising team at Festivals Malta are working on a number of TV productions that will be aired on TVM 2 – a historical documentary on Carnival, a dramatic rendition of the historic Qarċilla, and programs delving into the making of the 2021 Carnival installations and costumes. A special publication will also create a lasting record of this year’s unprecedented edition, a must-have for every Carnival aficionado.
All of this hard work by Busuttil and the Festivals Malta team has ensured that, while we can’t see the incredible handiwork or the Carnival parades in motion, we can still get into the festival spirit while waiting for the dark clouds of the pandemic to pass. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Busuttil, “but with the determination of all involved we managed to organise a decent Carnival.”
Looking to the future, Busuttil can see great things on the horizon. If circumstances improve, Carnival 2022 will take the next evolutionary step with plans already underway for lots of new participants and initiatives.
“Let's hope for the best to come,” concluded Busuttil.