Wayne Flask

Author Translator Music Writer Public Annoyance

Coming of Age

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Second album Trabokk marks Brikkuni’s evolution.
(Brikkuni, Manic Magazine February 2012)

By Wayne Flask

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Mario Vella is slouched into his chair, his large blue eyes sticking out uncannily from his overly bearded face. The other lieutenants, Danjeli Schembri and Steve Delia id-Delli are still nowhere to be seen. “Is it normal for them to be this late?” asks a fidgety Michael Bugeja.

“I was saying, yes, most bands tell way too much boring stuff on the radio. We met there, then we started playing, then we started writing our songs…” Mario rails off, signposting from early on the intention to use the allotted airtime creatively.

“Just make sure this isn’t my last show in here, will you?” asks Michael, smiling faintly.

Merely ten days before the launch of their second album Trabokk, this particular week in Brikkuni’s life has been hectic thanks mostly to unusual publicity coming their way. First, they appeared on John Bundy’s Affari Taghna on ONE TV, in front of an unfamiliar audience and a panel composed by politicians and commentators (Mario claims Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando complemented two van drivers after the event, confusing their “scruffy” looks with the band). They would then make another two TV appearances that week, once again on John Bundy’s breakfast show and later on Tomatate.

The last time I spoke to Brikkuni, in 2009, they were sharing a cranky sofa in Hamrun, and some of them, particularly drummer Michael Galea, seemed eager to shake off the “political” band tag that understandably stuck to them after they launched debut Kuntrabanda to an expectant audience. Mario sat at the very centre, the best example of the rock n’roll antihero, stating with his usual air of loudmouthed working class snobbery that it never cost him anything to speak his mind, including a couple of harsh public judgements on fellow musicians.

Almost three years have passed and the legacy of Kuntrabanda makes for interesting analysis. From its brusquely carved niche, it sparked off (or rather, amplified) the craze on nu-folk in Malta; it found many commentators nodding in agreement on the use of Maltese language in music and kicked off subsequent debate on its lack of airplay on our radios (in all fairness, one has to credit the foremost efforts of Xtruppaw and BNI to mention a few); apparently created a very curious brand of Maltese saudade among the expats; and slowly attracted a very new, different audience that was previously unknown to the “alternative scene” – a term which Mario actively despises.

Trabokk is a different animal altogether. Recorded during a seemingly interminable 2011 and released around a year later than originally intended, it shifts from the cosy pastures of the young, youthful and unabashed band making its debut to the tricky waters of the second album, which as the cliché goes, is the most difficult album in any artist’s career.

The added pressure seems to have had a soothing effect on Mario. The singer/songwriter casts aside his preoccupations with Gaddazz Giljan’s routine and Peppi-Bondi’s political imbalance to wonder about insular Maltese society and his role within. There are deep hard stares at the mirror and cries for redemption, quite a long way from his jibes at abstract art installations and lawyers. Or slitting singers’ throats, for that matter.

He hasn’t lost any of his verbosity, however. He glides in and out of difficult one-two rhyme combinations in proper old-school Maltese almost effortlessly, whether on the up-tempo Il-Gallinar tas-Sultan or the utopic balladry of Nixtieq, a highlight of their new album that promises to become a favourite. While Kuntrabanda jabbed, punched and sneered, resting only briefly during tracks like Brussell and Ix-Xewk u x-Xwiek, Trabokk sees them weave complicated tapestries and a large reliance on ballads.

Is this Brikkuni born again? Is it the onset of a midlife crisis? Have they lost the edge?

“The album is a bit more introspective,” says Danjeli, sniggering at his own imitation of Mario’s most recent favourite buzzword. “There’s a lot more reflection compared to the social commentary we had in the first album.”

“It’s less direct too, I’d say that apart from two or three songs, certain concepts are understood only after you listen to the album a number of times,” says Mario.

Don’t err on the side of caution: their blade might be better concealed but still cuts very deep, whether it’s the horns and heavy backing vocals delivering their claustrophobic mockery in Irkotta, or the mocking tribute to police sergeant Cinku c-Cinkwina, complete with organ and funeral dirge. The naughty drumming and marauding violins are still pretty much there too. Fabrizio de Andre and Vinicio Capossela remain steadfast models for the band, their spectres leaving their imprints throughout the album, while the addition of horns and couple of ska rhythms (Kunsenturi) adds more depth to their sound, making Brikkuni very hard to pigeonhole.

That said there are couple of instances where the album could come across as overcooked; there is a lot happening on some of the songs to distract the listener from Mario’s vocals. The aim of lowering their volume to accentuate the music is noble indeed, but does not always do justice to his work. I found myself struggling to understand what is being sung on more than one occasion. Sometimes the effort to cram the extra syllable creates stilting, and Mario almost kills the epic Nixtieq by throwing in the word “parametri” after conceiving what is arguably one of his finest pieces (on par with Tiddi x-Xemx fuq din l-Ghodwa Mohlija).

Delli admits they have quite a few squabbles about the usefulness of certain bits and pieces of music. “We try something out, then take it off. When we listen to it again there’s something missing. So, it’s like we end up doing less by doing more.” A case in point would be the seemingly useless “X’ghala bieb zo**na” that adorns the crescendo of Gallinar: at the second run of the album you’d expect the phrase to be there.

Three years ago, as I wrapped up their interview for this magazine, they made it very clear that Brikkuni could do more than write protest songs, going as far as saying their next album could be a collection of love songs. The second album falls neatly in between and now they admit it’s impossible to extricate the social commentary from their music. Trabokk carries a lot less anger, Mario’s hulk might not prance onstage with the same vehemence as on “L-Eletti”, but there are powerful reflections on the world of employment.

“We spend more time at work than anywhere else,” says Danjeli. “It’s ironic but none of us imagine ourselves without a job,” he continues.

“I think the line that defines Trabokk is ‘ix-xellug quddiem mera lemin sar’. It’s a man with leftist political ideology recognising in front of the mirror that everything around him is led by a rightist ideology. Trabokk is about people caught in their circumstances.”

Among metaphorical references to animals, birds, family relations and mother figures, evoking distant nostalgias of the smell in the grocery store or Sunday lunches, you’d wonder what they’re complaining about, or pining for in Malta. “We want to see a country where individuals can think on their own without being clouded by the usual partisan mindsets that are hogging opinions. We want a different mentality, freedom of thought.”

Weary after a long day and having had enough of being interviewed Delli takes over, and I can only watch as the other two slouch in their seats and grin, bracing themselves for the worst.

“Well Brikkuni… everything falls into place automatically in this band,” he says as Danjeli roars with laughter. “I love Mario’s discipline. He only missed a rehearsal once ever since we formed and rehearsing without him is fruitless. It’s like, you know, you’ve spent a day at the beach and your skin is salty, you’re wet but uncomfortable. Mario is like that cold shower every five minutes.”

In his characteristic deadpan tone he then says there’s “around 40% of him wanting to leave Brikkuni”, followed by a brief haggle with Mario about the percentage. “But we’re like a boat that takes in water all the time and never sinks.”

Better than Kuntrabanda? It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Trabokk has just made sure the fruit cart got more colourful, richer, and ripe.

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