Hard-won island tales | Giacomo Sferlazzo at Maori

An intimate but passionate concert by Lampedusan singer and activist Giacomo Sferlazzo graced Maori in Valletta last Friday, following a workshop on the links between that island and our own

Giacomo Sferlazzo performs at Maori in Valletta last Friday Photo by Ivan Ellul
Giacomo Sferlazzo performs at Maori in Valletta last Friday Photo by Ivan Ellul

Lampedusan singer-songwriter Giacomo Sferlazzo returned to Malta for a conference and concert last Friday, ending the evening at Maori in Valletta with an intimate live performance that showcased both his love for folk musical heritage and his committed activism.

Having participated in the 2014 edition of the Mediterranean Literature Festival – the annual gathering of local and international authors, organised by local literary NGO Inizjamed – some of those present at Friday’s concert will have already been familiar with Sferlazzo’s inviting but challenging approach to issues of migration and social justice, which the singer expanded on both musically and through spoken-word monologues and anecdotes peppered – sometimes expansively – between his repertoire on the night.

Entitled ‘Lampemusa’, the concert gave Sferlazzo ample space to delve into his native island’s heady historical, social and cultural implications. With its role in the so-called migration crisis being its claim to fame in recent years, Sferlazzo also felt the need to contextualise the island’s precarious position on the world stage, delving into a rich fount of folk storytelling and even literary allusions to expand upon the island’s status as politically subaltern but culturally significant.

In a way that appears to both echo some of Malta’s own “convenient” geographical and strategic benefits while also coming across as a stark-and-dark logical conclusion of this very predicament, Sferlazzo brought up how, for all its reputation as being a migrant “sanctuary” of late, what really lies at the core of Lampedusa these days is a concerted effort to cede every corner of it for military purposes.

This top-down reality of exploitation was contrasted by Sferlazzo’s decision to give voice to some indigenous Lampedusan characters, highlighting the raw tales of beleaguered humanity behind the oppressive and dehumanising political narratives that seek to compromise them and temp them down for good. Mixing traditional folk songs with his own compositions, Sferlazzo unspooled romantic-but-melancholy tales of corsairing and religiously two-timing priests on the liminal island of his birth with the effortless, expansive grace of a veteran raconteur.

One of the most memorable original compositions dealt with a more recent reality on the island – the fact of how, in Sferlazzo’s own words, “nobody is born in Lampedusa anymore”.

Sferlazzo, a father of three, explained how due to a lack of hospitals on the island, prospective parents have to travel to mainland Italy a month prior to the child’s birth, shouldering all expenses. And one of his songs told the tale of the last midwife of Lampedusa – now sadly lost to the mists of memory.

Sferlazzo participating in a workshop at Fortress Builders Intepretation Centre in 2014, during his first visit to Malta – an event forming part of that year’s edition of the Mediterranean Literature Festival Photo by Virginia Monteforte
Sferlazzo participating in a workshop at Fortress Builders Intepretation Centre in 2014, during his first visit to Malta – an event forming part of that year’s edition of the Mediterranean Literature Festival Photo by Virginia Monteforte

As it turns out, Sferlazzo the musician and Sferlazzo the activist are very clearly intertwined, as the themes of his work and the tireless, lived-in research that make it possible flow naturally from his commitment to the grassroots Collettivo Askavusa, which seeks to portray the realities of migration and the attendant social injustices that have rendered it into such a political minefield.

Addressing the crowd towards the end of the concert, Sferlazzo saw it fit to cut certain anti-migrant rhetoric down to size. “They say they’ve come to take our houses, our land. Our women. But let’s not forget that nothing, really, is ours. We don’t own the land – we are living in it, together. And even less so do we own ‘our’ women...”

Collettivo Askavusa, for which the concert also served as something of a fund-raiser, organises  cultural and political events, short films, and PortoM, a permanent ‘archive’ of migrant belongings lost or left behind in Lampedusa.

Just prior to the concert, Sferlazzo also took part in ‘Sisters Adrift: Connections between Lampedusa and Malta’, a workshop held at the University of Malta and forming part of the research node Belief, Identity and Exchange within the Mediterranean Institute. Sferlazzo’s intervention confronted yet another destructive tendency by the powers-that-be in Lampedusa; namely how the island’s archaeological heritage was given short shrift in favour of tourism-based development and – increasingly – military activities.

“So how is it that despite many similarities between Malta and Lampedusa (overdevelopment, mass tourism, the islands’ strategic military position and the ongoing destruction of the environment) Malta has managed to at least preserve its archaeological patrimony, while Lampedusa has destroyed it beyond repair?,” Sferlazzo asked, with reference to how Thomas Ashby’s excavations in the early part of the 20th century found an “attentive interlocutor” in the figure of Temi Zammit, which collaboration helped secure the sites of Hagar Qim and Ghar Dalam.

 

Front cover photo by Marc de Dieux

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