Wednesday, 11 January 2017

fROOTS Maltese festival review

Issue 398/99, August/September 2016. Pics by Catherine McCarthy

Earth Garden, Ta’Qali National Park, Malta, 3-5 June

One of the joys of festival hopping is digging out the occasional hidden gem, and Malta’s smashing little Earth Garden event has been one of our best finds in a long while. Nestling in dense conifer woods in the dusty heart of the island, Earth Garden offered a broad-reaching bill of local and international acts, all glued together by a fantastically welcoming and positive vibe.

In part this was down to the glorious weather, and the ever-sunny disposition of the Maltese people. But every time we zig-zagged through the woods between the four stages we’d encounter ever-more friendly jam sessions and arts happenings, like we’d stumbled into some kind of quaintly folk-flavoured Ewok encampment. You could have almost gone the whole weekend without leaving the campsite and still had an incredible time, but you’d have denied yourself some spectacular musical treats. 

Treats like Iranian drummer Mohammad Reza Mortazavi. This unassuming figure looked tiny and alone as he took to the big main stage, but the second he began to rumble his fingers across his tombak the crowd were mesmerised. Quite how he managed to effect such power and tone from such minimal finger movements was beyond us, but his dense, multi-layered beats soon had the whole audience swaying and jumping in hypnotic reverie.

Elsewhere, Kenyan singer Tina Mweni danced with such abandoned delight that she forced a smile from even the gloomiest punter, transcontinental reggae-rap crew Pon Di Corner turned the Roots Stage into a head nodding skankathon, while Austro-Hungarian trio Airtist absolutely tore the place up with their unlikely brew of jaw harp, beatboxing and didgeridoo. You’ll rarely see such a fevered and enjoyable acoustic performance as these boys chucked out. But it was the local artists who kicked up the most dust from the arid surrounds.

Maltese ska veterans The Rifffs are clearly big fish around these parts, and drew in the biggest crowd of the weekend. The mob down the front were already fit to burst from the band’s own solidly rocksteady sounds, but notched up several levels of excitement when old stager Neville Staple - who’d played a well-received set of his own a night earlier - stepped up to run through a fistful of classics from his old band, The Specials.

Local cult legend Brikkuni also impressed. The only act of the weekend who steadfastly refused to either sing or speak in English, his dark, degenerate Maltese drinking songs had both teens and grandparents shouting along at the top of their lungs, and their minor key folksy shuffle evoked a cloud of dust from the rabidly dancing feet that enveloped the stage and bloomed up a good sixty feet into the sky. We’d happily go and see this gloriously gloomy lad again, any day of the week.

But it was roots fusion collective Tribali who drew the most love of the weekend. Their curious collection of sitars, guitars, djembe, trumpets and didgeridoo minced up a diverse blend of genres and forged them into their own curious - and highly danceable - concoction. Band leader Peter Paul stomped about like a painted powerhouse in baggy pants, while singer Eliza swirled like a wild-eyed dervish and had us hanging on her every gloriously presented syllable. They’ll be working their way around the folk festivals of Europe this summer, so keep an eye out for them.

But the real star of this festival was the festival itself. Beautifully located, with a knowledgable audience open to new things, and one of the most friendly and helpful crews we’ve ever come across. And what’s more, it was cheap - only 15€ for a weekend ticket! That’s less than twelve quid for three days of excellent fun and terrific sounds. If you’re planning a little break in the sun next year you could do far worse than to dovetail it around Earth Garden. An event this special surely can’t remain a secret for too much longer.

From fRoots magazine, August/September 2016. For more info click here.

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