When Eurovision hits a sour note

When Eurovision hits a sour note

"If you ask me what went wrong, I honestly don't know "

"If you ask me what went wrong, I honestly don't know "

Robert Abela says he has enjoyed his three years at the helm of the now-defunct Maltasong board, despite the abysmal results obtained by Malta at the Eurovision Song Contest. Herman Grech catches up with Mr Abela for a final encore.

The silver-haired Robert Abela is an affable kind of guy. He is well-mannered, organised and friend-ly, albeit camera-shy. It is therefore somewhat baffling how he has often hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

From the outset he was accused of being appointed to the post merely because he was a close friend of the former Culture Minister Francis Zammit Dimech. He had a much-publicised altercation with his predecessor, Grace Borg, as libel suits flew in. In the meantime, some newspapers probed certain aspects of his private life to try to dish some dirt on him almost as if he were next in line for the throne.

At end of May for the past three years, all guns, pots and pans were pointed in his direction following the disappointing Eurovision results for Malta. Fabrizio Faniello's I Do placed last in 2006, obtaining a single point (which prompted the joke 'what's the difference between Faniello and a toothpick - a toothpick has two points'); and Olivia Lewis's Vertigo fell to earth with a thud in 2007. Malta then tried to charm Europe with a beautiful girl from Sannat, but Morena's Vodka still failed to place at Belgrade's festival last month.

So how does Mr Abela feel when people blame him for the failure of a festival most Europeans dismiss as an 'annual cringefest'?

"I'm not happy with the criticism because you feel you failed. I personally feel that I haven't. The important thing is that we present a good, solid package in those three minutes. And people this year liked Morena's performance."

He says in his defence: If Malta participated with a good singer and song and placed towards the top end, it would certainly not be credit to the chairman or the board, but to the singer who gives it his or her all on the big night.

"If Malta opts for Chiara or Ira Losco next year and they perform well - should it be the Maltasong board or its chairman who deserve the praise?"

So does the outgoing chairman feel that Malta lacked a decent Eurovision package in the past three years?

"This year's song was very good, but it was evidently disliked (in Europe)," is his diplomatic reply, referring to Morena's tally of 38 points in the semi-finals.

Ultimately, Mr Abela would have been happier to be chairman during the years when Malta's placing outside the top 10 was considered a failure.

When the likes of Ira Losco and Chiara participated and came within a hairline of winning the contest, there were no semi-finals because there were fewer parti-cipating countries. Since then, the European Broadcasting Union has also made it optional for all countries to sing in English, giving a boost to countries who normally sang in languages that were hitherto associated with dodgy films. In the meantime, the Eurovision has stretched its boundaries to countries like San Marino and Azerbaijan. It would be interesting to see whether the Maltese singers who obtained good results in the past would achieve the same results if they were to compete today, Mr Abela noted.

One thing Mr Abela has learned during his tenure is that there is no set formula to win the festival. After the success of bands like Finland's monster Lordi and Ukraine's outrageous Verka Serduchka, thousands of local Eurovision addicts felt that Malta should be a bit risqué and export someone like Ray Calleja's alter ego Jo Zette.

But all these theories went down the drain when Ireland - which has won the contest three times - failed to make it to this year's final, despite sending Dustin the Turkey, a crass purple-beaked puppet who rides around in a shopping cart and who sang a song called Irlande Douze Points.

Although it is branded a joke by most of western Europe, some sent star performers. Yet even they failed to make significant inroads. Swiss Italian singer Paolo Meneguzzi also failed to make it through the semi-finals (despite receiving 12 points from Malta) though he is considered a star in his home country. Fellow Swiss celebrity DJ Bobo also lost out spectacularly last year.

On the other hand, Russia romped home this year thanks to bloc voting from its neighbours, even if its singer Dima Bilan was clearly off-key during parts of his performance.

Critics of the festival recently argued that western countries should not pump so much money into a festival which has clearly been hijacked by the eastern countries.

Before even the first note is played, viewers all know how the voting will go. The Balkan states will scratch each other's back, the Scandinavians and the Baltic states will warm up to each other, countries like Ukraine and Moldova will align themselves with the country that brings them oil and gas, Cyprus will give its douze points to Greece and the Greeks will return the favour, while others are left in the East European cold.

Should there be two separate festivals or should western countries stop pumping the bulk of the money into it?

The four big countries - UK, Germany, France and Spain - which finance a hefty part of the show are at an advantage because they are always in the final but nobody appears to be interested in voting for them, Mr Abela says. The EBU is in fact discussing whether these four countries should start off in the semi-final with everybody else. Furthermore, they do not seem to bother having good entries because they are already in the final.

The truth remains that with the notable exception of Abba in 1974, the Eurovision has hardly served as a springboard to worldwide acclaim. Canadian Celine Dion, who somehow competed for Switzerland in 1988 with a French title, had to wait years before hitting the jackpot with a different style of music.

Yet, despite being increasingly known as a festival for cheesy tunes, Mr Abela insists that the Eurovision's quality should not be derided. Suffice to say that this year an estimated 104 million people are reported to have watched it.

So why has the Eurovision Song Contest become synonymous with eastern European countries?

"I believe some singers are being promoted in a big way over there. I believe a lot of money is exchanged during the contest in promotion... not in the form of kickbacks of course," he is quick to add. Before the televoting system came into force, it was a parrot's secret that delegations used to engage in backroom lobbying and promise maximum votes to each other on the night.

"When there was a jury, everyone used to lobby for votes and you could guarantee that you would place among the first countries. The EBU opted for televoting to avoid this practice, but the same thing has happened. We don't have any neighbouring countries competing - and if we did we would probably be guaranteed a place among the top 10. But lobbying doesn't win you festivals.

"Of course you need a good, fast car to win the race. If you have a good product which is marketed well, you will place in the top five."

For the Belgrade festival, Malta adopted the same PR strategy as last year and Mr Abela takes comfort from the fact that more countries voted for Morena this year. On the other hand, Albania and Portugal carried out no promotion at all and still made it to the finals.

Mr Abela was interviewed a day before the Maltasong board was dissolved by Culture Minister Dolores Cristina and its responsibilities transferred to Public Broadcasting Services, the national broadcaster.

Mr Abela must have had an inkling of what was about to happen. Asked whether it was high time for the culture minister not to select the chairman, he said: "I think the festival should be organised by PBS, the same way it is organised by other countries - and state television should decide on the format."

One thing that will certainly be discussed by PBS is whether the previous budget of €45,000 (Lm13,185) is enough to export a good product to the Eurovision.

Mr Abela says the figure does not even cover the hotel, delegation and flight costs - let alone the expenses of the backing singers or dancers, plus any accompanying video promotion. The board could only make ends meet with the help of sponsors, he insists.

He also dismisses suggestions that the 10 people on the board were simply enjoying a yearly 10-day freebie to some eastern European country. In reality, just five of the members this year attended the festival.

"I don't see the money put into this contest as a waste of money. It's putting Malta on the map. The fact that Malta is participating is good for local singers."

Ultimately, he hopes composers and authors start working closer together instead of resorting to the usual formula of emulating a style of song which did well five years ago.

When Maltasong organised its first selection for the Song for Europe Festival, some composers submitted up to 50 entries in a bid to make it to the local final.

"That shows people are not serious - this is not some Super 5 lottery!"

Malta's obsession with Eurovision reaches hysterical proportions every May, but despite being on the receiving end, Mr Abela disagrees with the majority of those participating in the timesofmalta.com online survey who feel that Malta should no longer take part in the festival.

"This is the only festival Maltese composers and singers look forward to as a challenge. You know the hype surrounding the Malta Song for Europe." Should we at least stop taking it so seriously?

"It seems like we have nothing else to amuse ourselves with. This is a small country. We've been close to winning it and we go there with the hope of finally clinching the title. Though I sincerely hope this won't be the case, I feel that if we fail to qualify two or three more times, people will start mellowing out and stop taking it so seriously.

"I hope we place in the top five next year, and if this is the case I'm sure the interest will return."

Were the last three years worth his while?

"If the media weren't so cruel, I would have enjoyed working on this board. But the way the media resorted to attacking me personally, now I can say that I've really had enough.

"Unfortunately, the local media probing the Eurovision has been too negative, and certain comments are picked up by the foreign press. In Malta everyone has an agenda, including the composers. They all have friends and often try to cast a shadow over the competing song. Wouldn't it be better to go and compete as a team?"

But isn't it ultimately the people sitting in front of their television set who vote for the song?

"Yes, but they also vote on what's being reported in the press. It's strange that in the press centre at one point we were even placing sixth. If you ask me what went wrong, I honestly don't know."

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