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From Malta to Baku and … Havana

Kurt Calleja. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Kurt Calleja. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

He failed to woo his love interest with the lyrics of This Is The Night but Kurt Calleja, who will be representing Malta at the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan in May, tells Kristina Chetcuti he is determined to attract audiences.

The drab office at PBS somehow comes to life with this band of six, sitting around one of the tables. With their quiffs, large spectacles and retro-ish outfits, Calleja and his band look like cut-outs from a comic.

The reason people watch the Eurovision is irrelevant – the most important thing is that they watch it

The banter is jokey and blokey. Instead of high-fiving, they do that thing of punching their knuckles and wiggling their fingers as they hiss. But before you can say ‘teenagers, huh’, they surprise you with their eloquence and philosophical approach to life.

In a matter of a fortnight they went from relative unknowns to having people thumping on their backs as they pass them by in the street.

“Just this morning I went to buy a pizza and the shop owner started to sing This is the Night,” says Rebecca Spiteri, 18, the band drummer.

Calleja already seems to be a household name in Baku, Azerbaijan. Peter Carbonaro, his manager, says that after the performance there last week, people were stopping the singer in the street for autographs.

However, they seem to be coping well with the attention. “This is just a phase. Of course we thank everyone and appreciate it but we can’t let it go to our heads,” says Kevin Calleja, 17.

Kevin, the band guitarist, is Kurt’s younger brother and seems set on keeping the band’s feet firmly on the ground.

Their participation in the festival is not mere fluke: they have it all planned out. “First off, we take part in the Malta Eurovision because it’s a good platform for singers,” says Christian Calleja, 21, the lead guitarist.

What sort of platform would this be, given that even winners of the Eurovision contest itself spiral into obscurity the day after they win?

The answer seems to be work. “Those three minutes on stage in Malta are an exposure investment. They give back a year of work in gigs, hotels and festivals,” says Kurt, citing his supporting act to Zucchero as one of the opportunities that came about with his participation in the Malta Eurovision last year.

It is possible, he says, to make a living off music in Malta, which is what he does. He supplements his full-time music work with part-time work as a marketer promoting alternative energy.

But for those who are hoping to get a visit from Kurt to tell them this is the night to install a solar water heater, don’t hold your breath: he’s put his work on pause to focus on Baku.

Kurt sees the Eurovision as “a stepping stone for a bigger audience.” He is not bothered that millions of people watch the show because they find it hilarious.

“The reason people watch the Eurovision is irrelevant – the most important thing is that they watch it…” His brother finishes the sentence for him: “Actually the main thing is that your performance is loved by the people who hate Eurovision.”

Isn’t Kurt overwhelmed with being hailed as an ambassador for Malta, who will be ‘flying the Maltese flag’ and ‘doing Malta proud’? He shrugs: “It doesn’t bother me – we are a Eurovision-loving nation, that’s all.”

Then, his smart brother again: “In a sense, it’s the kind of pressure which makes you perform better. We want to win and we want to enjoy it.” So are they intent on winning?

They all shift awkwardly in their chairs: they are weighing their words because they don’t want to sound like they are raising hopes.

“Look,” says Kurt, “it doesn’t make sense to compete if you don’t want to win. That’s why you take part. But at the end of the day you do your best and enjoy it, then you’re at the mercy of the voting system.”

Because with Eurovision, it’s never really about the song is it, it’s more about the neighbours? “Well yes, there is the element of neighbours but it’s always won by different countries which means that usually the best song always wins,” says Chris, the cautious one.

Certainly they won’t be short of people praying for them. Chris is a member of the Neo-Cathecumenal Way. Kevin and Kurt are members too, although they do not attend meetings regularly. Rebecca’s father, Edward Spiteri, is a founder of the Catholic Revival Movement and a faith healer. They are all very spiritual.

“Except me,” jokes Warren Bonello, 22, the choreographer: “I’m … self-employed.” There’s raucous laughter.

“As you can see, we really balance each other out,” says Kurt. Warren adds: “We have our arguments, but we get on well together – we are everyone’s up and everyone’s down.” The fact that they have known each other for years means that they’re old hands at trashing out tiffs.

Apart from Kurt all the members of the band are students at Junior College or MCAST. They’ve all spoken to their school principals who have been very understanding and agreed to postpone their assignment deadlines and exams. On campus they just have to deal with the obvious ear-whispering that goes on the minute they pass by.

In the meantime they seem to have adopted a line of their ditty as their motto: ‘Believe and achieve’.

For Kurt, the lyrics are more than just a motto. He impishly admits to the romantic ploy behind them. “I wrote the lyrics with a girl in mind. I fell in love with her and wanted to woo her with a song.” And? “Well, I got an F, for failure,” he laughs.

Kurt says he is “blessed” to have parents who “are full of love and the word of God”, because “that is really scarce today”. The others nod in agreement and talk of how the world is becoming more “shallow” and how we’re “losing the value of love.”

They are, indeed, quite the philosophers. They all burst out laughing: “Yes, we have our moments,” jibes Kurt. And the jokey banter, which will take them to Baku and Havana, starts again.

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