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Remembering our heritage

The time-machine performance by Armchair Voyager Wistin. Photos: Elisa Von Brockdorff

The time-machine performance by Armchair Voyager Wistin. Photos: Elisa Von Brockdorff

Magna Żmien’s artistic director Andrew Alamango tells Anna Marie Galea what sparked the initiative that puts a spotlight on our cultural history.

Set up by a group of like-minded individuals, Magna Żmien is an initiative that aims to preserve the sights and sounds of Malta’s past. Through working with open reels, audio cassettes, photographs, vinyl and film, the project seeks to tell past stories that have been covered by the dust of time. I caught up with artistic director Andrew Alamango to ask him about what sparked this initiative and about Magna Żmien’s future.

“Having been part of Etnika for so long, I have always been acutely aware of the importance of audio. In Malta, we seem to have deve­loped a sense of obligation for our tangible cultural heritage but when it comes to the intangible, we have a lot of work to do.

“Some of the best things have been documented audio-visually, but haven’t seen the light of day in decades. Through the Magna Żmien project, we are seeking to give everyone the opportunity to bring forward their own personal reels and cassettes, so that we can preserve and protect the information stored on them for generations to come.”

Deeply dedicated to the cause, Andrew is passionate and excited about the wonderful things that the Magna Żmien project has already helped uncover: “When technology first became available, our forefathers started to document their everyday lives and the environment around them. Format became really important, because people could now send their own private messages to their friends and family in places like Australia and Canada. We cannot forget those Maltese who left their families in search of a better life in the 20th century and how close the ones left behind sought to be to their loved ones.

“Now, there was the opportunity to record messages on vinyl and send them abroad. Hearing messages from this time opens a direct window onto the way Maltese society operated at the time. There was also a great number of Maltese Australians who would come here to visit their family members and bring their cameras with them to record things and take them back with them.”

Andrew speaks of how the Maltese knew that they only had a limited amount of time to pass on their messages to their loved ones, so they would opt to sing their thoughts instead.

“It’s fascinating what a bond Maltese people used to have with music and song. Many people would record għana sessions and send them to Australia. There were messages of migration, messages of people who would think of their homeland every day and yearn for their villages and their families. We can never forget that popular history is a very different narrative to the national narrative. Popular narrative talks about the community, the village, the little everyday things which make up a life and which people abroad would be sorely aware that they were missing.”

The Banda ta’ Memorji Meraviljużi.The Banda ta’ Memorji Meraviljużi.

Hopefully, this project will serve for us to reconnect with our heritage and in doing so, with ourselves

With technological advances being what they are, Andrew feels that it has become urgent to save our collective memory.

“We are at a point in history where it has become crucial that we save our stories. There can be no memory without reference, and this is an opportunity for everyone to have access to their own family’s memories. We are offering people the opportunity to access their own collections in an effort to save and preserve our intangible cultural history.

“We are encouraging them to come forward with their photos, cassettes and vinyl, to tell us what is in them and leave them with us to be digitised. Once we digitise the content, we will give it back to the person who gave it to us. This project is also being backed by the National Archive.”

In addition to this ongoing initiative, Magna Żmien is also putting up an artistic interpretation of some of the information they have managed to gather.

“We have sound and video collages which we will be showcasing through performances in different places. We started by choosing four main research areas – Mellieħa, Gozo, Kalkara and Siġġiewi. We asked people from these places to submit material that we could use. We’ve built a kind of time machine and the storyline we have adopted is basically one about a man who comes from the future and warns us about what a crucial time we are in with respect to safeguarding information.

John Salerno standing by his cousin’s car in a street in Siġġiewi. Photo: Gloria Callus CollectionJohn Salerno standing by his cousin’s car in a street in Siġġiewi. Photo: Gloria Callus Collection

“The gathering of information is so important because it unifies us and strengthens our identities. We all stand to gain from preserving our pasts. Apart from the machine being part of the performance, there will also be a band. These performances are an opportunity for us to meet and engage the public, as well as showcase what we are doing.”

Apart from preserving our history, Andrew also hopes that Magna Żmien will serve to better link people to their heritage.

“There was a time when song was an integral part of Maltese culture. In recordings, you would hear people suddenly burst into a rhyming song because words were no longer enough for them to get their point across. We have lost a lot of that organic feeling.

“People actively lived as one with their cultural heritage: it was not something to be revered but to be enjoyed. People would have picnics and dance near the temples, but now they have become simply another product. They are something else to be bought and sold. Hopefully, this project will serve for us to reconnect with our heritage, and in doing so, with ourselves.”

The next Magna Żmien event takes place on Saturday at 8pm at the Cittadella, Victoria and is part of the Valletta 2018 programme. .  If anyone has any content that they would like to have digitised please e-mail onnfo@magnazmien.com.

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