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Documenting the call of the wild

Artist Jimmy Grima on the art of bird whistling

The bird trapper in a still from the documented footage of Nassaba ­– Song of a Bird. Photos: Courtesy of Jimmy Grima

The bird trapper in a still from the documented footage of Nassaba ­– Song of a Bird. Photos: Courtesy of Jimmy Grima

The collapse of the Azure Window in Gozo may serve as a metaphor for how the wilderness of our islands is crumbling down while buildings grow higher and roads wider, artist Jimmy Grima told the Times of Malta.

The theatre director left Malta three years ago but, each time he returns, he sees people’s lives and the landscape being “rearranged and shifted”.

Michael Grima and his father-in-law with trapping equipment at a site in Qrendi (circa 1977).Michael Grima and his father-in-law with trapping equipment at a site in Qrendi (circa 1977).

“I fear that things are disappearing while I am away, that these changes are a loss and not a win... I fear that all (the wild) will be lost,” he lamented.

All this makes Mr Grima nostalgic about his childhood days. He has fond memories of the summers spent in Gozo, where he would help his father pick tomatoes to make kunserva (tomato paste) and where he became obsessed with trapping lizards (he would then transport these creatures to Malta because he lived close to Grand Harbour, away from nature).

He has more vivid memories.

“I remember the smell of the morning dew and how wet the grass would be in spring and autumn, when I had to follow my father in the fields before the break of dawn. I recall my father and his peers singing like birds and this is what mostly got stuck in my head.”

Mr Grima’s father, Michael, is a bird trapper and one of the few who has mastered the art of bird-whistling.

The artist felt the urge to document this skill and pastime before it disappears. And what started out as a simple idea fuelled by sheer curiosity eventually turned into a fully-fledged project.

“I first tried to set up a ‘choir’ of those who can reproduce the songs and calls of the songbirds without the aid of a whistle, which is not common at all. That was my primary goal or rather a dream which puzzled my father quite a bit in the very beginning and all the others I spoke to,” Mr Grima said.

“My father wanted me to make a documentary about migratory bird species and all the knowledge he has about trapping and I felt a certain urgency too.”

The result is a documentary theatre piece by the Rubberbodies Collective in collaboration with Teatru Malta titled Nassaba – Song of a Bird, which is being performed from today until October 18 at unusual locations in Malta and Gozo.

Mr Grima explains that every bird has different calls – “a language they communicate with” – but that not every bird trapper needs to know these calls. Mastering the skill is, however, an added advantage.

These men can speak the language of birds

One of his collaborators, a certain Louis from Dingli, was too young to afford buying a finch so he had to train himself to sing like birds and he kept on training until one day he managed to bring birds down from the sky into this trap.

“Both Louis and my father know how to sing like a dozen or more of birds,” said Mr Grima. “What is fascinating is that the whistling of birds is not meant for humans and although these men can speak the language of birds, they don’t know what they are saying, even when the bird responds.”

The artist stresses that trapping is not hunting and that two are very different in nature.

“The trapper sits in nature for hours waiting and usually he is on his own,” Mr Grima pointed out.

While researching the subject, he found some entries in Il-Malti published by the Għaqda tal-Malti between the 1930s and 1950s, which include a short story by Sir Temi Zammit written in 1931 which gives “a beautiful account on how he remembers trapping 50 years before”.

A drawing of a bird trapA drawing of a bird trap

Through anthropologist Mark Anthony Falzon, he discovered a 1960s guide book about Malta and Gozo by Robert Bryans which tells of a group of teenagers sitting in their hideouts at the edge of a cliff in idleness, imitating the song and calls of the songbirds. He also came across a foreword written by Dom Mintoff in 1976 for Birds of the Maltese Archipelago in which the former prime minister refers to trapping as an “obscurantist tradition”.

Mr Grima compared designs and drawings his father did of technology involved in trapping to those he found in various non-Maltese archives about the culture of fowling in Europe and North Africa.

“The way our bird trappers set up their trap goes back to very old times and I think it has contributed to a large fragment of the Maltese culture. It was also one of the many ways in which generations came together and how we relate to nature,” he said.

Nassaba – Song of a Bird was written by Mr Grima, his father and Joachim Robbrecht. It will feature video documentation from various encounters Mr Grima had with his father in the past year, found text and graphics from the public domain or online archives, recorded conversations with Prof. Falzon among others, family photos, thoughts and memories. His father and Louis will also take part in the performance.

“I try to shed some light on many particularities that most of those who were not in my situation (with my father being a trapper) would not know – words, technology, nature and wildlife. I am presenting multiple sources and voices, mixed-media and theatre.”

Mr Grima is always looking for new spaces, formats and audiences and it is thus fitting that Nassaba will be staged in band clubs in Mellieħa and Mqabba, the youth centre in Xagħra, the Senglea Homing Club, the Scouts Headquarters in Floriana and Palazzo Verdala in Buskett.

However, he is not only expecting bird trappers or bird enthusiasts to attend these performances; his target audience is much wider than that.

“It is all those who are interested in how Malta is changing and what these changes bring – what is lost and what is won.”

For more information about the performances, visit www.teatrumalta.org.mt. To hear the reproduction of the song of a goldfinch, visit https://soundcloud.com/rubberbodies-collective/soab-no3-the-goldfinch .

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