I’m not quite sure how and when the idea for this work came about. Three years ago I left Malta for Amsterdam and, as you might know, when you leave somewhere, there is always something that sticks to you from where you’ve come. What stayed with me was the whistle of a bird from the mouth of a man: my father, Michael (59). My father learnt to whistle like birds that live on or migrate over Malta, because he used to trap them (from childhood) and was brought up around birds (just like I was). When I asked him how he learnt to whistle, he said it took (a long) time. He admitted that although he speaks the birds’ language, he doesn’t know what they’re saying. Nowadays, trapping is where it’s at. My father dismantled the trap when the spring season was abolished some ten years ago. What’s left are the memories.
This quirk of a man whistling for birds held enough theatricality, art and skill, but I also wanted to collect and preserve the stories of my father, and of my father’s father, out of fear of losing them. Maybe this fear comes because I live far away, and every time I return I notice that life here is changing. I fear the disappearance of things in my absence. I fear that these changes are more of a loss than a win.
In a book published in 1960 – mentioned to me by Mark Anthony Falzon during a conversation of ours – a text by the author Bryans describes a bunch of Gozitan children at the edge of a cliff trapping birds, loitering and whistling birdsong. He wonders – how long have these olive-skinned children with jet-black eyes been going to that cliff – hundreds, thousands of years? My father was born in 1958 and brought up in Gozo, very close to the place described by Bryans, and in my dreams, one of these boys could have been my father.
Recently I met Louis (57) who, when asked about his favourite memory related to birds, told me how he learnt to whistle like the yellow wagtail with the local sheriff. He kept trying until he managed to call the bird down from the sky to the mansab. He explained how and where he set up his first mansab: near a large boulder on a summit where rainwater would collect. On Fridays, after school, he’d go to fill it with water – on the bicycle from his house to the field, then on foot, carrying bucket by bucket. And those nights, he’s sleep fully clothed so as not to waste time the next morning and reach the mansab before dawn. He was 12.
I asked my father if he’d like to help me film a reenactment of trapping, and if he knew any other men who could whistle like birds using only their mouth. This was the start: last November. This work is a collaboration between me and my father; father and son; artist and trapper. With time, my father took up my tools (camera, audio recorder, writing, drawing) just as I entered the life of trapping: I spent the last year hoarding, saving, examining, reading and learning by heart all that I could find on songbirds and trapping. I began to talk on trapping and birds, recounting – like the trapper – from one source only: nature.
Maybe when Louis read the call I published on the newspaper – after my dad had lost hope in finding other people to whistle – he agreed to come because he felt the need to relive trapping. The idea for the choir was a metaphor. I was trying to bring together the voices of those who, like my father, are nearing or in their 60s. A bunch who like my father, have been trapping from childhood. I was born and raised in this environment and can understand that for these people, this evening might bring great sorrow. These elders, at the late stage of their life, have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
I agree with my father: without their delizzju, without something to calm their mind down, humans stop thinking straight. Today we use Netflix and Facebook in the cosiness of our homes. We’re at the furthest point away from when humans stood up straight and evolved from apes. We’re building in nature and upon it. We pour out concrete and dig up the island. In this age, I feel my father’s words are worthless. They make no sense if you read them through the eyes of those trying to be useful and productive. I like to loiter and daydream. I don’t really feel useful. Sometimes I fear that, like the trappers, I’ll be exiled from this busy society. I want to resist this, but I often indulge in it and pester a few people to patiently help me create and present work, like tonight.
I know my father wished to thank nature for all that she’s given him, as well as all the trappers of Malta and Gozo.