One Musician’s Journey: Pro Musician and Local Legend, George Curmi ‘il-Pusé’

MyMAC speaks to renowned Maltese musician, George Curmi ‘il-Pusé’, about his life, career and family as we discuss his many adventures in music and the changes this rather turbulent year has brought.

George dressed to play a gyspy jazz set

George dressed to play a gyspy jazz set

Seated in George’s office and rehearsal studio in Valletta I can’t help but glance around and smile at the collection of assorted items, photographs and instruments reflecting the renowned violinist’s eclectic and unique career. A photograph showing a young violinist dressed in a silk gypsy costume and sporting long hair and a thick beard stands on the table next to family photographs and a self-made lamp made out of a clarinet. Violins, saxophones, a keyboard and even a theremin adorn the office, hinting at George’s varied musical experiences and the things in life he treasures most.

Son of famous local musician, Joe Curmi ‘Il-Pusé’, a renowned saxophonist and percussionist highly active in Malta’s burgeoning jazz scene when the island was still home to the British Royal Navy, George grew up listening to Paul Desmond, Coleman Hawkins and Stan Getz alongside chamber and orchestral classical works. Though an accomplished saxophone player like his father, George is best known for his prodigious violin skills, and in particular the unique style in which he plays, equally at home in the worlds of classical, jazz, folk and gypsy music in particular. His gypsy jazz band, The Hot Club of Valletta, is a local favourite, and his duo with Russian accordion player, Yuri Charyguine, is well known in Malta and internationally, with performances including large-scale public events and appearances on television. In addition to George’s many residencies and regular private engagements, since 2000 he has held the post of Director of Music at the Hilton in St Julian’s, a role that has seen the cultural activities of the hotel flourish under his leadership and one that has provided work for many musicians in Malta.

George started the violin at a young age, becoming a part-time member of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (the Manoel Theatre Orchestra as it was known at the time) from the young age of just 13. After receiving a scholarship to study in Italy for a year at the age of 15 (1981–1982) George returned to Malta, becoming a full-time member of the orchestra at the age of 17. Things continued to grow for the young musician from this point, as George explains: “As well as joining the orchestra when I returned to Malta I also started playing at weddings and in night clubs. I was quite in demand so I worked a lot. I also started playing in shows around that time and for jazz performances, so I never had a break – which I actually didn’t mind at all. This became easier after I resigned from the orchestra 19 years ago as it freed up the mornings, however I was still very busy.” Leaving the orchestra was not to be the end of George’s relationship with the MPO however, with George now serving on the orchestra’s Board of Directors.

George with Shirley Bassey

With dame shirley bassey

The diverse musical situations he operates in has been a hallmark of George’s career from the beginning, the instruments he now plays including violin, saxophone, clarinet, theremin, piano, mandolin and marimba. When asked about how he manages to maintain a high level of skill in each of these instruments, George explains that “...each of these requires attention – every day. If you don’t pay attention to them, then they suffer. For me, I believe that thirty minutes per day is needed for each instrument at the minimum. Then if I have a concert that evening I have to do more of course in order to make sure I’m ready for the concert.” Indeed, George notes that when he used to perform regularly at the Eden Palladium in St Julian’s, now the site of Eden Cinemas, that he would “...spend hours in the dressing room practising before each performance – in fact, I would be rehearsing right until I was given the call to go onstage. I didn’t let people in my dressing room, not even girls!” he laughs. “It was my space for personal practise and that has always been the priority for me”.

Regarding his recent activities it would of course be impossible to discuss this year without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant quarantine measures, especially when considering the widely publicised difficulties felt by those working in freelance careers and in the creative sectors in particular. As George recounts: “The last time I was at the Hilton was on the 12th of March, and it was very unusual...I remember travelling to St Julians and seeing nobody on the streets, the entire area felt very deserted. When I reached the hotel it was all dark, as if life had left the building somehow, it was quite unnerving. When I arrived the staff were obviously agitated and they told me, ‘George, why did you come to play? You should go home and be with your family’. Well, that’s when I knew it was serious. I returned home and didn’t return to the Hilton for a long time. After realising that all my bookings in the foreseeable future had been cancelled or postponed I suddenly found myself at home with a lot of free time that I had never had before, only leaving the house to go to my office in Valletta to practise, often with my youngest son, Bernard.” Despite the uncertainty and lack of available work, George nonetheless maintains that it was the “best time” of his life. “The thing that was so great about the lockdown was that I got to spend a lot of time with my family and spend a lot of time practising. I’m very lucky to have such a fantastic relationship with my wife, Hilda, and so it was very nice for us to get to spend more time together.”

One interesting phenomenon resulting from the quarantine was the use of online social media platforms by musicians to continue performing. These were varied and plentiful, with freelance musicians sharing solo performances online through to small ensembles performing chamber works and even large ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra making their collections accessible online for free. For George’s part he uploaded almost sixty videos throughout much of the lockdown in what became a daily fixture in the Curmi’s family quarantine experience. “One day I recorded a video while practising, Hilda liked it and so uploaded it to Facebook in case anybody else would be interested in viewing it. The next day she did the same, and the next, and so quite quickly it became a regular fixture in our routine. People responded well to the videos and so we kept them going.” George adds humorously that “If you search on YouTube you can find a collage video that Hilda and I made, featuring 15–20 seconds of each of the recordings. If you look carefully you can see my beard growing as the video progresses!”

Like father like son;  George and joe curmi

Like father, like son; George and Joe curmi

Interested to hear more about his diverse musical experiences, I ask George how he built such an eclectic career: “You know, I always used to like doing something different”, he explains. “I was the first to use an electric violin here in Malta, the first to experiment with loops and distortion for the violin, and in fact the first player to acquire a cordless violin too, something that was very cutting-edge at the time”. George’s innovative and unique approach to performance earned considerable attention, the 1990s in particular being an exciting time for the Maltese violinist. “I remember I had just finished playing a set at the Eden Palladium. At that time I used to play a supporting set for the big acts coming to do concerts from elsewhere in Europe. I used to perform a programme of gypsy jazz in a costume I made to match. I had long hair and a beard so I had quite an unusual look! One evening after my performance a man approached me after my set and asked if he could speak to me about a job proposal, and it turned out that he was the main sound engineer for the Electric Light Orchestra! He told me he couldn’t promise me anything, but that the ELO’s violinist at that time was considering leaving and would I be interested in joining.” This particular musical adventure wasn’t to be, but George’s dealings with acclaimed international names was far from over, including a recording deal with EMI optioned and a performance supporting Shirley Bassey at the Crowne Plaza Casino in Melbourne, Australia in 1999.

Despite these international successes, his home and his family are clearly George’s main priority, demonstrated  by the violinist’s decision to turn down a series of concerts across Australia following his work supporting Ms Bassey, and the rejection of a lucrative five-year contract performing on cruise ships around the same time. By the late 90’s Hilda and George were married and had two young children. Their second child, Joseph, was only eight months old at that time and as George explains, “Both of those contracts would have meant a lot of travelling and long periods of time spent away. I would have lost my family and I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t lose my family.”

Hilda and george

Hilda and George curmi

Hilda and George have carried on the family tradition of passing on their musical talents to their children. Hilda is a singer and serves as Development and Education Officer with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, and their three children, Miriana, Joseph and Bernard all play musical instruments and have all performed with their parents on numerous occasions.

On the subject of family I ask George about his father and if any memories in particular stand out. “Well there are so many”, he says, leaning back in his chair and smiling mischievously. “I remember once, when the MPO had a guest conductor visiting from Italy. The man was almost deaf, and kept asking for everything to be played ‘forte!’ [loudly, strongly]. My father was a percussionist for the orchestra at the time and the orchestra was playing Carmen, by Bizet. Well, the cymbal part is very demanding in that piece, and after a particularly exhausting run-through, being asked to play louder and louder, my father threw his cymbals up in the air, they came crashing down – everyone stopped playing of course – and he said to the conductor, “You want forte? I give you forte!” and walked out of the rehearsal. Later the conductor called me to his room and he said to me, ‘that’s your father? He’s dangerous!’”

We discuss the orchestra’s role in the upcoming InClassica Malta International Festival 2021 and I remark to George that for such a small island Malta has an extraordinary cultural output. “Yes, absolutely” he agrees. “We have a major jazz festival, the opera seasons, the Valletta Baroque Festival...for such a tiny island we do a lot! And the more the merrier.”

George's quarantine videos may be viewed on social media including Facebook and YouTube, and for more information about his band, The Hot Club of Valletta, head to www.facebook.com/hotclubofvalletta/

The InClassica Malta International Festival will run from 17 April - 11 May 2021.

 

By James Cummings




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