The Carnival Builders


In a disused factory in Marsa, a 15-minute drive outside the Maltese capital, Valletta, a man in a grubby tracksuit takes a circular saw to the sharp edge of a steel structure. Sparks fly around him, but the man, his eyes shielded only by plastic sunglasses, works with a determination born of obsession. The air is thick with the smell of hot metal, spray paint and cigarette smoke. To mark the last days before Lent, some people make pancakes. Roderick Zerafa builds Carnival floats.

His creation towers over him. At 20-feet tall and 12-feet wide, it’s bigger than the trucks on the industrial estate outside. The steel base supports a plywood skeleton, then the whole thing is covered with papier-mâché and painted neon bright. It has an engine for a heart, powering mechanisms that make each of the float’s gargantuan figures dance in robotic motion. The result looks like something from the fevered imagination of Terry Gilliam. It has taken 23-year-old Roderick nine months to build, helped by a team that started with half a dozen volunteers before swelling to five times that many in the weeks before Carnival. Tomorrow it will make its first appearance in front of both the public and the judges, who’ll decide which team of float builders will take home this year’s coveted Carnival crown.

Much like the concurrent celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, Carnival in Malta is a boisterous party that’s taken very seriously by the locals. The run-up to Lent has great significance for the largely Catholic population, who have no fewer than 359 churches to choose from, despite the fact that the Republic of Malta’s three inhabited islands – Malta, Gozo and tiny Comino – have a combined area smaller than the Isle of Wight. Sitting atop sandy-coloured cliffs, the islands’ fields and vineyards are punctuated by historic towns where it often looks as if little new has been built since the 1600s. Malta’s location in the heart of the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily, has historically given it such strategic importance that before claiming its independence in 1964, it had been ruled at various times by every empire that hoped to control the surrounding seas. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, French and British each left a trace of their culture behind, from the Baroque Roman Catholic cathedrals to the bright red phone boxes and pillar boxes which dot the streets as if they’ve been Photoshopped in from postcards of London, clues to the 164 years for which Malta was ruled from Britain.

If Roderick is nervous, he doesn’t show it. He’s not a professional artist. In fact, by day he’s an air-conditioner repairman, but he comes from a long line of Carnival builders. This year, he’s working alongside his father, Raymond, and it’s a significant anniversary, as 2017 marks 10 years since the death of his grandfather. ‘I never had any academic instruction – these skills were passed from father to son,’ Roderick says. ‘My grandfather used to make horse-drawn carnival carts, then my father developed from carts to floats.’

Every year a whole new float with an original theme must be built from scratch. Outside the factory, the remnants of last year’s constructions are disintegrating. Nightmarish heads and gnarled hands rise like ghosts out of bodies that have been turned to pulp by the elements, a reminder of Carnival art’s intentional transience.

This year, Roderick and Raymond have chosen as their theme the Maltese folk tales of Gahan, a sort of hapless but loveable village idiot character. The float depicts him in the midst of various misunderstandings. He carries a door, because he was told to ‘pull it behind him’, and he’s boiling baby chickens because his mother told him to keep them warm. Roderick has embellished the classic tale with contemporary allusions – the role of Gahan’s furious schoolteacher is modelled to look exactly like Norman Lowell, a far-right Maltese politician. ‘I wanted to include a bit of politics,’ says Roderick mischievously. ‘The Maltese like politics and festivals. We’re either celebrating or we’re sad, one or the other.’

Roderick’s ambitious vision has come at great personal expense. Not only have he and his team of helpers spent countless hours working without pay, they’ve also thrown a series of barbecues and other fundraisers in order to pay for the materials. In all, the float has set them back many times what they can possibly hope to win in the competition. ‘It’s cost us €20,000, the first prize is only €3,000,’ says Roderick. ‘My father always says, “That son of mine is going to ruin me!”’

What motivates the Carnival builders of Malta is a combination of family, tradition and a fierce competitive streak. Roderick’s float is just one of 21 being built this year. His chief rival for the top prize is Charles Briffa, who at that moment is across town hard at work putting the finishing touches to his own float, based on the Italian circus performer Moira Orfei. Charles has 27 years of float-building experience, working in his spare time around his job as a sales rep. ‘We used to say this was our hobby,’ he says, ‘but right now it’s more like a full-time job.’

First prize isn’t awarded for the float alone. The judges also consider the accompanying dance teams and their elaborate handmade costumes. At the Mystic Dancers school in Kalkara, across the harbour from Valletta, Stephania Gellel has just taken her team through their paces for the last time. They’ll be joining another float themed around The NeverEnding Story. Rehearsals started twice a week back in September, but since the beginning of January, they’ve been rehearsing every evening from Monday to Thursday, from 8.30pm to 10pm. On top of that, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they work on their costumes or help with the float. In a week’s time they’ll get their lives back, but Stephania isn’t sure how to feel about that. ‘At the end of the rehearsals, everyone is saying, “What are we going to do now?” We’ll miss the sense of community.’

Roderick, Charles and Stephania are all participating in a festival that dates back thousands of years. Humans have been celebrating the triumph of spring over winter since at least as far back as 10,000 BC. The Maltese islands are dotted with the remains of megalithic temples, predating Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, where fertility rites would have taken place. Carnival in Malta, in its relatively modern form, can be traced back to 1470, and the festival took on particular prominence in 1535, during the reign of the Knights of St John. The Knights were an order of Catholic warrior monks who’d been forced to give up their previous home of Rhodes when it was invaded by the Ottoman Empire. In 1530, Charles I of Spain gave them the islands of Malta as their new home and five years later, Grand Master Piero de Ponte boosted the Malta Carnival with a series of lavish masked balls for the island’s nobility. Not wanting to be left out, local villagers made their own costumes out of sacks and sheets, and played uproarious music in the streets. Many dressed in drag and they delighted in satirising the ruling elite.

In some ways, little has changed. While the Valletta Carnival has Malta’s grandest procession, with the largest and most complex floats, the anarchic atmosphere of those early Carnivals is preserved on neighbouring Gozo. Located three miles northwest of the main island of Malta, for most of the year Gozo is a quaint and bucolic outcrop which looks as if a patch of Tuscany has somehow sheared off from mainland Europe. Its craggy coastline encircles a series of vineyards and sleepy villages, yet during Carnival, the small, conservative town of Nadur has gained an unlikely reputation as the zenith of Carnival weirdness. Teenagers and young people travel from across the Maltese Islands to join the party, dressing in homemade costumes and stumbling blind drunk down the cobbled streets. The atmosphere is somewhere between Glastonbury at four in the morning and a Halloween rave. While the floats in Nadur can’t compete with Roderick’s artistic expertise, they make up for it with savage satirical wit. This year’s procession is led by terrifying men in bald-headed goon masks, sloppily attempting to build ‘The Great Wall of Mexico’ and spraying wet sand from a cement mixer at anyone they pass. Following them, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton leer out from a float promising a re-run of the 2016 US election.

Behind them comes a traffic jam of party buses. You wait all year for one and then six come along at once, each pounding out their own soundtrack. To stand in the centre of Nadur Carnival on the Saturday night is to withstand an onslaught of music from every direction: the dance tunes from the buses almost drown out the rock band covering Led Zeppelin and Kiss, while in Pupu’s Bar, grandfathers with tambourines and harmonicas play traditional folk beats, and Batman and a Smurf polka dance with Frankenstein’s monster.

A Day-Glo troll shouts over the din. His name is Jonathan and he’s taken the ferry over from Malta. ‘I’ve been coming here for six years, since I was 18,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t go back to Carnival in Valletta now – it’s more for children. Me and my friends are in Gozo for three nights, we’ve even booked Monday off work.’

Back in Valletta on Sunday, crowds pack the streets as the sun beats down out of an afternoon sky the colour of old jeans. The city was built by the Knights of St John as a heavily fortified port, and its high walls and uniform grid design reflect its military origin. The straight, narrow streets fall and rise, and many have broad staircases designed to be climbed by knights laden down by heavy armour. Over the years, the 16th-century limestone architecture has been augmented with Baroque flourishes and colourful window boxes. The city’s main landmark is St John’s Co-Cathedral, whose imposingly blank exterior disguises the lavish decoration within.

After passing the Cathedral and squeezing down Archbishop Street, each float in turn emerges into St George’s Square, where a stage has been set up. When Roderick’s float arrives, he watches as his creation’s mechanical heart brings his characters to life. The gigantic Gahan spreads his arms wide in shock, while his mother lifts her petticoats and his schoolteacher brandishes his cane. On the stage, 35 dancers in traditional Maltese outfits twirl in perfect synchronisation. ‘Everything went well,’ he says with relief, but he’s not sure if his team have done enough to win. ‘There’s always something new, that’s what makes it a challenge. It brings out the best in everyone.’

The results are announced on the morning of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. After a year of preparation and building, Roderick learns his team has won. ‘It’s a special moment for my family,’ he says. ‘I want to dedicate this to my grandfather.’

As for the €3,000 cheque, he says his first priority is to throw a party for everyone who was involved. ‘It’s my way of saying thank you,’ he says. ‘The families of our helpers have had to make sacrifices as well. I want to show them my appreciation.’

His thoughts, however, are already turning to next year. ‘We’ll start again from scratch,’ he says. ‘The boost we had this year just makes us want to get even better.’

As soon as Easter is over, Malta’s Carnival builders will go back to the drawing board. They’re living evidence that Carnival is about more than just a wild party. It’s a celebration of the ancient magic that occurs when people come together to build something bigger than themselves.

Published in Lonely Planet Traveller, February 2018.