Bird-Trappers

Song of a Bird (S.O.A.B.) is an ongoing research project, which has to date, comprised of live performances, an audio-visual installation and an online archive of cultural practice. It is the fruit of a collaboration between the artist and his father, and a micro-community of Maltese bird-trappers. 

Each spring and autumn, during the birds’ migratory seasons, the namra takes hold of around 4000 Maltese trappers who long to sit in nature at dawn waiting for the songbirds. ‘Namra’ is a Maltese word that is best described as meaning “a lifelong passion”; “a folly that appears all but incomprehensible to the casual observer”.

Namra is believed to be inherited.

My father together with his father-in-law on the trapping site. Photographed by my mother, il-Qrendi, Malta (ca 1977)
My father together with his father-in-law on the trapping site. Photographed by my mother, il-Qrendi, Malta (ca 1977)

personal note

I began by documenting my father’s ability to mimic bird song. He belongs to a community of bird-trappers in Malta and Gozo. I seek to create an archive of their community and identified occasions where I could, in the disguise of an artist and for the sake of art, motivate them to come together.

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Nassaba: Song of a Bird

Live performance, 90 minutes, Maltese (with English subtitles) 

“The documentary footage taken by Jimmy, predominantly of his father, is matter-of-fact. It is not cinematic. It is not a film. It is a record, intended to preserve, without being tainted by a grandiose notion of pride or heritage. It is the purity and truthfulness of the work which sets the work apart from all the debate and controversy. It presents a primal kind of beauty, one which is devoid of state or intellect which one way or another we have all admired or experienced… During the performance, I found my attention occasionally drifting to the varied audience. It was obvious that here, in the room, were people who would normally be on complete opposite sides of the never-ending debate.” 

— Matthew Attard Nassaba: Song of a Bird – An Account, October 29, 2018

Nassaba: Song of A Bird, is a portrait of a disappearing practise – a way of being in nature and a game in which parent and child forge a generational bond. Jimmy Grima followed his father with a camera to the fields on the Maltese rocky coasts, where until recently he went to catch migratory birds. 

In a one-hour performance, Jimmy incorporated the video material to present the emotional world of the Maltese bird catchers and their bird-learned songs.

From the outset, we decided to perform in a number of locations, to ensure that the audience met us and the subject in a non-theatrical setting. I did not wish to portray the trappers as a spectacle on stage, but rather facilitate a space for a discovery of their practice. We found traditional social clubs to provide a safe environment for the encounter, and the audience experienced the performance in unconventional spaces.

by Jimmy Grima with Michael Grima, Joachim Robbrecht, Louis Camilleri  Mark Anthony Falzon,  Stephanie Bonnici, Matthew Micallef, tiny island studio, Aidan Corlett, Martina Buhagiar, Ruth Borg, Ira Melkonyan, Jimmy Grima , Chris Goa Farrugia, Mario Sammut, Teatru Malta, rubberbodies collective With Special Thanks to Prof. Mark Anthony Falzon, Dr Toni Sant, Vincent Sant, FKNK, Nicole Blackman, Franklin Grima, Eduard Said, Arts Council Malta – Research and Support Grant, Transient Light & Sound, Callus Garden Centre, Birkirkara Homing Union, La Vittoria Band Club Mellieħa, iċ-Ċirklu taż-Żgħażagħ Xagħra, is-Soċjetà Santa Marija u l-Banda Re Ġorġ V Mqabba, Senglea Homing Club, Verdala Palace and the Office of the President

30 Oct 2021 – Floriana MT, European Theatre Convention, Istitut Kattoliku
28 Aug 2021 – Zurich CH,  Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Rote Fabrik, Backstein
27 Aug 2021 – Zurich CH, Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Rote Fabrik, Backstein
26 Aug 2021 – Zurich CH,  Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Rote Fabrik, Backstein
19 Aug 2021 -Den Bosc NL, Festival Boulevard, PA Podium Azijnfabriek
18 Aug 2021 – Den Bosc NL, Festival Boulevard, PA Podium Azijnfabriek
17 Aug 2021 – Den Bosc NL, Festival Boulevard, PA Podium Azijnfabriek
12 Oct 2018 – Floriana MT, Scouts Headquarters
13 Oct 2018 – Mellieħa MT, La Vittoria Band Club
14 Oct 2018 – Xagħra Gozo MT, Cirklu taż-Żgħażagħ
16 Oct 2018 – Mqabba MT, Soċjetà Santa Marija
17 Oct 2018 – Senglea MT, Senglea Homing Club
18 Oct 2018 – Buskett MT, Palazzo Verdala

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The choir is composed of men who, like the artists father, have studied their parts for twenty to thirty years. The aim is to collect sounds, preserve knowledge and give others access to this micro-community of Maltese bird trappers.

Michael Grima and Louis Camilleri, performed the songs of seven migratory singing birds; those of the Linnet, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Siskin, Serin, Greenfinch, and Hawfinch. 

“From spending his early years with the birds, the trapper learns to call – constantly improving, learning with time. As you age, you figure out how to hone your whistle, ending up almost speaking the birds’ language. You don’t know what they’re saying, but you’re calling with them.” Conversation with Michael Grima, 2017

This audio piece was a direct response to an EU ban on trapping in Malta. Michael Grima and Louis Camilleri self-organised the recording, I facilitated the crew. I wanted to bring their sounds and voices to Europe without them travelling. They came up with the idea of the field recordings, and they chose to perform in the Buskett Gardens, a centuries-old hunting reserve planted by the Knights Hospitaller.

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The Archive

The artist has been collecting (2017- onwards) for posterity the calls and songs of visiting migratory birds to the island of Malta as performed by bird-trappers.  

Seen as an activity with no capital value, the knowledge this group possesses has never been documented or preserved but instead, controversially represented to the wider public. 

The artist’s father, as a member of the Maltese bird-trapping community, offered a bridge between tradition and art, urging Jimmy Grima to conserve their knowledge, language, technology, and virtuosity. 

There are relatively few Maltese who possess and share this knowledge. Such situational knowledge and practice are both emotional and personal, and of a specific temperament, relating to a way of life and to man’s relationship with nature

In 2018, the European Court of Justice declared that by adopting a derogation regime allowing the live-capturing of seven species of wild finches (għasafar ta’ l-għana), Malta has failed to fulfil its obligations under the European Wild Birds Directive. 

The Maltese bird-trapping community are now on the other side of EU law.