Creativity, ingenuity, passion and a long-standing tradition are the secret ingredients behind Malta’s "artists of the sky".
Summer in Malta is not complete without fireworks - that somewhat deafening boom and the bright, albeit short-lived lights punctuate the sky for four exuberant months. In fact, if the Maltese summer were to have a theme tune, it would be the cracking boom of fireworks mixed with the harmonious ringing of church bells set to a background of boisterous brass band marches.
Fireworks are probably the closest you'll get to defining the Maltese character - a loud burst of colour and passion. And the creators of such magic are all about passion.
The tradition of fireworks manufacturing in Malta goes back for centuries, with the knowledge being handed down from one generation to the next through hands-on learning. Today, however, things are a little different - fireworks manufacturers are required to attend an official course and pass a written exam before obtaining the necessary licence to mix the chemicals.
There are 35 fireworks factories on the Maltese Islands with around 1,900 licensees and a further 700 about to obtain their license. A thriving industry, you might think. And while it is, it is also one that essentially only makes money to burn back on the fireworks themselves, since all these manufacturers are volunteers, and their work is purely a labour of love!
“Fireworks manufacturing is a huge tradition in Malta,” explains Josef Camilleri, President of the Malta Pyrotechnics Association and Director of St Mary’s Fireworks Factory in Mqabba, one of the most famous on the island. “And there is no sign of it dying out any time soon.”
In fact, at a time when old traditions and skills are threatened by so called progress, fireworks manufacturing in Malta seems to be thriving on new ideas and technology.
“I started manufacturing fireworks when I was 12 years old. I learnt by doing. I am now 61, and I've never stopped working with fireworks. The older generation taught us a lot and gave us a lot of good ideas, but today’s youth have improved on these ideas so much, and there has been tremendous development in the creativity and skill of manufacturing fireworks. Apart from this, these days we use computerised systems to let off fireworks,” says Josef.
Malta’s fireworks tradition dates back to the time of the Order of the Knights of St John, who would celebrate important feasts with pyrotechnic displays, quite likely inspired by celebratory cannon or musket gun salutes. Years later, Italian pyrotechnicians came to Malta and shared their expertise with local manufacturers.
Nowadays, Maltese fireworks factories have gained a global reputation for their unparalleled creativity, and regularly win awards at international festivals and competitions.
“Maltese fireworks are unique, and that’s not just me saying it,” Josef points out proudly. “In other countries they tend to use single shots. We are very creative. We’ve even managed to spell out words using fireworks, and even depict faces of cartoon characters. I consider the Maltese pyrotechnicians of today true artists. They are painters of the sky.”
St Mary’s show, held annually on 14th August, is especially renowned for its innovative pyrotechnic tricks, including the jaw-dropping Tower of Light.
With all this talent, it's hard to believe that these exceptional fireworks masters all give their time for free to create such artistry. “The fireworks factory is our second home after the family. We make huge sacrifices to produce these fireworks for the joy of our village parish feast and all those who come to admire our fireworks. Many volunteers come in every day at 4pm after work and stay on till midnight, and sometimes even work through the night to produce the fireworks,” explains Josef.
The competitive spirit between the parishes to produce the best fireworks display for their village festa fuels this creativity and passion. The factories have to raise their own funds to manufacture fireworks, partly through the generous support of the villagers, but mostly through selling fireworks to other towns.
“A typical display for our village would cost around €50,000,” reveals Josef. “Two weeks after the festa, we start planning the following year’s festa, and one month before the show, we start preparing the letting off site.”
Fireworks production is not without its dangers however, and unfortunately, lives have been lost in tragic factory accidents. Government has recently announced that it will be giving factories a grant of up to €5,000 each for projects to improve safety. The announcement was welcomed by the association as a vote of confidence in their work.
“Our work is being appreciated,” says Josef gratefully, before adding a small caveat. “One of our biggest problems is the construction boom, where new buildings are encroaching on the few open spaces we have to let off fireworks within the legal safety limits,” he says, explaining that fireworks factories have to maintain a 183m buffer zone from the nearest roads.
Catch a spectacular fireworks display every weekend throughout the summer months, or, if you're in Malta this spring, you’re in for a special treat. The Malta Mechanised Ground Fireworks Festival this Saturday, 14th April in Floriana will showcase a unique form of pyrotechnics on elaborate poles fixed to the ground, which is only used in Malta. The festival will feature 13 factories each competing with two giant Catherine Wheels. The annual International Fireworks Festival takes place on 21st April in Xaghra, Gozo, on 27th April in Marsaxlokk with the Grand Finale on 30th April in Grand Harbour, Valletta.