Son of iconic jazz musician George Curmi ‘il-Puse’ shares memories of a life of music
“I remember being in bed, watching TV and playing a game with my father. It was a quiz about music: ‘how many major sharps are there? What is their order?’ I was born in this environment,” says George Curmi ‘il-Puse’, whose memories of his father – iconic jazz saxophonist Joe Curmi ‘il-Puse’ - are like those of many of us: affectionate, respectful and filled with an awe formed in those moments when we looked up to our parents to show us the way.
And George’s own music career – spanning decades, continents and instruments, but the violin principally – has reflected the intense heritage handed down through his father, who passed away at the end of last year and whose wartime and post-war jazz performances had audiences in their thrall as the bombs fell, and, later, as reconstruction started on a limping, traumatised island.
George Curmi with his father, Joe. Credit: George Curmi
“I was very influenced. I almost had no choice! I used to listen to a lot of jazz and a lot of big bands playing. I was always influenced by the music around me. I always wonder what would have happened if my father was a mechanic, for example. Maybe I would have picked up a spanner,” George says. As it so happens, the violinist first picked up a set of sticks and taught himself the drums when he was only five years old. “My father realised I had talent. Once, when he came back from work (he was working with the Manoel Theatre Orchestra at the time) he heard me playing the drums. He thought it was my brother, Martin – who is 10 years older than I am!”
The drums were George’s first passion and he recounts warm memories of playing at family weddings, and in a group of musicians who were much older than the five-year old. “I never asked them if I could play since I was too young, but my cousin, Joe iz-Zuzu, would make the introductions! My mentality was more mature than others of my same age, so I never ended up having issues playing with older musicians. I was very obedient and when I started taking music seriously, I loved studying,” George says.
He reminisces about his childhood, remembering his daily routine. “45 years ago, there were many children playing on the street. But I wasn’t like that. When I used to come back from school, I did my homework and then I practised for hours and hours. Sometimes for eight hours a day – two in the morning and six when I came back from school.” While admitting that children today have it much harder – “they’ve got so much homework and they are competing with a world of musicians if they want to take this up professionally” – he, nonetheless, emphasises that hard work is the key to success.
“I was always busy. I was never someone who would just run around. My father would never have allowed it! But it was very hard to keep up with everything!” The family were also heavily involved in carnival, helping to build and design floats, with George’s uncles and other relatives, especially Pawlu Curmi, il-Pampalun, being a celebrated and integral part of the festivities (as well as a professional musician in his own right). “Time was split over so many things, so I had to be disciplined.” This methodical approach kicked into high gear when he took up the violin, at 11. “Something clicked when I picked it up and I started studying to be a jazz violinist. I used to go home and play constantly”.
George Curmi in Florence. Credit: George Curmi
George was always a pioneer in his field. After spending a year in Florence, studying at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory, he came back and auditioned for the Manoel Theatre Orchestra. “I came top of the selection, but the system was that you had to be 18 to join and I was only 16!” Luckily, some strings were pulled and the rules were changed, opening the doors for George to join and, later, Marcelline Agius, who ultimately became the leader of the orchestra. He remained a vital member of the orchestra for 21 years. In the meantime, he travelled the world performing international acts, including a memorable one with Miss Shirley Bassey. He was even approached to form part of the band ELO (Electric Light Orchestra); to join the Birmingham Orchestra to record modern music; to make recordings under the EMI label; and also to join an international company of cruise liners.
George counts French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli as one of his major influences – “I used to listen to him even before taking up the violin and now they tell me I sound like him” – but he emphasises that it takes dedication and single-minded intent to excel in the artform. “To be a musician you need to have three things: good intonation, good rhythm and a good feeling for the art. Not everyone possesses these and if you have one of these missing you won’t be a complete musician, unfortunately. It’s also important to work hard and not get distracted. We didn’t have Facebook or the internet when I was younger, but we still needed to work hard!”
Today, if you walk down Valletta’s narrow spine - Strait Street - trailing the road downwards, past the red-hued bar fronts in the centre of the capital towards the area known as The Gut, you might be lucky enough to hear George in action. He also plays in several other spots in the capital, but one thing has never changed. “I feel I belong here, in Valletta, and that’s because of my father. He used to tell me many stories about the heyday of the area. It was always a challenge playing in front of him - I was always nervous and trying to live up to him - but I know he is with me and he is enjoying the music.”