People and Dancefloors in Malta

By Karen Mamo and Giulia Zampini

The state of clubbing in Malta

Narratives from the dancefloor, more specifically people attending electronic music events, are rarely given much attention and space. On the contrary, media portrayals of electronic music events and people who attend such events are usually negative and frequently linked with illicit substance use, violence and disturbance of otherwise quiet neighbourhoods. Representing the voice of a small group of clubbers and people in the industry between the ages of 24 and 50, People and Dancefloors Malta provided a platform and a voice for the leading protagonists of the Maltese clubbing scene and dancefloors: the PEOPLE. Whilst recognising that the dancefloor is a great space for interaction, newfound connections, pleasure and enjoyment, participants brought to light several challenges that are unique to the Maltese context. Here, we touch upon some salient issues highlighted by participants, including the somewhat tense relationship between the electronic music scene and law enforcement, along with the changes brought by the Covid pandemic. 

A brief history of clubbing in Malta

A small island in the Mediterranean, Malta boasts a prolific nightlife and clubbing scene. Originating between the late 80’s and early 90’s nightclubs and bars turned into dancefloors mushroomed up in the entertainment hub of the island, St Julians, better known as Paceville. During this time, Malta also experienced the first wave of illegal raves going by the name of SIN Parties. Later on, those that attended these parties in their early 20s started to organise larger and better organised events, amongst which were the popular Tribu and LoveSexy.  European and American musical influences and the type of outfits and accessories used are indicative of a budding and ongoing rave culture. Shifting towards larger and more organised events, the club scene in Malta continued to evolve into a very active and present one. Apart from the concentration of nightclubs in St Julians, several other clubs established themselves in different parts of the island. Some did not last long, while others have been going for over 20 years. 

From acid house and industrial techno of the early to mid-90’s to the eclectic reality of today, clubbing in Malta continues to transform from one generation to the next. The small yet fervent family of electronic music artists active on the islands for the past three decades powered the creation and maintenance of high-quality events, investing heavily in personal development, better sound, and lighting technology. Local artists are also busy establishing links with foreign performers from the European and American House and Techno scenes. It is interesting to highlight that despite Malta’s small size and even smaller number of people following the scene (especially when looking at the underground scene), various international names including Carl Cox, Faithless, Van Buuren, Derrick May, and Laurent Garnier played in Malta on more than one occasion. 

Large scale festivals such as Glitch Festival attract thousands of tourists, securing Malta’s place on the global electronic music scene map. As an evolving subculture, dancefloors in Malta embody a parallel cultural space of dedicated artists and loyal followers, changing, innovating and adapting over time, whilst directly contributing an estimated 7.9% of Malta’s GDP 

The Covid effect

Covid completely halted electronic music and its associated industry in 2020, with a ban on dancing lasting 11 months. The lockdown imposed by the Covid restrictions affected primarily the nightlife scene, with clubs ordered to close until further notice, compared to bars and other venues, which were allowed to remain open during parts of the lockdown. Participants highlighted their struggles ranging from mental health challenges to real economic strain for those whose livelihood depends on the industry. 

In 2021, the club scene in Malta is struggling to get back on its feet and a number of artists have joined forces to call on the Government to provide people in the industry with equal opportunities to reopen and RE-Start. DJs and dancing have been banned for a year and although restrictions have been lifted for various other activities and venues, clubbing and full access to the dancefloor continue to be highly restricted. It was only recently that the Health Minister announced that clubs could reopen from September 6th with a maximum of 100 attendees and only vaccinated people allowed in. However, on September 2nd, the government announced that standing events will require people to wear a mask for the whole time, a slight U-turn on the original promise. 

Interestingly, live music and bands have been allowed to play, but not DJs. This difference in treatment is indicative of more tolerant social attitudes towards live music as a good and respectable cultural activity, compared to the more ambiguous space occupied by electronic music, which is often cast as public nuisance, as an irresponsible phase that young people go through, and therefore not awarded the status of good culture and targeted accordingly. There is a tension underlying this, which is also present in other contexts but is particularly acute in Malta: the “good society”, which the government seeks to represent, perceives electronic music events as a nuisance at best, a threat at worst. Yet, Malta is becoming increasingly dependent on the revenue and tourism that such events generate, forcing the government’s hand. Clubs and some festivals were allowed back for a short period during the summer of 2020 to inject some cash back into the economy before restrictions returned. However, the people who work in the industry, from local DJs to promoters to festival organisers, were largely forgotten by the government during the pandemic, with minimal financial support. 

The link between electronic music and drug use is often at the core of inflated media portrayals and negative social perceptions of the scene. 

Drug use in Malta

The National Report on the Drug Situation in Malta (2020) outlines the most recent (2018/19) data on drug seizures and arrests. According to the report, there were 447 drug offences registered in 2019, of which 334 were possession offences and 113 trafficking offences, with the most commonly seized drugs being Cannabis and Cocaine. This represents a downward trend compared to previous years (total number of arrests stood at 626 in 2018, 739 in 2017 and 775 in 2016). A new law introduced in 2015 has sought to divert people away from criminal courts for simple possession. As such, since 2015, an increasing number of people caught in possession of illicit substances have been diverted to a tribunal chaired by a Justice Commissioner. Most cases of possession relate to cannabis grass (38%) and resin (27%), cocaine (19%), ecstasy (7.2%), and heroin (5.4%), followed by a small minority of cases involving other illicit substances such as ketamine, khat, LSD, amphetamines, cathinones and prescription drugs. While locals make up most of the cases processed (66%), a significant proportion of these cases involve tourists or non-residents (34%). 

The most recent EMCDDA report on Malta (2019) uses self-report data from the 2013 general population survey to conservatively estimate that around 4.3% of people aged 18-25 have used cannabis in their lifetime. Lifetime use of other drugs including MDMA/ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, LSD, and other new psychoactive substances stood at around 1.4%, with ecstasy being the most popular among these substances. Substance use, and particularly cannabis, tends to be more prevalent among young people aged 18-24, with the average age of first use being 19. Lifetime prevalence of cigarette smoking in Malta has decreased over the past decade, but the prevalence of alcohol and heavy drinking is higher than the European average. While the average age of first use of alcohol is not reported here, it is likely to be younger than 15

In 2016, there were 28 non-fatal overdoses in Malta; however, two thirds of non-fatal overdoses were attributed to prescription medications. Harm reduction provision in Malta is mostly focused on prevention of drug-related infectious diseases and includes access to clean injecting equipment, testing and counselling for blood borne viruses, rather than club drugs. 

Looking at recent developments, it is clear that while the law is becoming less punitive towards drug users, and particularly cannabis users, there is still a general reluctance to approach the regulation of other relatively popular substances such as cocaine and ecstasy in a different way than prohibition or to at least allow the possibility to test substances on festival grounds for any unwanted adulterants. 

Participants to the People and Dancefloors Malta project spoke about their drug use as occasional and as having decreased from youth into adulthood, in line with what we already know about general lifetime prevalence and trends. Participants also cast their drug use as responsible; in other words, their current drug use did not impact on their adult functions and responsibilities including their job, families, and other socio-economic ties. No participant spoke of ever being arrested for possession of any illicit substance.  

Relationship with Law enforcement 

Another matter that surfaced frequently in participants’ accounts is the heavy, and sometimes discriminatory approach adopted by law enforcement agents when attending electronic music events. In fact, it is quite normal to read that a group of people have been arrested after attending an event in local newspapers. Interestingly, some participants explained that local and touring DJs are subjected to a background check before being allowed to perform on the night. This procedure is not used for other artists such as band members or singers – it exclusively targets DJs. Once again, electronic dance music is singled out as potentially criminogenic compared to other music scenes. Furthermore, event organisers confirmed that they are required to allow – and pay for – special undercover police officers with the sole aim to detect illicit substance use and trafficking during events. Once again, this practice is not applied to other music scenes or larger scale events. 

Participants explained that the present reality is mostly attributable to the lack of dialogue and understanding between people in the industry, particularly DJs and promoters, Maltese society and law enforcement. Reflecting on their years in the scene, participants expressed a wish to increase educational opportunities and open dialogue with law enforcement and across Maltese society, especially concerning substance use and the introduction of harm reduction practices. 

The discrimination of clubbers in Maltese society

Electronic dance music events have been frequently associated with delinquent behaviour in the press. In fact, the police seem to target specific events and venues as opposed to other places. This is particularly evident when looking at the numerous arrests and increased media attention on the nexus between electronic music and illicit substance use. In 2016, at the popular UK festival Lost and Found, organised in Malta, a total of 41 non-Maltese residents were arrested both prior to entering the venue and during the party. Electronic music events have also been frequently criticised on public nuisance grounds and for their detrimental effects to the wellbeing of those living in the vicinity, including birds. The media and law enforcement continue to paint a relatively dark picture of electronic music events and, by extension, of the people flocking to these places. 

Many participants to the People and Dancefloors Malta project felt that music, clubbing and drug-taking had an overall positive effect on their lives, allowing them to have fun, make connections with others, nurture a passion for music and becoming part of a community. However, most participants explained that they rarely speak about this part of their life with their work colleagues or parents. Participants explained that they often feel misunderstood by others, as mainstream depictions of clubbers are largely inaccurate. The main reason is attributed to the negative stereotypes attached to people who attend electronic music events and the risk of being picked up by the police for consuming an illicit substance. Some participants underlined the importance of feeling ‘safe’ in the club environment, thus involving no unwanted encounters with work colleagues or people who are not part of the scene. 

When people communicate about drugs in Maltese, they use common words available in everyday language, however ascribing a different meaning. For example, tgara and tiġbed which in normal language means to throw and to pull, means Ecstasy and Cocaine consumption respectively for those in the know. Other words are linked to the substances per se, giving the speaker an indication of the type of substance one is referring to. For example, bajda (white) for cocaine and roti (circles) for ecstasy. 

This strategy of double meanings allows for people’s drug use to remain hidden from those who are not in the know, an approach that is also reflected in the way clubbers in Malta are selective and careful when choosing venues and events. In fact, most participants agreed that they never speak about their substance use with people who are not part of their inner circle. This attitude is in part a result of the broader taboo around illicit substance use and, more generally, pleasure-seeking behaviour in society. 

When considering that the average age of project participants is 30 years old, it becomes clear that identity and social status are in conflict. People constantly negotiate between their ‘real’ self and their ‘public’ persona. When considering the potential criminal consequences people may face when consuming an illicit substance, a golden unspoken rule exists: 

what happens on the dancefloor stays on the dancefloor. 

Conclusion 

People and Dancefloors in Malta brought to light a part of Maltese culture: the underground electronic music scene and its people. Misrepresented in local media and misunderstood by society, people who are involved in the electronic music scene told us about the myriad ways in which the problems they face arise from ignorance and criminalisation. Harm reduction practices in electronic music spaces, from something as simple as free drinking water to educational, drug testing and warning messages about commonly consumed substances, are largely absent. Instead, heavy-handed police tactics such as undercover officer searches and background checks are used as deterrents in the hope of discouraging people from consuming drugs. 

This is indicative of a society that tries to resist change while at the same time being dependent on it. Maltese society is heavily into drinking and does not police the kind of music scene that’s delivered by bands, but it remains unaccepting of electronic dance music as part of Maltese culture. However, tourist revenues brought in by electronic dance music events speak for themselves, and Malta needs them, along with the local people that make these happen. 

It is time that Malta opened up to consider that electronic dance music has become an important part of Maltese culture, and there are people whose relationship with the electronic music scene has brought them jobs, passion, commitment, friendship and community. 

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