The Malta Independent 25 August 2019, Sunday

Malta’s brassiest showman - Paul Borg

Rebekah Cilia Tuesday, 16 July 2019, 09:16 Last update: about 2 months ago

Paul Borg was 10 when he woke up one morning and told his father he did not want to play the baritone anymore. The next day, his father took the day off work and woke him up at 7:30 a.m. No breakfast was laid out on the table, just the baritone, which his father ordered him to play. Without food or water, Paul was told to keep on playing until 4 p.m. His father then said, "do not ever repeat that."

"From then on I decided music would be my life," Paul says. And so it was. From baritone player to conductor, to frontman, and some would say even showman of Malta's most prominent brass band, Versatile. But this is no ordinary brass band Paul has built. In every performance, be it for one person or 10,000 people, Paul's larger-than-life persona and the beating music are sure to captivate the audience, filling the air like waves filling holes in the sand.

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Paul's father, being a musical professional himself, taught Paul everything he knew. But he was also extremely strict, hitting him across the head every time he made a mistake. "Although perhaps it was not the right way, I thank my father today because it was definitely the right way for me," Paul says with a chuckle, as he recalls how naughty he was a child.

At just 13, Paul started teaching students, some even older then himself, all the brass instruments he knew, which by this age were several. One of the instrument he learnt to play overnight. He recalls his father going out to buy him a trombone and him having to stay up all night learning how to play it. "I looked up the positions to play the instrument and then, bam!, the next day I was playing in an orchestra," Paul says, sitting so close to the edge of his seat that it looks like he is about to leap off. His excitement for music cannot be contained.

As he grew older, Paul started forming quartets and quintets made up of only brass instruments. His focus then was on classical music and, as he starts to describe the music they played, Paul gets lost in a world of trebles and clefs unknown to the rest of us. "The love started from there. I did not have the vision of Versatile but I did have a vision of a brass band," Paul says of the band he now calls his "life".

Every year for eight years Paul and his father used to travel to London to watch the English brass bands championships. "I wanted to do something similar with my students," Paul notes, adding that over the years he managed to put together a group of 25 brass players. The name Versatile Brass Ensemble was born.

As Paul speaks about the birth of his band, excitement pours out of him like sunshine through fine white linen; he glows from the inside out. His face cracks into a smile as he talks faster and faster. But as Paul gets more and more excited, a calming aura remains in the room. His wife, Andreina, sits by his side, composed and looking adoringly up at Paul as he talks about his passion.

Andreina barely says a word except for phrases here and there to remind Paul of parts of the history that may have slipped his mind."I have been with Paul since I was a young girl so I have always supported him," she says, as Paul quickly slips out of the room to answer a phone call. "Paul is like my father. I go to him for advice about everything, especially since I am very shy compared to him," she admits in a soft voice, as she pulls at a strand of her blonde hair.

Respect is more than passing pleasantries, more than nice words. It takes effort to look at the other and take in who they are and show them you regard their point of view with compassion and seriousness, but that is exactly what Andreina does. The love between them is undeniable.

But their love goes beyond marriage. The love for Versatile is the glue in their relationship. Andreina also forms part of the band, doing much of the administrative work. She also plays a very important role, considering the band has now moved on to playing  more commercial tunes. "Paul comes from a classical background, and I know the modern songs, so together we make a great team," she explains.

Versatile, as it has become known today, can be heard playing everywhere and anywhere, but Paul's favourite performance remains a charity event which drew over 10,000 people. Suddenly he is transported back to that day, recalling the crowd, the vibe the energy. He can barely contain himself, his eyes alight, every muscle needing to move, to dance, to jump, as he describes the repertoire of that evening.

"Paul is the motor behind it all," Glenn Vella, one of the singers of the band says. It is clear that his energy, his ability to interact with the crowd, to get you engaged even if you have had one of the worst days of your life, is what makes the band. You will be dancing like a puppet on a string, with no idea how it's happening. You will find yourself with your hands in the air shouting "We will rock you," as the brass sounds flood the dance floor and Paul lifts you up for an evening you will never forget.

Paul may also pick up an instrument and start playing amongst the crowd. Or you could even be surprised by Paul playing the tuba upside down or even with his toes. But when the DJ comes on and the fusion begins, your synapses will jump like beans in a tin. You would not feel more alive if you were shouting from the top of a mountain. The music is like a drug, taking you higher and higher until your mind is buzzing with pure joy.

Andreina believes the reason why Paul is so great on stage is because he is just himself. At home he is bouncing off walls, his energy never depleting. Paul says "I am the type of person that does not know how to sit still. I am like a spring." With a wide-toothed smile, he also admits that, although he is now 53, he feels no older than 30 when he is on stage.

Behind the energy and fun, there is also anxiety and hard work. Glenn says that, no matter how big or small the event, Paul still gets excited before the start. The singers are on stage, the night is starting, everyone is chattering away, but Paul is pacing up and down as if determined to wear out a thin trail in the floor, carefully absorbing the sound to make sure every little detail is perfect. If it is a wedding, the first dance kicks in, the big brass band comes on stage, the crowd is growing. Paul takes his position, the anxiety slipping away, his showman face on. "There is no stopping him then," Glenn says.

He may be lost in a world of music and energy but he never forgets the band. Glenn says that on stage Paul pushes them through, "giving us words of encouragement throughout the performance to keep us going. I regularly hear him say 'keep it there, come on guys,' always positive and uplifting."

But apparently, it is not all flowers and sunshine with Paul, as Glenn says "he is a perfectionist." In fact when things sometimes go wrong, as they do in live performances, Paul gets worked up and Glenn needs to tell him to calm down. He does admit, however, that if Paul was not so strict the band would not be where it is today. Paul admits this proudly and says "My father taught me to be second to none." Andreina also compares Paul to his father, saying that he was very strict and that "Paul is very similar."

In fact, she says, Paul always wants to do everything himself and it is very hard for him to let her in. She recalls when he taught her how to drive, saying he "is not the type of person to tell you well done." But it appears that this is not so. Glenn lets out a little secret, saying that "I admire how much Paul loves his wife. He frequently tells us 'look at my wife, how beautiful she is'. He is constantly talking about her with us."

Andreina does say she is better than Paul at one thing... remembering the name of the client. "He is terrible at meetings and would forget the name of the bride," she says with a smile, but quickly adds that "there are certain aspects he is the best in, especially music-wise. Even if I know the answer to the question I would want him to explain to them, because he is the musician." Paul quips that she knows music too and the band would not be the same without her. They look at each other with a knowing smile.

It is clear Glenn considers Paul and Andreina to be family as tears roll down his cheeks when he describes the love between them, which he says is "unique". He takes a pause and apologises for being too emotional. Fighting through the emotions, Glenn says if he were ever to become a father, "Paul would be my role model. He is a perfect father to his children."

It also appears Paul is a very overprotective grandfather. Glenn says Paul's grandchild would be riding a scooter and he would be close to having a heart attack in fear that she would fall. "As if no one ever fell and got back up," Glenn says, giggling. The singer's face changes, becoming more serious, his brow furrowed as he says, "Paul is very sensitive about his family," adding that, despite his showbiz life, nothing is more important to Paul than family. This is evident by the way Paul looks at his son, Ben, as he passes through the room. "He such a good-looking boy isn't he," he quips, in a proud father voice.

"Paul is also very giving and will do his utmost for those he cares about," Glenn says proudly, adding that "this is the reason why I think he has made it so big in life." Back in his hometown of Hamrun, Paul walks along the main road, stopping at every few paces to greet someone. Everyone knows Paul and stops him for a quick chat. But this is what Paul loves... people. He does not only give material things but is also generous with his time, making sure he has time to listen to those who need him, Glenn says. "He even takes old people from his village to hospital if they need a lift and he will stay with them until they are done," Glenn observes.

So what is in store for the person who seems to have it all? Paul says he wants to make it big on the international scene. "We have something planned for this year," he reveals with fire in his eyes, adding that, if it happens, it will be massive, beyond anything anyone has ever seen in Malta. Oh yes, and washing cars. Because it appears that Paul's number one pastime is washing everyone's cars and then not letting them use them so they will not get dirty again.


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