Fireworks Frenzy

Judging from his gentle demeanour and low voice, Tony Farrugia could be an artist; if you focus on his thick glasses and tired eyes, he could be an assiduously-bookish academic; or you could pick out his bulging stomach, his reticent nature, the occasional chuckle breaking on his lips, and take him as someone who’s eccentric and irrelevant. He is all those things. His art is unorthodox and largely unrecognized as an art among the general populace; Farrugia leads St Michael’s Fireworks Factory, which puts up a yearly fireworks spectacle that is among the best in the world. And he’s the creator of some of the world’s most exuberant pyrotechnic set-pieces, an eminent specialist of a Maltese pyrotechnic specialty: multi-break colour and maroon shells. “These multi-break colour shells are the hardest, riskiest, and most artistic form of pyrotechnics,” he explains. “They have to be perfect in concept and technique. And, no matter how many I have done, I am never completely satisfied with the result.”  


I found Farrugia working on a cement table in an open yard. On the table there was a clock, a transistor radio, and trays full of dark beads of chemicals. Farrugia was slowly placing the beads in a circular carton container – the chemical-beads arranged around the rim of carton with slight tension, layer upon layer, like building arches without cement. “The important thing is to be sensitive in handling the chemicals,” Farrugia says. “You have to avoid friction at all costs.” Friction could trigger combustion, and – to maintain utmost concentration in this slow and complex work – Farrugia works while standing up. The risk of an explosion also explains why he works in an open yard well away from his colleagues. “I open that door,” he says, pointing to a side-door, “so that if there is combustion I might have the time to duck outside before the whole things blows up.” (Never in his day-job, an officer in the Maltese army, has he faced such risk.)  


Malta’s classical multi-break colour shell is an elaborate contraption as large as a man’s leg. It weighs about 5kg and needs a charge of 500 grams of gunpowder to eject it some sixty metres into the air. If it spins on ejection, or if strong wind blows it off its course, the spectacle of the bloom would be disfigured, like a rose buffeted by wind. But if it works perfectly, rising at an angle towards the audience without spinning, it opens in three successive balls of colourful light, each blast higher than the one before, and then closes with a maroon, a heavy dull thud. It’s a set-piece that Maltese pyrotechnists have specialized in, making Malta the only country where multi-break colour shells make up the highlights, and a significant part, of the shows. At the same time, top pyrotechnists are constantly inventing new forms of set-pieces – some that Farrugia puts together can have as many as sixty bomblets, released from the main shell in exuberant blooms of variegated colour and sound patterns.  


St Michael’s Fireworks Factory main yearly show, put up for the Catholic town feast of Lija town, is so large and elaborate that it takes the toil of twelve men volunteering their spare time throughout the year to prepare the fireworks. “In the summer,” says Farrugia, “I go to the factory straight from work and often spend seven hours there, until about 9pm. On weekends I often do twelve-hour-days or more if possible.” Like his colleagues, Farrugia got hooked on fireworks when he was a teenager, and became obsessed with this obscure art-form, which is a dying art in Europe as cheaper Chinese pyrotechnics flood Europe.  


There’s a lot of work to be done; Lija actually has three shows, one for each day of the feast. The main show, on the eve of the feast on August 5, lasts almost two hours. Fireworks are ejected from three places simultaneously; the pace is varied, the pitch rising and ebbing teasingly; the nuances of the colours is impressively diverse, shades of colours that one never thought existed; the maroons are well placed to emphasise dramatic highlights or mark a winding down with dull thuds – a show that leaves one feeling euphoric.  “We have a history of the best shows in Malta, and our shows build up year after year,” Farrugia says. “Every year we introduce new colours; few others can match the innovation of our colours. In the end, however, it’s the presentation that makes a good show.”  


Elsewhere around the Maltese Islands firework shows are similarly held at every Catholic town feast. That’s eighty-plus feasts, held between June and September every year, in which the pyrotechnics play the most visible and impressive part. If you stand on high ground on a weekend evening at the peak of summer in Malta your attention will be split among three or more fireworks shows lighting up the night sky at different points, a spectacle that gives the impression that Malta has been gripped by a strange state of fireworks frenzy. It’s a true impression: Malta burns more fireworks than anyone else.     


The town feasts, in which the town commemorates its patron saint, started in the eighteenth century as modest celebrations involving brassbands, bonfires, and firecrackers. They have now grown to grand affairs. The town streets are densely decorated with pennants and tapestries, strings of light-bulbs, and wooden statues of saints mounted on ornate baroque podiums; the church’s exterior is draped in coloured lightbulbs, and the interior is embellished with brocade and red damask, and adorned with silverware, flower arrangements, and silver chandeliers. The street revelries take three whole days: vast intakes of food and drink, brass-bands leading wildly-dancing young people, other brass-bands heading sombre processions with the statue of the patron saint. And of course the endless blasts and colour blooms of fireworks shows, which include traditional terrestrial displays in the church square – wheels powered by synchronized jets of colourful light to create abstracts shapes.  


Funds for the feast are raised from door-to-door collections and competitions, and every town mobilizes a huge effort to organise the feast. All work is voluntary and unpaid, and the feasts serve – even at a time when Malta is becoming increasingly secular – as a reaffirmation of common values and traditions. The Maltese’ unconscionable chivalry and pompousness manifests itself totally in the town feasts: big and colourful and unrivalled, as the Maltese Catholic town feasts are probably the most flamboyant of similar events also held in some other Catholic countries of southern Europe.  


The fireworks grew in this atmosphere, in parallel with the feasts. As in the feasts, all the firework-makers are volunteers; there are 800 of them working in 38 factories to produce the body of work for the feasts. The raw materials alone costs about Lm300,000 (€698,000), and if the work was commercially priced, it would cost at least Lm6 (€14) million. That’s equivalent to every Maltese inhabitant paying Lm15 (€25) on fireworks annually.   


“I do it for the feast,” insists Joseph Camilleri, 49, who heads St Mary’s Fireworks Factory, Malta’s second best, when I ask him why he doesn’t produce pyrotechnics commercially. “We take one week off after the feast and then we start working on the fireworks of the following year. It takes fifteen of us a whole year to produce the fireworks of the feast.”  


The pyrotechnists are true obsessives. And working in non-profit organizations (as the fireworks factories are listed) allows them exemption from personal insurance, something which would otherwise be prohibitively costly, as it is in commercial factories in Europe. Farrugia explains: “Commercial manufacturers cannot do the elaborate set-pieces because they are risky, and hence the insurance wouldn’t cover their employees. These set-pieces we do are also very labour-intensive, and that makes them very expensive commercially. And this is why – because we are all volunteers and don’t have to worry about making money – we can be more daringly creative, and we can produce bigger and better work.”  


Intense rivalry, which is rooted in Malta’s quasi-feudal society, is an additional motivation. The firework factories try to outperform one another by introducing new things – new set-pieces, new colours, new presentations. But mixing chemicals is a risky undertaking, especially if you try to push things by mixing chemicals that are known to be spontaneously reactive. This makes accidents a yearly occurrence; last year, in 2006, two pyrotechnists blew themselves to smithereens. Farrugia remembers the last two accidents at his factory, in 1987 and 1990. “In 1990, a 21-year-old died,” he recounts. “He was doing a chemical mix that was reactive – I had read that, but they had been doing it for a long time so I didn’t insist that they should stop. Then, one day, all the conditions, including the weather, were right for a reaction.” Accidents, on the other hand, have become less frequent in recent years as the pyrotechnists have become more technically proficient. “I don’t think the prevalence of accidents is greater in Malta than other European countries,” Farrugia points out. “I mean, once you consider the amount of fireworks we produce, then a higher incidence of accidents is obviously a direct proportion of that.”  


Yet Maltese fireworks are not just about quantity; they have also evolved into a distinct stylistic subgenre partly shaped by Maltese history. To start with, there is greater emphasis on maroons, a more balanced ratio of sound and light. Typical shows open with an ear-splitting and ferocious battery of maroons – this is known as the “salute”, a salute to the parish saint akin to the battery of artillery that traditionally greeted military expeditions, something that possibly arises from Malta’s militaristic past. Moreover, shows are punctuated with multi-break cracker shells, a complicated Maltese-style contraption consisting of clusters of maroons or bomblets that explode in staccato bursts to create rhythms of sound. These have the power to excite with their rhythmic pitches, and the sound-patterns are like signatures – an experienced fireworks’ enthusiast would be able to tell you, simply by listening to the sound pattern, the name of the creator.  


Overall, the Maltese excel in these set-pieces. Towns whose firework-makers aren’t so advanced or resourceful to employ electronic computerized systems to present their shows rely mostly on manually-fired set-pieces to create a spectacle. The big outstanding shows, like St Michael’s and a few others, have their shows rigged to electronic systems that allows them to create programs that are longer, more varied, and more ambitious. For example, one of the highlights of St Michael’s shows is a technique called baraxx in which up to 100 colour shells are ejected simultaneously – filling a wide swathe of the sky with simultaneous blooms of bright colours, turning the night into day for a fraction of a second, and triggering an exclamation of awe among the audience.  


“At one point we were selling some set-pieces for shows in England and other parts of Europe,” Farrugia says. “But now Chinese fireworks have flooded Europe – Chinese fireworks are good and cheap – and there are very few factories in mainland Europe still doing work on a mass scale (perhaps a few in Spain, Italy, and Germany). The thing is that our work in Malta is priceless – when you consider the time and risk involved in producing set-pieces, what price can we charge?”  


So, while the manufacture of fireworks in Europe is dwindling, the fireworks for the Catholic town feasts in Malta continue to get bigger and better. “This year,” Tony says, “the funds we raised – from door-to-door collections and raffles – have increased by more than fifteen percent. So we will have a bigger show than ever, and it’s the same story all over Malta: shows continue to increase in volume, and at the same time become more refined and more creative.”  


© Victor Paul Borg. The article above was published in the German magazine called Hidden Europe.  


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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