To anyone who remembers the local music scene in the 1980s, Toni Curmi will forever be the long-haired lad who delivered the heavy riffage in Passion Blade (later shortened to Blade). A few years back, on top of doing session work, he was also active as a member in rock band A Day Too Late but, as of 2010, his main focus has been as far from the rock spectrum as you could imagine. Forming Cushion, first as a duo but which has now grown into a band, Curmi immersed himself in Indian music, learning the sitar and, together with the band writing the music that has now established the band as one of the island's leading world music acts. Michael Bugeja speaks to Toni Curmi ahead of the band's performance at this year's edition of Għanafest.
What was it that drew you towards a genre so different to the rock scene you had been part of for decades?
I was at a critical point in my life where many things were going wrong. Feeling the need to add a twist to my mere existence, I decided to start living the way I wanted to, and not let circumstances take the upper hand on my life. Cushion is not just a passion; its essence is formed from spirituality and deep inner feelings, and subconsciously, I was converging towards these deep, earthy and sacred sounds that introduced me to a new world. Nowadays I dedicate my musical life entirely and fully towards the mesmerizing sounds of the sitar. I had never felt such a deep connection with an instrument before and it feels like a part of me when I'm playing it.
How challenging was it to learn the sitar and readjust all that you had learnt to truly immerse yourself in this new world?
Mastering any instrument is difficult in itself. Luckily I was given the gift of music, even if all I had learnt was but a 'cradle' for this new beginning. I've now learnt how to entirely embrace one instrument and immerse myself fully in its magic. I practice, research and listen to sitar music and Indian fusion regularly. Rather than just being a stringed instrument, the sitar's philosophy is that of replicating the most versatile instrument in the world, which is the human voice. Playing the sitar is very challenging, from having the mizrab (metal plectrum) on your finger, which can be quite painful, to the continuous slides and bends against a relatively high string height but, as with everything in life, no pain no gain, and to me it's become a natural part of my journey with this sacred instrument.
What made you pick the name Cushion for the band?
Cushion absorbs impact and is a symbol of comfort. This represents our own as well as our audience's comfort zone. Our music aims to absorb the discomforts, challenges and stress life sometimes offers, and at least for a while we can feel relieved and enjoy the pleasure of music in this comfort zone.
Mindful of the Indian influence in Cushion's music, what do you seek to capture in the music you create?
Our music is an expression of all of our individual deep inner feelings. Someone recently asked me how we create these lovely tunes, to which I replied that "We do not find them, they find us", so we're not after capturing much really. It is more an expression of pure emotions, reaching out to touch other beautiful souls and instil a positive feeling through the healing power of sound and music.
With just a few existing recordings on YouTube, are there plans for an official release anytime soon?
Cushion is now managed internationally by Arda Baykurt, whose input has been very frutiful and we're planning to release our debut album later this year. We recorded the album in Northern Cyprus and Malta, but it will be produced and mastered in the US. We're targeting all age groups with our music, further to which we'll be looking to infiltrate the foreign markets too.
Last year you performed in Northern Cyprus, which must have been quite an experience...
Yes, we did. Arda and his crew took care of everything, for which we are deeply grateful. Playing abroad is always a special experience. I find that foreign audiences are much more perceptive during a live show; they tend to get into the vibe much more easily than local crowds. We had the privilege to play for a very distinctive crowd and the response and respect we received both before but especially after the show was very special...and getting a two-minute standing ovation was absolutely fantastic!
Cushion have played a number of festivals to date, among them some events one might not have expected your music to infiltrate. Is world music attracting a wider audience or is it perhaps a trend?
We're pleased to be invited to play at events, and we're grateful to all the organizers who really appreciate our music and support us. I think that world music is picking up a core following that has a true passion for it. For those who take it seriously, it is a lifestyle but yes, I suppose there may be some who see it as a trend. My personal feeling is that it will keep on growing, as the tranquillity, love and joy we experience and project at our events is contagious, and it's likely that more people will get into it more seriously. Like many other things in Malta, this is another taboo which is being broken, and yes, we still get the odd look or comment when people see us dressed differently, but we don't mind, we are all free spirits.
You've had another successful experience at this year's Resonance Festival...
Resonance is growing and glowing. This year we had a beautiful mix of music, events and a lovely crowd. From yoga to reggae, samba, Latin sounds, Indian fusion and spiritually conscious music. Resonance is an alternative event, the aim to be pure, a gathering of beautiful, peaceful people glowing with positivity and a love of music. It's a special event that is very close to our hearts and something we encourage everyone to experience. The variety of age groups this year was really amazing, and of course we enjoyed performing for all of them.
How do you feel your music ties in with the folk music roots of the Għanafest festival, and what should we expect from your performance there?
We are grateful to Renzo Spiteri for inviting us. He is an outstanding musician and connoisseur and we're deeply honoured and consider this as another achievement for the band. Subconsciously, all the music we hear throughout our lifetime stays with us, and how this effects us as musicians is a wonder in itself. We've never had boundaries in our music. We offer something different, a pleasant alternative, and we're confident our music will appeal to and maybe even surprise some of the crowds there.
Cushion is Noel Scerri (keyboards), Toni Curmi (sitar), Reine Kabban (voice), Dwayne Cassar (bass) and Alexein Grech (drums and percussion). The band will be performing at Ghanafest on Friday, June 10.
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta's ESCAPE magazine (29 May 2016)