Cecil Herbie Jones is known in Malta as a musician, politician, painter, and teacher. However despite his active lifestyle he seems to be a wayfarer still looking for his way in life to which he has a great interest. Not being afraid to risk Cecil Jones the ‘Eclectic Man’ is always eager to relish new challenges no matter what pit falls can be met in realizing his dreams. He treats life as an intrepid journey full of interesting and controversial adventures.
Yulia Popova: Cecil, as far as I know you were a promising footballer who was going to play abroad. Why did you quit sport?
Cecil Jones: Actually I didn’t quit sport per se. In fact I was soon to take up Motocross, with a fairly modest degree of success racing in competitions in Malta. I used to ride an extremely fast and lightweight Yamaha YZ125. As for football I had played a lot since I was a little kid. In my teens I had to study very hard to win a scholarship and be accepted for my secondary education at St Aloysius’ College which was managed by Jesuit priests, because apart from providing a very good education it had a reputation for being excellent in football, winning the league every year by beating all the other schools in fiercely competed matches. For me it was a real education I’ll never forget because aside from playing and studying of course, this was a college that also produced most of Malta’s Presidents and Prime Ministers. But I was really there because of football.
While in college I had signed up with a local team, B’Kara F.C. playing competitive football, and at the age of seventeen I was playing with the senior team in First Division which is today known as the Premier League. I quit football because I had to. I realized that the competitive football scene in Malta was not clean and I would not be given the chances I was hoping for in order to make a career of it. There was no future for me and I was too young to leave Malta and go abroad. So I did it consensually and against my will. Though I adored playing, Maltese football was very corrupt. The Jesuits taught us not to except any bribes to play to lose. And I am still like that you know.
Yulia Popova: For sure sport influenced your character made it stronger. However not everybody would be ready to change the sphere of one’s interests cardinally as you did. To sing in a choir in childhood however is not enough to play in a music band, how did it come that you absorbed in music?
Cecil Jones: Yes apart from playing football I also sang in a boy choir. I had started singing when I was five years old until I was twelve, and when I hung up my football boots which was when I finished my secondary school education I started working as a junior hair dresser at Mellieha Bay Hotel earning the equivalent of €20 per week by today’s standards. I joined a beat group by chance because my friend who also worked at the hotel wanted to form a band. So I had bought a bass guitar and amplifier and microphone and took basic lessons on how to play. The group consisted of a lead guitarist who was a speedboat driver at the beach resort, a beach boy who was the drummer, the hairdresser myself on bass and the window cleaner of the hotel who was responsible for rhythm guitar. We all sang and shared vocal parts. Our name was JAWS. We used to play three weddings a week performing The Beatles, Rolling Stones and I used to earn double what I got as a hairdresser, which in fact I had left the job after a year. I continued playing with JAWS for five years until I grew tired of the wedding circuit. That’s when I started composing songs on my 12 string guitar, as I had meanwhile learned to play the rhythm guitar.
Four years later I learned of a rock band who were looking for a bass player, and after a successful audition I was allowed to join them. It was another level of consciousness, another level of music for me, because this time it was rock…..and we jammed! We called ourselves LIAM CHRIST and over a period of two years we performed some memorable concerts after which the band came to a dead halt after an electricity short-circuit ripped through our equipment setting everything up in flames. As if in timely fashion I met an American producer with a track record, Dean Brown who happened to be visiting Malta. He heard my compositions (on my 12 strings) and immediately wanted the band to go around the world with him on a music project aboard a 250ft yacht which his production was going to purchase. He had some amazing ideas. Dean created a journey that would take us around the whole world in a year and two months. He wanted to build a folding stage on the aft deck of the boat with big speakers floating on pontoon towers pushed out at sea and the band would perform to audiences in selected harbours and beaches in various countries like Monaco, St Tropez and even to record crowds in Mozambique. Dean wanted to do over 190 concerts that year, and film the entire journey.
Unfortunately the other members of the band weren’t ready to leave Malta so I went alone with him to Mallorca, Spain which was to be our base and where the yacht could be refitted for the journey. We had also set up office at Cineventure Productions in London where I went several times, having placed a full page advert for musicians in the Melody Maker music magazine. Cineventure Group belonged to Walter Newman who was a Jewish entrepreneur and Geoffrey Nethercott who was our British film director and who would a year later achieve great success as the Executive Producer of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence starring David Bowie. The film was produced by Sir Jeremy Thomas who I had the fortune of briefly collaborating with as his personal driver in Malta in 2011 on the production of KONTIKI. Jeremy is the Executive Producer of this film which will be hitting the big screens here sometime this year.
In retrospect I can say that by the age of 24 I had met ssome highly interesting people while on the project with Dean in 1982/3 including the manager of Rolling Stones who flew to Mallorca to oversee our project, and Bill Henley the man who recorded the historic Woodstock Festival. Bill was meant to build the stage on the yacht and also manage the band’s sound. I also interviewed and auditioned English musicians at Shepperton Film Studios in Sheffield, England where the WHO made their recordings. Eventually I formed THE MED, which was short for Mediterranean rock. We had fitted the band with all the equipment we needed and desired, which included custom made double-neck guitars (I still have mine) handcrafted by Andy’s Guitar Workshop in Denmark Street London who was famous at the time for building guitars for SUPERTRAMP and GENESIS, and even acquired an Oberheim synthesizer from the pop group STATUS QUO. We then shipped everything to Mallorca courtesy of SUI GENERIS the production company owned by Dean and his partners. Upon arriving at the airport we were instantly put under pressure as we were greeted by a BBC film crew who followed us right to where we lived and rehearsed in a rented six bedroom 450 year old farmhouse at a remote part of Mallorca, in a small village called Bunyola. Unfortunately we never got to perform in public because the production ran into financial troubles two months down the road and the entire project had to be shelved! All the musicians had to return home to England and I to Malta. I felt terrible. I knew I had nothing to do in my country anymore after my saturated life abroad.
So I took a loan from my brother and bought a ticket back to Spain to join Dean, this time as a production assistant on his next project which was a concert tour of India by Joe Cocker & The Crusaders. We were based in Bombay and Madras. I remember teaming up with Ian Leake to take measurements of a few stadiums in Bombay for crowd capacity. Ian was the concert tour’s producer, a man with a proven track record who had produced ELO’s (Electric Light Orchestra) World Tour where they designed a life-size spaceship as their stage. Although I wasn’t involved as a musician I felt that I was part of something meaningful, to me at least, and that was good enough at the time. I had also come to realize there was much to learn behind the scenes of the Rock’n’Roll business.
After my experience with Dean I underwent some changes in my life, taking a break from music for some years, until that is I took up studying saxophone and percussion eventually. I studied Baroque and Classical and Jazz music at Johann Strauss School of Music, and nine years later I earned a university degree in Music Studies & Theatre Studies, performing with choirs and orchestras and other musical configurations. I still love rock of course.
Yulia Popova: What helped you to switch on a new wave?
Cecil Jones: Until this time I had no idea I had eclectic qualities. It’s a long story, but sometime after my rock’n’roll stint in Mallorca and India, albeit I maintained my interest in composing, I realized I just wasn’t playing and I felt I needed to continue traveling. So I took up painting. My grandmother, whom I never met, used to play the harp and the piano and also painted. I think I take after her. I took lessons from a Danish painter who taught me landscapes and seascapes, and then from an Italian painter who introduced me to action painting with a rubber hose pipe utilising water colours as a medium on canvas. I worked with an abstract technique. It was a passive period for me in music and I concentrated on painting for the next ten years where I painted well over a thousand paintings in my travels. I had solo exhibitions in Copenhagen in 1987 (with 100 paintings), Israel (with 150 paintings) in 1988 which was featured on their 8 o’clock News, and by the time I was 40 years old I had had two other solo exhibitions in Malta at the Museum of Archaeology (with 40 paintings) and the Museum of Fine Art (with 20 canvasses). I had one collective exhibition in London at Whitelys and various collective exhibitions in Malta as well, including the Winsor & Newton Millennium Worldwide Painting Competition, where I was shortlisted with a painting placing eight runner-up among the Maltese entries. You might say I had wanderlust at the time.
It was crazy the amount of painting I was doing. Mixing the paint gets me very high with all those colours changing tonalities in rapid movements on canvas and on my palette. Remember, we normally look at a finished painting that has already dried but the artist who painted it would have had to work through all the liquid colour changes. It is a very unique and ‘high’ experience involving mental and concentration work, all of which are controlled by the spirit of the artist. I had taken to painting very seriously. It helped me to focus and think differently about many things that would have otherwise escaped my notice. I developed an acute sense of observation and looked at everything with the eye of a painter, including my soul which was the font for my abstract paintings. Naturally I always harboured an intention to become active in music again, and after my blue period I decided to follow a formal education in classical music, and then in Theatre as well.
Yulia Popova: By the way, is it profitable to paint? How did you make ends meet?
Cecil Jones: It was not like having a job where I got my salary regularly. I never knew when I was going to be paid. I couldn’t make a program except to schedule my next commission or exhibition. It was hard to plan a future, although I knew my future would always be in Art. Nevertheless I managed to live like that for ten years, and survived myself and my dog and my car. It was all I wanted at the time, to paint.
Yulia Popova: Did you realize yourself as a musician?
Cecil Jones: Yes I’d like to think so. After my travels I returned to Malta wanting to record my compositions and possibly be published. So I assumed the role of recording artist. I had written a lot of song music over the years, and one day I booked a studio and began producing my own material. I passed a year recording with session musicians, in the course of which, as I was hardly painting and therefore not earning any money, I was forced to sell my car so I could sustain myself and the recording project. And once again the limitations of this island became clear when one tried to do something professionally. I didn’t want to go back to playing music at weddings, although by then it had started paying substantially more. Recording my music was another ‘high’ and when I got musicians to play on my records, besides paying them I always gave them a nice print from my collection of paintings as a token of my appreciation. We are very good friends now. When I finished my recordings (basically because I had run out of cash … hmm what’s new?) I took yet another break from music for a couple of years and this time I dedicated myself to writing a storybook. Eventually I decided to become an academic and formally study music. It took me six years to raise my level sufficiently enough to enter the university where I graduated in 2010. I was 52.
Yulia Popova: Why am I taking this interview not on a football pitch or at an art exhibition or at a concert but in the classroom of EC Language School in Malta? How did you start teaching English?
Cecil Jones: First allow me to make myself clear. Language is an Art too. People may not think it because they don’t use it as such, but it is an art. As a matter of fact all language departments at universities all around the world are situated in their Faculties of Art. I discovered I loved teaching around eight years ago, which was no surprise given that several uncles, aunts and cousins of mine all taught English. Some still do. EC is the sixth school I have the pleasure of teaching at. There is something special here. I like the fact that it is very forward looking and ambitious, while promoting talent in all of its seventeen schools around the world. It reminds me of the time when I was thinking big, in music of course.
I see myself not just as a teacher but as an educator too. It is also exhausting but it is the first day job that manages to get me up at 6 o’clock every morning feeling content. I open my eyes and I look forward to coming to work here. And it is not only because of the people I work with, but it is also because of the students who I would be meeting and getting to know, people from all over the world. Within the class theatre this scenario is very dynamic. The students are my audience but for most of the time I am theirs. It is very rewarding to see positive developments take place in their learning and in mine. After all teaching is a two-way learning situation, isn’t it?
I haven’t given up painting or music of course, they are still with me. In fact only last year I performed percussion with the Collegium Musicum Choir and Orchestra & The University Vocal Ensemble when we premiered Stabat Mater by Karl Jenkins at St John’s Cathedral in Valletta. It was a big work that required me to study my part really well. I am also currently working on a collection of very large size paintings as a foreseeable project. At the same time I have taken up cycling and weight training as a new sport and keep-fit.
Right now at school I am focusing more on teaching more learning. In fact I hope to be teaching a module called Digital Story Telling soon, which is a new concept of EC whereby students get the opportunity to tell their personal stories on film, in English of course, thereby using powerpoint images, music and film editing software. This medium is a great learning tool as students learn not only to tell their intimate stories, but they get to do it in English on a film which they can present for all intents and purposes. It will be their film.
Yulia Popova: Are you happy with your life?
Cecil Jones: I’m not sure what you mean, my life isn’t perfect and its not a brag either. I suppose it has fallen short in some ways. I am 54 and still single. I feel I don’t have time to be married because my guess is marriage requires a man to have a stable job for the rest of his life. I am eclectic by nature, a kind of person who goes from one thing to another and to another without abandoning anything, or anyone of course, but makes for marriage a hard bargain in this day and age.
Yulia Popova: What are you dreaming about?
Cecil Jones: I would really like to finish writing my storybook which I’ve actually been rewriting for some time. It’s an adventure story about music (not instruments but music) and how it began on Earth for us human beings. Its fiction of course.
As for dreams, well I had a strange yet vivid one a couple of years ago, I remember meeting my father who passed away forty-three years ago when I was twelve years old. The thing that struck me the most about this dream was that he appeared to be a healthy ninety year old, seeming as if he had in fact never died. I don’t know what the dream means of course, but having learned that life was what happened to me when I was busy making other plans I took the decision to stop making plans, for the time being, excepting the lesson plans for my students at EC. It’s pretty Freudian at the moment.