There I am, in a quaint Valletta café, chatting away to the friendly bartender, enjoying a delicious cup of tea while shying away from the pummelling heat of a late afternoon Maltese summer sun - I probably couldn’t be more entrenched in local tradition. Just as well really, because tradition is, after all, the reason why I am here. Not so much to partake in it, rather to learn more of its influence on Maltese music, and particularly, why it has inspired a group of young people to record local tunes from yesteryear for public consumption. To do this, I thought it best to go directly to the source, which is why Andrew Alamango, key figure of Malta’s foremost folk band, Etnika, is sitting opposite me - with cup of tea in hand, naturally!
After some casual banter, I can understand that Andrew is probably tired of explaining what Etnika is about, so I switch my question to the more inquisitive “Is Etnika a project or a band?” At heart, he tells me, Etnika is of course a project with a mission. Its main focus, originally at least, is to create social awareness of our musical heritage and to revive the use and popularity of typical Maltese instruments, such as iż-żaqq, iż-żummara and il-flejguta to name but a few. To do this, Etnika’s first recorded output, Nafra, relied on Ruben Zahra’s interpretations and revisitations of a number of Maltese melodies dating back to the 18th century, along with some original material. Incorporating several local musicians and a great deal of research and practice by dedicated people like Gużi Gatt and Steve Borg, Nafra succeeded in bringing traditional Maltese music to the masses, aided no doubt by Etnika’s vibrant live performances at the time.
Understandably, Andrew is still quite proud of Etnika’s debut concert, which was a huge success, attracting an audience of over a thousand people. But he doesn’t stop there either. “Aside from its mission, though” he adds, “Etnika is also a musical product, and, like all other musical products, it needs to increase its appeal and commercial viability in order to survive and move forward”. I’m assuming then, that while retaining heavy helpings of the traditional aspect, Żifna is that bold leap forward, bringing in contemporary influences, not so much in content selection, more in composition and especially, post-production.
This subtle amalgamation of old and new is immediately evident from the album’s opening track, Ara Ġejja, which essentially takes its cue from the traditional children’s rhyme, but dissects the melody into a more upbeat harmony, its ties to the past held together through the loose application of the original lyrics, with Julie Pomorsky giving a most passionate rendition. The result is a tune that is held together by elements culled not only from our heritage as an island, but also from our integral position within the Mediterranean region.
Similar ventures breathe new life into other familiar childhood rhymes such as Bum Bum, Lament and Orqod Orqod, though the approach is quite different in each of these cases. Bum Bum for example, has been layered with jazzy overtones, punctuated mainly by elegant piano and breezy percussion and a double vocal punch from Julie Pomorsky and Andrej Vujicic. Lament starts off with the nostalgic sounds of a worn vinyl record underlying the familiar poignant guitar and violin melody that leads the way for Budaj’s voice to weave its way into the song. The result is so close-knit that the subtle post-modern touches fit snugly into the song’s vintage quality, adding to its warmth. With Orqod Orqod, incidentally also the longest track on the album, Etnika opt for what feels like a ‘melt down’ of the original tune. Dissolved into a chilled out melody, with Julie’s lazy, hazy vocals adding a mystic touch to the ambience, this version also draws on jazz elements, although it remains a largely fluid arrangement.
As can be expected, the traditional numbers are the ones that evoke higher levels of emotion with audiences, particularly the older generation. But is this where Etnika’s appeal ends or does it extend beyond, towards the youth of today? “I think it does, to be honest”. Andrew’s prompt reaction alone quashes any doubt I may have had, “I am convinced our music appeals to all generations. In fact we have a large youth attendance at our performances.”
This is most encouraging, of course, not only for Etnika as a group, but also for Malta’s musical heritage. “Yes, it’s always great to get a good mixed, crowd. But we must remember that Etnika is not just about replaying the music of the past. The best way to prolong the existence of our heritage is to breathe new life into it, to add new chapters to it”. With this thought in mind, then, having younger people in the crowd can’t be anything but a significant step in the right direction. Listening to the original works on Żifna, it is not difficult to understand and appreciate Etnika’s efforts in extending Maltese music’s appeal – an eager sense geared towards prolonging its magic.
Take Qamar Kwinta for example, which starts off pretty much in an Oriental fashion. This song presents traditional sounds from a different perspective to that used by our forefathers. The melody is there, prominently fronted by the particular sounds of the mandolin and the accordion, but instead of laying the ground for a vocal bout of għana, the lyrics – all seven lines of them - are only sporadic and narrated, giving the song a feeling of tranquillity. Similarly, songs like Mandolina, Żifna, Tal-Ħaħaj and Il-Festa Ta’ Babu (one of my personal favourites, this!) also infuse the sounds of Malta’s musical heritage into contemporary compositions, only in a more upbeat mode. The result is overwhelming in its vibrancy and its ability to not only invoke an ambience that oozes local tradition, but also present flashes of other cultures. This multicultural blend, incidentally, was also offered to foreign audiences when Etnika gave performances in Cyprus, Sicily, Gibraltar and more recently, Spain and Greece, the latter as part of the Europe Day celebrations.
Having discussed several points of Etnika’s achievements and intentions, my last question to Andrew focused on what lies ahead for the project? After all, now that Etnika’s perspective of traditional music has reached its second stage, where does one go from here? Before he can answer me, I remind Andrew of an idea that he had mentioned to me a couple of years back – one that could (and probably would) involve some remixing and of course, the source material on Nafra and Żifna. “Well, it is still an option of sorts” he smiles, probably surprised that I remembered, “but to be honest, it is not at the top of our agenda. Right now, Etnika is too busy with Etnikafe...” Indeed, that very weekend, Etnika gave three vibrant performances that reflected every bit of the passion that is evident on their latest CD, Żifna, a truly effervescent brand of Maltese folk music!
Click here to buy Żifna.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Malta Independent (02 August 2003)