• Michael Bugeja

A MUSICAL RIDDLE


More popularly known as an accomplished and respected composer as well as a talented and passionate musician, on the side Dominic Galea is also the founder of Heritage Records. Now in its 11th year, the independent label has amassed a rather unique catalogue that includes a variety of works by local artists as well as Galea's own releases. In recent years the label has also been the vehicle for the artist's immersion in Maltese poetry, an ongoing musico-literary expedition that has yielded several tomes of Galea's jazz, pop and contemporary folk adaptations of selected poems by some of our island's literary giants, among them Dun Karm Psaila, Karmenu Vassallo and Rużar Briffa. The latest of these releases, Moħġaġa finds the composer delving into the works of several modern Maltese poets this time around, as Michael Bugeja found out when he spoke with Dominic Galea.

What were your first experiences writing songs in the Maltese language?

When I started writing my own material back in the 80s, my mother Doreen, who was already an established artist even then, wrote the lyrics to the first few songs I'd composed; these went on to enjoy significant success both in local and international festivals. Later I was lucky enough to work with some of the best Maltese poets, including Joe Friggieri, Charles Flores, Ġorġ Peresso and especially Raymond Mahoney, with whom I wrote eight musicals. In the early 1990s, Peresso used to send me one random poem every week which I would then set to music to be used in the children's TV programme WOW. Around the same time, together with Mahoney, I launched Iljieli Mediterranji, essentially a series of musicals, following which I have never looked back.

What attracted you to the idea of interpreting Maltese poetry through music?

The idea of making an album of Maltese poetry set to music came about around 2006, when I was studying literary critique as part of my University degree. The critique helped me to understand both the literary and historical context of the poems, and as part of my dissertation, I had decided to adapt Caxaro's Kantilena to music. That was also the foundation for the album Ommi that I eventually wrote and recorded with my mother Doreen Galea in 2009.

All the albums in this series to date reflect a defined jazz tendency...

My style has always featured a proclivity towards jazz. It's the genre I feel most comfortable in as a pianist and composer. The balance between melody and harmony along with the rhythm create a unique sound that ultimately defines the composer's identity, and it has basically always been present in everything I've written. I'm aware my 'sound' may not be immediately appealing to Maltese mainstream audiences, but this has never held me back from doing what I feel suits the songs best. I stand by this decision, and I'm pleased that my work is still appreciated by people who truly love arts and culture. In a way I've created my own niche.

Your latest album Moħġaġa focuses on modern rather than classic literature. What inspired the shift and how different was it from a composer’s standpoint?

On this album I adopted an approach far more liberal to the romantic and/or patriotic elements that inspired the previous albums. The modern poets of the 1960s Muviment Qawmien Letterarju (MQL) sought to implement a wider use of metaphors and free verse, which diminished the importance of the traditional metric rhyme. This is reflected on Moħġaġa in my choice of musical composition, which focuses on melodic impact while avoiding predictable tonalities. I believe the end result has produced songs that offer a fresh outlook in terms of Maltese pop. I felt particularly free to express my vision as a composer on this album, which I am very fond of because it is relatively raw and also because I did not give in to any musical compromise throughout its making.

What does the title Moħġaġa represent, and how does it tie in with the featured poems?

I handpicked the featured poems myself and the music for most of them was actually written immediately after I had read that particular poem. One of the poems is in fact called Moħġaġa (riddle), and it inspired me to write a brief piece with a quasi-mystical harmony; a typical composition in modern jazz that revolves around a main motif and allows the performer to improvise on it. The idea for the album was in fact to allow space for improvisation rather than follow a prescribed composition, and the songs were performed and recorded with this mindset. In a way, this also presents the average listener something different or unusual to absorb, which is why I felt the title Moħġaġa was appropriate for the entire project.

Last but not least, a word about the choice of vocalists on board for this album...

Apart from their vocal talent, all three singers have the ability to appreciate the importance of such a project, which is far from mainstream, while infusing their individual character into the songs they were entrusted with. Nadine Axisa for example, has considerable experience both in the Maltese song circuit as well as the jazz scene. She is one of the most sought-after vocalists because of her versatility and the dedication she puts into whatever project she involves herself in.

Despite being a veteran on the local scene, Doreen Galea retains a modern outlook towards music that was essential in bringing the album Ommi to fruition. She was also one of the first singers of her time to venture into jazz. When I was looking for a male vocalist for this album, I immediately thought of the young Justin Galea, whose vocal timbre is rather particular and sometimes even bears some semblance to our traditional għannejja. I felt all of this, along with his versatility, would suit the songs I had in mind.

I must also mention the musicians who accompanied me throughout this project, namely the highly-talented drummer Joe Micallef, whose experience and touch were essential in giving the songs their rhythmic edge; bassist Alan Portelli, who despite being relatively young is already quite a mature musician with a true passion for all things jazz-related, and the renowned saxophonist Carlo Muscat, who did a fantastic job on the four tracks he played on. A big thanks also to the other guest musicians, namely Ben Galea (drums), Jimmy Bartolo (bass), Walter Vella (flute), Roger Azzopardi (trumpet), Marvin Gaerty (guitara) and the string quartet led by Tatjana Chircop, whose contribution was just as vital.

Moħġaġa is supported by the Janatha Stubbs Foundation, Wave Studios, Lito's Place, Il-Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti, L-Akkademja tal-Malti and Heritage Records. The CD is available from D'Amato Records (Valletta) or online at www.dominicgalea.com.

Photo by Joe Smith

An edited version of this article was first published on The SUnday Times of Malta (19 July 2015)

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