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Written in fRoots issue 289, 2007


Ruben Zahra

PBS-Malta/Soundscapes  ISBN-13: 978-99932-0-439-8 (2006)

By the late 20th century, the instrumental aspects of Maltese folk music, particularly the playing of the zaqq (bagpipe), were in very poor shape, and involvement in traditional singing known as għana (pronounced ‘aana’) was dwindling. Now there is some renewed interest, the instrumental aspect of which has been encouraged by the work of researcher Steve Borg, musician Ruben Zahra, instrument maker Guzi Gatt and others, and their organisation Etnika which was formed in 2000.
      This rather elegantly produced 63-page hardback book, written by Zahra and edited by Borg, describes and illustrates clearly, intelligently and accessibly the traditional instruments – bagpipe, reed-pipe, whistle, tambourine, friction drum and guitar – and folksongs, country dances, sword dances, street cries and nursery rhymes.
      It also contains liner notes for the CD, set into the front cover, with 25 tracks of which 18 are archive recordings from Malta’s PBS Radio. It seems the jewels of Maltese folk music of the past went pretty much unrecorded; these archive finds are pretty rough, but illustrate the general forms, which, despite Malta’s historical Arabic influences, show more apparent connection with the music of the northern shores of the Mediterranean, particularly Italy.
      Punctuating them are numbers by Nafra, a folk ensemble led by Zahra that uses piano, viola, tuba, and accordion together with zaqq, zummara (reed-pipe), friction drum, guitar and tambourine. Of their seven tracks one is an arrangement of a sword dance tune from the collection of Maltese tunes published by 19th century Welsh harpist Edward Jones and the other six are Zahra compositions with some folk influence. Zahra is a mover and shaker for the zaqq, but on this showing he’s no expert player, and neither it nor the zummara blends well pitch-wise or rhythmically with the generally rather approximate group; the one archive recording of zaqq, from 1958, shows it in much more comfortable company with just the percussion of tambourine and friction drum. The final track, Mediterranean Dream, sung in English and featuring a female vocal definitely not in any ghana style, is lyrically and melodically a cheesy, irrelevant cliché.
      Useful book, though, and it’s early days in the Maltese revival; għana seems to be regaining popularity, and publications like this often prove a seed-pearl for the growth of new tradition-rooted music.
      www.rubenzahra.com has sample pages, sound samples and a contact email. www.allmalta.com gives more information about Maltese traditions and music.

© 2007 Andrew Cronshaw

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