Book Review | From Zejtun - The Zejtun Band Club

Godfrey Grima enjoys Francis Galea's history of the Zejtun Band Club.

Just when the Labour Party is celebrating its 90th anniversary, out comes this highly readable book packed to the rafters with awesome chronicles of how the Zejtun Band Club got involved in the Labour movement’s first flush of youth: Francis Galea’s ‘From Zejtun- The Zejtun Band Club’ Much is latched to the repressive living conditions that stumped people’s life prospects in the 20s and well after the war.

This is not another vanity book about a village band club. It’s about class divisions, poverty, political rivalries and the tectonic political and social shifts that eventually ensured the many basic human rights we now enjoy in Malta. It’s about men and their mettle.
The author has found a trove of documents and his analysis is often captivating. The use of outstanding photography, mined from archives thought to have long perished, makes the narrative the more appealing.

At the heart of it all, this book tells the story of a small band of people in Zejtun – maybe ten at first, at around 1926 – who made a fist at conservative political thought and copper- bottomed religious tradition – a perilous undertaking then – and won. They first quit the club they played for (most were musicians), the Beland Band club. They then organised themselves into a tiny political organisation, set up the Labour Jazz Band and later plumbed for a full blown band club of their own. They spent the rest of their lives chipping away at the coalface of intolerance, classicist arrogance and pseudo-canons. Throughout this tale runs the golden thread of their involvement in the struggle to improve the island’s working class parlous conditions; people then were little more than chattel, their potential  chortled by the elite.

The first two chapters reaffirm the provenance of our nation – where we came from and the history that moulded us.
From then on it’s one sleek seamless journey into the history of the Zejtun Band Club.

Galea’s account couldn’t be more historically informative. What the club founders were after was a host of radical socio-political reforms. Their demands first flitted around and teased people’s consciousness, then inflamed it. When their hero, Boffa, arrived, class driven governance and archaic religious domination began to slowly wither on the tree.

The Zejtun Band Club founders were almost all young dockyard workers. They  might have been mischievous, but they weren’t wicked. They were unabashed Lefties. My mother, now 96, can still recite the Red Flag Anthem by heart without missing a beat. Inevitably they were swiftly tarnished with the brush of being commies – at one time by Archbishop Gonzi.  

Their goal was to destroy social disadvantage – the result of gross political and clerical patronage and privilege – the default setting of the age. Their greater enemy was ignorance, massively widespread in those days and hardly the exclusive preserve of the working class.  

Clearly the men who founded the Zejtun Band Club were politically savvy. They held on to the faith until several Labour and Nationalist governments eventually enshrined universal rights into the statue book.

Times changed and Galea reveals chapter after seductive chapter how the club – always a band club but socially always a little bit more – took on new roles. Today it sill flies its banners high, lead, for decades, by President Joe Attard- also Zejtun’s successful mayor. It’s still popularly known as ‘Tal-Labour’.

Francis Galea has produced a dazzling account for anyone wanting to find out more about unsung men and events that gave the pendulum of political and social change a hefty shove forward.