Maltese Għana inscribed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Oral tradition and rhymed folksong Għana is now a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

The traditional rhymed folksong of Malta, l-Għana, has been inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee met online to examine 55 new applications for inscription submitted by States Parties to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Convention promotes the safeguarding of knowledge and skills necessary for traditional craftsmanship and cultural practices transmitted from generation to generation, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, and knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe.

The most popular form of għana is the ‘quick-wit’ għana (spirtu-pront), an improvised duel between one or two pairs of singers, focusing on rhymes, convincing argumentation and witty repartee.

‘Factual’ għana (tal-fatt) is a long, narrative poem sung by a soloist, usually from memory, to record important local events in collective memory.

‘Bormla’ għana has simple lyrics sung using a large vocal range and a particular vocal style where a single syllable is sung while moving between several notes in succession. This third style was historically sung by women but has declined in popularity today compared to the more male-dominated ‘quick-wit’ style.

Għana sessions are held year-round in public and private venues, as well as during open-air festivals and celebrations.

The Għana community includes guitarists and singers (Għannejja) who regularly perform in local bars or domestic environments and patrons and impresarios who organise such events. A strong camaraderie develops between the performers and the audience through friendly exchanges, as the practice of sharing jokes and recalling common experiences fosters a sense of shared history, identity and community.

Għana, originally predominantly practised in farming and fishing areas and the inner harbour region, has becoming more popular among the general public in Malta.

There are currently no formal organisations for community members and there is no formal register of performers, but informal estimates place the number at about 250. Men predominate among public performers and audience members today, although more women are beginning to perform again, especially in contemporary styles.

Maltese migrants abroad maintain a keen interest in practising the tradition. They participate in Għana events when they visit Malta and if they return to the country for good.

Għana is mostly performed in weekly sessions in bars or private venues across Malta and Gozo, the two inhabited islands of the Republic of Malta. The village of Żejtun, for instance, in the South of Malta is renowned for its Għana sessions.

Għana is included in nationwide celebrations such as l-Imnarja, held in the woods of Rabat (in the centre of Malta) and the national Folksong Festival ‘Għanafest’ (held annually since 1998 in the Argotti Gardens in Floriana on Malta).

It is an integral part of religious and community festivals, such as the Feast of our Lady of Grace, the St. Mary Fair (on Gozo) or the feast of St. Gregory in Marsaxlokk (on Malta).