Close to home, but far from traditional | Walter Vella

What makes music ‘Maltese’? We pose this tricky question to Walter Vella, flutist and saxophonist of the world music ensemble Trania, who will be launching their debut album at Palazzo De Piro, Mdina on June 6.

Walter Vella.
Walter Vella.

How would you describe a typically 'Maltese' sound... what would a musician have to do to qualify as a 'Maltese' act?

What we are really doing with Trania is to get away from the stereotypical Maltese sound and approach the music from fresh perspectives. We are a product of the times and have to accept the fact that hardly any musician in this day and age is not affected by outside influences. Many of these musicians will be content with playing in a style that suits them without having to change and hybridise the music to make it theirs. It's quite challenging to create a new sound and calling it Maltese music. I rather prefer calling it Mediterranean music instead, giving me a much wider scope to create new music.

How do you think musicians can recognise and discover the sounds of their country of origin? Do you think it's just a matter of doing their research, or do you think there's more to it?

Doing your research is always important. You have to know your roots in order to produce your own style of music. Yet it is not the most essential element that one has to pursue. What is more important is how much creativity the artist is willing to put into his work. A local musician will always have traces of his country's sound ingrained in his DNA, in the way he plays and feels the music. Whether he displays it or conceals it is another question.

You also combine elements from other countries and styles... what do you think makes them blend well with a Maltese vibe?

Although our music touches many styles, the Trania sound is evident throughout the album. It is a heady blend of North African rhythms, chill-out music, prog rock and almost pure traditional sounds. Yet it is anything but traditional. The use of electric keyboards mixed with the Maltese traditional reed flute the flejguta, plus strong rhythmic patterns on djembe, darbouka and drums, makes our sound quite unique. We also use improvisation to the fullest.

I also use the soprano saxophone and other flutes as well. We have been careful in our selection of songs to put in this album, making sure that our concept of the contemporary Maltese/Mediterranean sound is very evident.

Because there is extensive use of the reed flute people might also think of Celtic or even Peruvian music. This is because this type of music has been exploited to the fullest, and many people are more familiar with this than their own. Our local ethnic music has suffered through the years. Remember we have always been ruled by larger countries with even larger cultural legacies, and with Malta being ultra conservative and with strong religious taboos, this did not help either.

Local ethnic music did not go beyond a certain point, and it was always looked down upon as primitive and uncultured by the ruling and middle classes. Probably they were right, as research shows how poor our ethnic musical legacy really is. Through time it never developed, unlike in other countries.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians... particularly those wanting to delve into Maltese folk music?

Today's musician has the liberty of playing what he wants without any boundaries blocking his paths of creativity. He should use this fully to his advantage. If it is accepted by the public then he has nothing to worry about.

The rest of Trania is made up of Mark Attard (keyboards), Jason 'Chubby' Fabri (percussion). Entrance to the launch concert is free. Doors open at 20:00. The project is supported by the Malta Arts Fund, Palazzo De Piro and Music link.