The folk of the now | Etnika

Following the pioneering world-folk band’s reunion concert on May 1 at Europe House in London, TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Andrej Vujicic and Oliver Degabriele of Etnika about why they decided to ‘reboot’ the lively ensemble, and what lies ahead in the band’s future now that several other Maltese bands have trod on the trail that they blazed back in the early noughties

Etnika, left to right: Walter Vella, Andrew Alamango, Francesca Grima. Top: Alison Galea, Andrej Vujicic and Oliver Degabriele (Photo: Grace Cassar)
Etnika, left to right: Walter Vella, Andrew Alamango, Francesca Grima. Top: Alison Galea, Andrej Vujicic and Oliver Degabriele (Photo: Grace Cassar)

What motivated you to ‘get the old band back together’?

Andrej Vujicic: Well, it looks like we have finally succumbed to the growing collective nostalgia for the project, both within the group and amongst the fans. Etnika left a big mark on the local music and creative scene in general, and still to date, it is one of the top references for Maltese roots music.

The yearly showcase events were accompanied by a peculiar contagious euphoria, and hearing local roots music in a new context in the early 2000’s made people aware and proud of their own nearly forgotten musical heritage. It was unexpected, high-energy and it genuinely touched people, creating high expectations for every coming year.

I suppose we all got addicted to that feeling and we felt that each year we needed to surpass the expectations, the surprise factor, the staging, the fanfare. Looking back it is easy to see that we had entered a vicious circle of wanting to make the events bigger and more spectacular, as the crowds and venues were getting bigger. At times we would lose the initial intimacy and focus on the music, and occasionally even a genuine connection to the crowd.

After the album Zifna in 2003 we made probably enough material for two new albums and yet we never recorded again. So there are many beautiful songs that only ever existed live, some of our best material actually, and we felt that we owed it to ourselves and to our fans to resuscitate them.

What would you say were some of the most significant changes to the local musical scene since the years you were ‘active’? And how will you be responding to these changes with your new setup?

Oliver Degabriele: The Etnika project was conceived in a time when there was very little folk/world/pop music with a strong Maltese identity happening in the local music scene. Nowadays, there is a wealth of projects which include either the Maltese language or elements of Maltese folk music in their vocabulary. This has happened mostly over the past 10 years, and it is a less obvious and easy to stand out in today’s colourful scene than it was 15 years ago.

Another change lies on a more social level. Malta is not an island anymore. We have become European, we are finding out what it is to be Mediterranean and we are constantly faced with stories happening on the border of two continents which are culturally and socially closer than most Maltese care to admit.

This has forced us to reevaluate the approach we might have had before with aspects of our music and shows and focus more on the Maltese identity in the contemporary European and Mediterranean context.

AV: In many ways, Etnika helped to provide a blueprint to a multitude of offshoot projects. The oddball quirkiness, festive brass bands, the inclusion of traditional Maltese instruments, creative lyrics in Maltese, mix with other relevant music styles, and so on. None of this is novel in 2015, albeit still far from mainstream, and we certainly won’t be rushing back into old moulds. I feel we need to focus on the music now, and not design the outcome beforehand, allow ourselves to shape the songs free from a preconceived idea of a genre or effect, trust ourselves and the process and be sincere.

What led you to go for a back-to-basics approach and line-up?

AV: Firstly, the world has changed, and the extravagancy of touring as a 13-piece band as we used to, is today simply not feasible. Six is probably the limit. And as we are currently primarily focused on a touring band line up, we tried to preserve the essence of the band, and also formulate the essence of our new sound.

Working for many years on numerous projects locally and internationally, the individual core group members gained new experience and grew musically in different directions.

We are now excited to revisit old Etnika songs and are really enjoying the challenge of reducing the arrangements to an almost unplugged, back-to-basics feel. The music now really comes to the foreground and a newfound creativity of how to use our strengths and weaknesses allowing for the ‘less is more’ to work its magic. Not sure we are there yet, but we are getting a glimpse of a new sound, and are loving the process.

How would you describe your reunion concert in London? Why did you go for that particular venue, and how were you received?

AV: The concert was organised by the Malta High Commission in the United Kingdom which is based in London, as part of the anniversary celebrations of Malta joining the European Union in 2004. Etnika had actually played in the official ceremonies back in 2004 in Ireland and Luxembourg, and in may ways this came to a full circle.

The venue was Europe House, and it seated just over a hundred strong crowd in its maximum capacity comprised of esteemed dignitaries as well as friends, fans and family.

As expected it was a very emotional affair for all of us, and it was great to feel again the love people have for the project. The crowd was with us till the end enjoying equally the really stripped down, slow and heartfelt numbers as well as the upbeat high-energy ones, and we received a very positive feedback for the new line-up, arrangements and sound.

They gave us a standing ovation at the end and the energy and excitement in the venue was palpable. Couldn’t have gone better really for a first concert after seven years! Very excited to play again.

How would you describe the local music scene at the moment? What would you change about it?

OD: It feels a bit like a kid in adolescence. The big fish in a small pond syndrome is slowly giving way to more mature and ambitious projects and musicians who are not content by reaching the charts on a local radio station. The internet, EU accession and more widespread availability of funding have all contributed to this. More and more bands and musicians are touring and studying abroad which is necessary rather than positive.

All this can be crucial for Maltese music to grow up out of puberty into whatever it is meant to be in its ‘adulthood’, and of course we look forward to contributing once more to this process!

Some things that can be improved is better curation of artistic funding (giving the right funds to the right projects at the right time of their lifecycle), an incentive to more live music (easier permits for outdoor concerts and using unlikely spaces for gigs) and a proper legal structure for the distribution of royalties (songwriter and interpreter rights).

It is still beyond comprehension that the majority of Maltese bands and musicians do not even consider royalties when it is increasingly becoming the main source of income in the modern music industry, which has shed its old revenue models and is constantly trying to figure out new ones.

What’s next for you?

AV: There is a series of international performances planned, the first one being in Rome at the Accademia Filarmonica Romana on July 10. We are hoping to go to USA and Canada as well as other European capital cities. We are also participating in the opening ceremony at the CHOGM event in Malta.

The project is in real need of a new recording and we are currently focusing our energies on new arrangements and repertoire as well as funding and logistics for the new album. All this is moving towards a big local Etnika event that should happen next year.

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