[WATCH] Turning to ‘Tripfolk’

The title of Etnika’s upcoming new album is a zany mouthful that promises a fresh jolt of old-but-new sounds from Malta’s pioneering folk music act. Teodor Reljic spoke to the band about what we can expect from ‘Maddalena’s Marvellous Tripfolk Klabb’ ahead of its online release in a couple of days’ time

The use of Maltese songs, lyrics and repertoire was always the main ingredient in Etnika’s material
The use of Maltese songs, lyrics and repertoire was always the main ingredient in Etnika’s material

‘Make it new’

For each of the six Etnikafe annual showcase concerts that we produced since 2001, there was a substantial amount of new material, sometimes entire shows consisted of new songs and arrangements. Our last recording was in 2003, so we had quite a lot of repertoire that never featured on any album. We decided to do a selection of songs that over the years have become iconic and that go well with the current band lineup.

The brief of the band was always to present some aspect of Maltese music and culture in a new and surprising way, to challenge the perception of local music and identity. We felt we needed to come up with a new sound, a new musical direction that we could stand behind now after so many years, get excited about the music again, work on material that is more intimate, and more true to each of us in the band.

The process

We prepared several sketches of new ideas and parts of songs in GarageBand and then met in Gozo for an intense week of residence where the new sound started to take shape. We spent 10-12 hour days with the music on top of Cittadella in Rabat in a room called sentinella, and the result was some 11 songs, 6 new and 5 arrangements of older songs.

After several more rehearsals, the material was consolidated for the studio sessions. We recorded at Temple Studios, in Mistra, most of it live and surprisingly after only one or two takes, and then spent time adding sounds and effects where David Vella helped us to create what we started referring to as the ‘Tripfolk’ sound.

Tripping it up

A reference to Trip-Hop of course, it helped us unify the sound on the album, a melancholic blend of 1960s retro-futuristic mood, analogue synths, electronic sounding drum loops performed on acoustic percussion, old rediffusion sound of guitars, whispery Jane Birkin style vocals, footwork on wood and a pastizzi tray, old Valletta music hall saxophones and flutes, 1930s Maltese song lyrics and traditional songs and chants and of course Maltese folk instruments like żummara, bijambo, tanbur, żafżafa and flejguta. It all had to work somehow, coated in nostalgia, but sounding fresh, reminiscent of Malta and oddly familiar yet surprising in new cross genre arrangements.

Remember the roots

The use of Maltese songs, lyrics and repertoire was always the main ingredient in Etnika’s material. In recent years, our research brought to light many songs from the 1930 that were almost forgotten. Maddalena, for example was one written by Carlo Satariano in 1931 for the first series of Maltese HMV gramophone discs recorded in Milan and published by Anthony Damato. The original music by Vincenzo Ciappara accompanies a humorous story which became so popular that it was reissued on 45rpm vinyl in the 1960s. We decided to use the lyrics of the refrain “xitla sbejħa...” from a traditional chant known as ‘Bormliża’ or ‘għana fil-għoli’, and its lyrics were documented by ethnomusicologists in the late 1960s. ‘Għana fil-għoli’ literally means ‘a high-pitched chant’ and was previously predominantly sung by women as it requires a high pitched and strained voice. Our latest rendition of the song is quite different to the original, and is the song that probably best reflects the new direction and sound, it has been released as a single, and so far the feedback has been really positive. Hopefully in the new arrangement this song, and others like il-Mara u xitan (also written in 1931) will acquire a new relevance in today’s context.

The album also features late Francis Baldacchino il-Budaj’s lyrics, written for Etnika in 2003. We met in his garage converted into artist’s studio, filled with his paintings and smoke from the iconic ‘tal farfett’ cigar, and in ten minutes he scribbled a song on a piece of paper that became ‘X’ser Ngħannu?’, one of our favourite slow songs in a completely new arrangement for this recording.

Going for cabaret

The songs are quite different from each other, almost like a part of a variety show, which is where the name of the album comes in, Maddalena’s Marvellous Tripfolk Klabb, an imaginary port cabaret venue where the album takes place. It is quite a different sound from our previous work, when the band was starting out there was nothing else similar on the scene, and the project took on the task of ticking all the boxes in order to bring the almost forgotten musical heritage to an astounded and ever-increasing audience. 

Malta’s musical scene

Currently the local scene is much healthier, with several bands singing in Maltese, using aspects, concepts even instruments of the local culture, which has freed us in many ways from the obligations we had of being the only Maltese roots band, and allowed us to look inwards, be more creative and true to ourselves, and yet hopefully continue to inspire people to look at the maltese heritage with fresh eyes and rediscover hidden gems. We are aware that some of our previous audiences might find the new material less ethnic and folky, less in the World Music genre, but hopefully they will still like some aspect of the album as the material is rather varied. Also, we expect that this album and live concerts will attract new listeners, hopefully also a younger crowd too who were too young and not around when the band was starting out.

Maddalena’s Marvellous Tripfolk Klabb will be launched on November 15 on bandcamp: https://etnikamalta.bandcamp.com/album/maddalenas-marvellous-tripflok-klabb which will be followed by a launch concert at Sala San Duminku – a 450-year-old structure located beneath the San Duminku Church in Merchants Street, Valletta. Tickets are limited to 200 holders. Bookings: www.ticketline.com.mt