Maltese music should be getting more airplay

Apart from those rare occasions when Eurovision takes over our lives, especially through the entertaining format that is X-Factor, radio stations avoid playing Maltese music

Maltese icon Freddie Portelli remains ever-popular
Maltese icon Freddie Portelli remains ever-popular

Mid-August and most people just talk seriously of unserious matters. And I am quite sure the Santa Marija feeling of doing nothing and saying nothing spills over to the rest of the year. Most people are simply disengaged and not interested in getting troubled with anything remotely important.

Now beyond the anarchy that reigns in the field of construction and planning, the funerary emotions inside the Nationalist Party and the curiosity over who will replace Joseph Muscat, nothing else seems to set people thinking.

So the subject I choose is surely one which has few fans other the protagonists themselves. Yet they number in hundreds if not thousands. I am referring to Maltese musicians and those dozens upon dozens who endlessly work to make it happen by sheer love of the art. The flipside to that is the unfortunate habit of mainstream radio not to play Maltese music or music with Maltese lyrics.

There is a general approach to push Maltese music, bad and good, complicated, sophisticated, melodic or rock or poetic, folk or pop into this ‘melitensia’-like corner of exoticness. Even on tax-funded radio stations, Maltese music seems to be relegated to some third division for curious listeners.

Apart from those rare occasions when Eurovision takes over our lives, especially through the entertaining format that is X Factor, radio stations avoid playing Maltese music. It has got to be American and UK pop (even good Italian music, which has its own Maltese niche of fans, gets segregated and only included in special programmes on Italian music).

The truth is that out there, a plethora of Maltese, young and old are involved in music productions and they have a fan base. They turn up at music festivals and concerts organised for their faithful fans. From the iconic Freddie Portelli to Renato, but also the Travellers or Brikkuni and Brodu, not to mention Maltese hip-hop and other Maltese songsters and folk singers… these acts are indeed very popular and just simply brilliant.

Yet, Maltese radio remains barred to their work. And seemingly, it appears that the only Maltese songs that are worthy of praise are the ubiquitous wedding staples Xemx, the New Cuorey classic L-Ahhar Bidwi f’Wied il-Ghasel, and the ever popular Viva Malta.

But since these songs were cut back in the 1960s and 1970s, the plethora of musicians and bands whose work has not yet even been collected in some national library for music (hint: we need to start a digitising effort that collects every single musical production) seems to have been ignored, and only occupy a space in our individual recollection of Maltese greats.

We have unique singers with amazing vocal talent and exceptional musicianship. Sure, the field is also busy with a generous dose of pop dross, ballads to unrequited love that require little lyrical effort, and amateurs who tend to be given an airing during lacklustre musical contests.

But there is no doubt that our best artists have been sidelined by radio stations who treat Maltese music as inferior or unsuitable to ears trained only on American and British pop.

Not to forget that sung Maltese has had its own chequered history, perceived to be the product of less refined society, of those not exposed enough to the sophistication of British and American music; only that in the last decade, the spread of Maltese talent, the sheer increase in musicianship and recordings of high production value, and even the increase in gigging away from Maltese shores, has changed Maltese music – whether in the Maltese language or not.

Beyond the preferences for different musical genres, the decision at the top is clear to me. The Broadcasting Authority together with the culture minister Owen Bonnici should really come together to formulate a policy to encourage the dissemination of Maltese music.

The powers that be should start widening the way musical awards are dished out; not only should all Maltese music be recorded for posterity in a national library, but every production should be worthy of being shortlisted for national awards across the many genres of music.

And why not: take Maltese to the Eurovision Song Contest. The history of our performances in the English language does not suggest we are going to be winning the next ESC any time soon.

Of course, if the X Factor judges themselves are not too crazy about stringing a Maltese sentence when considering potential contestants – on national TV – I guess that suggestion is a lame starter.

It seems that we have instead gone to great lengths to delegitimise the use of the Maltese language; yet in music and literature we find one of the most beautiful ways that our language gets the importance it deserves.

In many countries across the world from Canada to some EU countries, radio stations are obliged to play a percentage of music from their native country. In Malta we have no such obligation.

Many old-timers have told me that this proposal was made several times in the past. Why don’t we entertain this idea again? Many languages have continued to live in the music of their nation. Gaelic, Breton and Celtic continue to live in the ballads and songs of unique musicians. Surely there is good and bad music; but the thing that counts is that the public somehow chooses the music that lives on, the music that remains part of our collective psyche and returns to us when an event or moment triggers a musical note from the past.

I would like to think that musical ballads such as Xemx are not singular events. We are inundated with hundreds of songs from Maltese songwriters who find little or no support for their talent. And then there are those who are led to believe that they can pierce the foreign market, perhaps wasting endless time and energy galloping towards these windmills by emulating foreign artists.

The songwriters I spoke too say Maltese music has been straitjacketed by its subservience to the Eurovision format, when all they want is more exposure on radio stations, to showcase their work.

As in all things in this country, decisions are usually taken from the top and then somehow implemented down in the animal kingdom. Is there even any policy on Maltese music? As I see it, Owen Bonnici has a responsibility to respond to this serious lacuna in our cultural landscape. There is a national duty to document Maltese music here in the form of a national project, but also not to leave things to chance or the imaginary ‘market’, and instead enforce a proper policy on Maltese music.