Recovering Malta’s ‘lost voice’ | Andrew Alamango

Artistic Director ANDREW ALAMANGO, on why ‘Ritmu: Roots Festival Malta’ will be striking out in a different direction, from previous celebrations of Maltese folk music

Andrew Alamango
Andrew Alamango

According to the programme, ‘Roots’ will feature “the musical stylings of instrumentalists from around the Mediterranean, [and] traditional Maltese folk music interwoven into contemporary sound.” This suggests that the festival is more than just a successor to the (now-defunct) ‘Għanafest’; but rather, an attempt to somehow ‘revitalise’ Maltese Għana, by placing it in the context of a wider Mediterranean folk music tradition. First of all, is that impression correct? And if so: why the need to revitalise this genre, anyway? Do you feel that traditional Maltese Għana is... ‘endangered’, perhaps? 

The bottom line of the festival, I would say, is to highlight our tradition of Maltese Għana: which, in itself, is more of a ‘linguistic’ tradition, than a musical one.  Because even if music is an essential part of Għana: like many other folk traditions around the world, it is there primarily to support the verse.  

And with Għana, in particular: the verse serves as both a means of communication... but also, as a form of individual/societal ‘catharsis’, whereby you can ‘say what you need to say’ - and ‘get it off your chest’ - by singing it out in the traditional metre (which, in the case of Għana, is the octo-syllabic verse) 

But while the main emphasis of the festival remains Malta’s traditional Għana – in fact, all the international acts that are being brought over, will be there primarily to reflect on certain aspects of the local tradition - I wouldn’t describe it as a successor to Għanafest, myself.  

For while I did ‘inherit’ that festival, so to speak, after its final edition last year... I felt the need to restructure it, and give it a new ‘vision’,  based on my own experience with local ‘għannejja’ (and obviously, with ‘Għanafest’, too; a festival I attended regularly, over the past 20 years; and also performed in myself.) 

At the same time, however: the format has changed considerably, since then. For one thing, because I feel that – from what I have witnessed, anyway – there seems to be a general lack of understanding about the Għana tradition, among much of the population at large. Not very many people out there seem to know what Għana really is; how it is done; how it works; and ‘why people do it’... 

In brief, there seems to be a total detachment, on the part of the wider majority. And with this lack of appeciation, or understanding, Għana itself comes to be viewed as more of a ‘curiosity’, of sorts. And the ghannej, in turn, becomes the equivalent of an ‘exotic monkey, performing on stage’... 

I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Because even when we view Għana as a mere curiosity; there is still part of us which recognises that these people are more ‘authentic’, so to speak, than us.  So we still appreciate Għana, for its authenticity; but – in most cases – we don’t really know what the hell is actually going on. 

But that, perhaps, is how the wider public percieves Maltese Għana: which brings me to the question of whether or not the tradition itself is actually ‘endangered’. This is something I hear quite a lot, to be honest: people often tell me that “something needs to be done, because Għana is ‘dying’ (if not, ‘already dead’).” 

But I don’t hear that from the ghanejja themselves: or from any of the aficonados, or ‘dilettanti’, to whom it is part of their everyday reality. To those people, Maltese Għana is very much alive. Not just in the sense that they still practice it, every day... but also because it still ‘works’, within the context of the community in which they live.  

It still provides a cathartic ‘language,’ that enables those people to freely express themselves. It is a voice that they have retained; but that we - the rest of us - have lost, in the meantime. In fact: they are singing on our behalf, really. 

So... for whom is Għana ‘dead’, exactly? For the people who are detached from it, perhaps; or for those who only ever view it from a distance... and possibly, with a certain amount of disdain...

You took the question clean out of my mouth. Let’s face it: there’s also a ‘class’ issue embedded in all this, isn’t there? At the risk of a possibly unfair analogy: Għana is often compared (in terms of influences, etc.) with other Mediterranean folk traditions, such as Flamenco. But in Spain, there isn’t the same sense of ‘detachment’, that there is here. On the contrary: Spaniards are fiercely proud of their local traditions (which may, in turn, also explain why Flamenco has such a vast international appeal). How do account for this difference, yourself?  

There is clearly a social stigma, if you like, associated with Maltese Għana. And it doesn’t help, naturally. Not only does it holds people back, from even attempting to understand what Għana is all about... or to see the beauty in it: because there is a lot of beauty in Maltese Għana, at the end of the day... but it also reinforces the perception that Għana is a very localised, very ‘niche’ tradition, that the rest of the country feels no affinity towards, whatsoever. 

And this, in turn, holds the għannejja themselves back, from feeling any impulse to teach it to others; or to share their knowledge with what they view as ‘outsiders’. In that scenario, Għana becomes ‘their’ thing – and rightly so: because it still works, for them – and not a national tradition, which is supposed to belong to everybody... 

In fact, one of the questions that I hope the festival will raise, is precisely this: to whom does Għana belong, really? To the practitioners, alone? To the aficionados, and the usual audiences? And if, at a certain level, it can only really ever ‘belong’ to those people, anyway – because they’re the ones to whom it still has validity, and meaning – then is there any other way, in which the rest of the nation can participate, in what is after all a ‘national’ tradition? 

As to how this stigma came about, however: I can only give you my own thoughts on that. What I think happened, is that Għana used to be a much bigger part of Malta’s social reality in the past, than it is today. And the language of Għana – i.e., the ability to ‘get things off your chest’, by expressing them in the tradidional ‘octo-syllabic’ rhyming verse-scheme – was also much more widely understood, by the population at large. 

But at a certain point – roughly around the 1980s – people started ‘moving away from the land’. Not just in Malta, obviously: but all over the Mediterranean – and the rest of the world – there was a general movement away from rural, agrarian communites; and towards a more urbanised way of life.  

And folk-traditions such as Għana are themselves deeply rooted in the agrarian lifestyle: they are the product of small, tightly-knit societies, which have traditionally always lived in close connection with nature, and the earth: whether they were farmers; or fishermen; or seamen, etc.  

And up to a point, it’s still true today. Not, perhaps, beause today’s għannejja are all people who ‘physically work the land’... but because – even if their own communities have also urbanised, since the 1980s - part of that lifestyle still actually exists, in those localities. Animals, for instance, are still big part of their daily life: many of them have horses, or raise livestock...  

But because the rest of us have moved so far away from those traditions, and that way of living... along with that lifestyle, we have also lost this ‘voice’: this very particular, very regional voice: this voice that was, until recently, ours... but no longer is. 

In the meantime, we’ve been adopting other voices to take its place. Like the ‘Eurovision voice’, for instance: which is a ‘pretentious’ voice, because we are merely pretending to be something else. It is a generic, unauthentic voice, that we put on for the purpose of ‘legitimising’ ourselves, in the eyes of other cultures... 

And this has been happening for a very long time. There has always, up to a point, been a certain level of ‘cutural colonisation’ going on; whereby people feel the need to ‘justify’ themselves, by aligning to imported cultures...

I see what you’re driving at: the flipside is that, while ‘imported cultures’ grow more fashionable, local traditions come to be viewed with (what you earlier derscribed as) ‘disdain’... 

Up to a point, yes. And at a certain level, it’s happening even within the Għana community itself. Today’s għannejja are – let’s face it – not getting any younger... but while there are a lot of young people getting involved (some of whom will be preforming at the festival)... in many cases, children are choosing not to follow in their father’s footsteps. Clearly, for them, too, it is no longer considered ‘trendy’, or ‘cool’, to be an ghannej...

On the subject of being an ‘ghannej’: I notice that you attach a lot of importance to this ‘voice’, that they have retained (while the rest of us have lost). In other interviews, you drew comparisons with the medieval French ‘troubadour’ tradition, for instance. Can you expand on that? What IS an ‘ghannej’, anyway? 

An ‘ghannej’ is... well, the same thing as a ‘troubadour’, actually. There are troubadour traditions all over the world... and all throughout history, too: not just in medieval France, but also in Classical times. The ‘Homeric bard’, for instance, was also a troubadour; just as today’s Maltese ghannej also serves the same function, within society, as the Homeric Bard. 

He is the ‘keeper of memory’; ‘the ‘bringer of news’; the ‘entertainer’; the ‘person who creates beautiful works, though his poetry’... and who ‘creates the moment.’ Because even though the ‘ghannej’ has ‘one foot in the past’ – in the sense that he keeps alive the ‘ballads of old’, by singing them – he is also a timeless bard... because he can always ‘rhyme about the moment’. 

It's exactly the same with Flamenco, too; and with many, many other regional traditions... 

By inviting comparisons with Flamenco, however, you are also forcing us to acknowledge the differences, too. And let’s face it: Flamenco is a lot more varied – both musically, as well as in terms of ‘spectacle’ - than Maltese Għana. Now: I won’t ask you why these two folk-music traditions (which clearly have influences in common) evolved so very differently, over time. What I will ask, however, is: do you think that Għana should likewise ‘evolve’ beyond the confines of its community-based trappings? 

Well, when I make comparisons between Għana and Flamenco, it’s not so much because the traditions themselves ‘resemble each other’, in any immediate sense. It’s more because Flamenco, in partuicular , is a very good example of a local cultural tradition that still exists – and still has validity – partly because the traditional context for it, also still exists (as is the case with Maltese Għana); but partly also because – at one point or other - it was ‘taken out’ of that context, and developed upon artistically. 

So I think that, when it comes to Għana – which is still very much ‘alive’; but only within a very specific (and to some extent, marginalised) social context – something similar could happen, yes. If it is taught, and shared, Għana could remain the local, regional cultural tradition it has always been... but it could also exist beyond that; and have a musical, artistic development, on the level of virtuosity. 

But of course, any such development would also have to be rooted in the authenticity of the tradition. All the same, however: yes, I believe it CAN go that way... especially now, at this point in time.

Is this what the programme meant bytraditional Maltese folk music interwoven into contemporary sound’? Does Ritmu intend to help ‘push’ Maltese folk-music, towards a more ‘international’ audience?

It’s not what the festival is ALL about, no. Like I said at the beginning, the primary intention is to support the local pracitioners of Għana: because local traditions do need support, if they are to continue surviving in future.  On top of that, another main objective is simply to ‘transmit information’... to educate people about what Għana really is; and hopefully, to inspire more people to somehow get involved: either as practitioners themselves, or as part of the audience; or just as people who have a connection – an affinity, of some kind – with their own national folklore.... 

And there are other aspects to the festival, too. I should mention that it is dedicated to the late ghannej, Mikiel Abela ‘Il-Bambinu’: who is remembered as humorous storyteller (makkjettist); and and also for his ‘spirtu pront’, and ballads. 

But otherwise, yes: part of the idea is also that, possibly, Maltese Għana could also start existing on an artistic level, that goes beyond the confines of the local culture it currently thrives in. To give one example: on Saturday (10 June), there will be a performance by ‘La Mal Coiffee’, a French troubadour ensemble from Occitane; who sing in that region’s language, ‘Languedoc’.  

They are, in fact, a very good example of a singing tradition – previously restricted only to a very remote, localised culture - that was ‘revived’; and today, there are multitiudes of contemporary groups, making new vocal arrangements based on ‘polyphonic chants, with traditional instuments’. And some of them are now touring the world.... 

What it also means, however, is that - at some point in time – somebody must have come along, and ‘raised the bar’. So it can be done, at the end of the day.... but for something like that to happen, in the local context, there would have be a change in perspective, regarding folk traditions such as Maltese Għana. We would have to move beyond this idea, that these things exist merely to be ‘preserved’; and maybe ‘looked at from a distance’, every once in a while.  

We would, in nutshell, have to be more than just ‘passive observers’. We would have to somehow engage with it more; and make it more of a part of our daily lives. 

And this is true for the għannejja themselves; and the people who still appreciate Għana. It’s all very well to ‘preserve the tradition’ – and long may they keep meeting, reguarly, to keep it alive – but unless their knowledge is shared, and passed on to subsequent generations: it, too, will one day fade out of memory... like so many other things. 

But it all has to start, I would say, by fostering a better understanding – and hopefully, appreciation – of what Għana really is. And that, ultimately, is what the Roots festival is all about.

Ritmu: Roots Festival Malta will be held at Argotti Gardens, and elsewhere, from June 2-10