THERE ARE ONLY two or three stories in the world,
remarked Victor Hugo, and all we can do is relive
them. Stories organise some of our deepest wishes.
And telling stories about ourselves and others
brings us to recognise, or misrecognise, some of the
forces which produce our world. But what part do we
get to play? And what kind of story does it then
The back cover of Frans Baldacchino's first
collection of għana (folksong) texts and poems
written over the past 15 years give us a bare
outline of his own story. In its simplicity and
elisions, it could be the story of countless others.
But perhaps that is because it is a story which
imposes its own telling. It is the straggler's
He was born in Żejtun on May 16, 1943. He left
school at 14. As he remembers it, it was at school
that he discovered a deep-set love of poetry. The
magical power of words washed a structure of feeling
shaped also by recreation in the countryside.
Let us remember, even if he does not remind us, that
in the mid-1950s this countryside was already a
receding world. Malta was undergoing its own
particular incorporation into modernity's
political-economic and socio-cultural structures.
And a few years later, for many men of Baldacchino's
working class background this world receded most
drastically. In the mid-1960s, like thousands of
other labourers, he emigrated to Australia.
Abroad, distance coloured memory. The old world
still inhabited him, but in mediated ways. It was in
fact in Australia that he first ever sang għana,
although he does not say so here. In Malta, his
attitude towards it had been ambivalent.
He first sang by accident. He had gathered with a
group of Maltese men, meeting to record some
improvised għana (spirtu pront) to send to friends
in Malta. Lacking guitarists, they were musically
accompanied by a tape-recording of music sent from
Malta. Unexpectedly, one senior man, having finished
his turn, motioned to Baldacchino, "You're next."
Taken aback, he nevertheless successfully composed a
quatrain and completed the session.
From then on, he was an għannej, like the renowned
Emmanuele Cilia he had admired back home, whose
records were played on the jukebox in Żejtun
together with the music of Elvis Presley.
Now for many Maltese, għana is a fossilised form of
folksinging, dominated by the pathology of the
working classes. Yet here is no story set in a
timeless world. Quite the reverse. Socially, this
story's motivating force is international labour
migration. Technologically, it is enabled by the
scientific development of tape-recorders; and
commercially, the mass market for them.
Aesthetically, and ethically, the power of the story
is obtained also from a new nostalgia created by a
certain life experience under global capitalism.
That is not to say għana is no longer grounded in
the lives of those who sing it. But those lives have
changed profoundly. Modern predicaments rework
memory; idealise the past. Artistic tastes are
transformed. Għana's frame, form, audience and
content have changed.
The process had been active before Baldacchino was
born. When he returned to Malta, in the late 1970s,
għana was still changing. For the aficionados, the
quality of spirtu pront had manifestly improved.
However, the audience was shrinking - as was
especially clear to a returned migrant.
Baldacchino quickly established himself as one of
the leading għannejja. But he also concluded
would die out unless it found new space. Għana had
to be taken to the middle classes. So it had to find
new subjects. He had himself, of course, fully
discovered għana's beauty only in a new context.
To appreciate II-Budaj's artistry, so, one must keep
in mind the double nature of his creative work,
which echoes his life. It borrows from a shared
tradition and history: but it also seeks to
transport itself elsewhere.
Consider the subjects in this book. One għanja is a
paean to Mediterranean culture, artfully finding a
tone of nostalgic expectation in a sea of historic
violence. Another is a dramatised dialogue between
Mozart and Salieri - a rhymed rendition of Pushkin's
That, I suppose, was obtained through someone else's
translation from the Russian, but I can't be too
sure; Il-Budaj's been doing a lot of reading and
listening, as references to Aquinas, Einstein,
Sartre and others indicate. He can be interesting
even when conventional in (say) odes to Nature or
wry-observation of our species.
It is important to know that the texts in the first
section can all be sung, because some of the
aesthetic power fades on the printed page. We can
thus also better appreciate what I consider Il-Budaj's
most important formal innovation: he is not slavish
to għana's rhymed quatrain, so occasionally he
introduces single lines or verses with a different
rhyme scheme (or narrative prose, though not used
He gains a richer texture, especially since in
performance he usually does not sing but intones
such lines. Listen to this opening: And once I
dreamt I became poet. Poet?
Here is a jumble of ironic tones, typical of his
best composition. At the right time, knowing comment
leaks into performance. There is an obverse side:
the feeling of being in a false position, of wanting
to be poet (not only an għannej) but lacking
The straggler again (p. 101): "My understanding
is... I have reached the muses' garden.. but I have
remained behind the entrance door because I was only
capable of arriving so far. And with this I am
content, and not a little."
Actually, he is claiming he has a right to be there,
but appears himself unsure. Addressing the reader,
emphasises his poetry; but the book's subtitle -
'Frans Baldacchino's għana' - hedges his bets. The
main title - 'rays of mind' - captures the
ambivalence (while the best poem, "Light?", extends
it to the reflected light of history, genius and the
Both the għana and the poetry thrive on universalist
themes. The universalism is self-conscious, though
perhaps that only reveals some of the consequences
of Baldacchino's biography.
Troubled questions are asked of God. Repeatedly
there is voiced a concern for a universal justice,
and that also is within reason's reach. Nature's
design comforts; a certain, often mythic, version of
national history is never far. Two poems treat of
Anton Buttigieg, popular Labourite, President, poet
of Nature. Others bite at parts of society.
The poems trust too much in line-breaks. But my
major criticism touches għana and poems equally.
Sometimes I can't help feeling that Il-Budaj strains
to impress. Philosophers' names are dropped, rather
than used. There are lapses into unfocused rhetoric:
"O Youth, don't do drugs!"
Civic-mindedness influences badly, I think, his
choice of subjects. The solemn is privileged, the
variety of his output is under-represented. Dammit,
why exclude some of his best work, whose comic
physicality pursues lived experience into fantasy?
Choice of subject is one of the difficult questions
all artists face. It marks each one's contribution
to that unfinished collective portrait of the
collective `we'. What a pity if, as unintended
consequence, the bourgeois recognition II-Budaj
deserves were to impoverish his choices. How can the
world then be told?