Għana & Prejjem
by Manuel Casha
G. Cassar Pullicino in his publication " Il-Folklor
Malti" or Maltese Folklore, describes għana
this way: "Għana is an ancient heritage,
passed on from father to son through many
generations. This is apart from għana which
is rhymed spontaneously called "Spirtu Pront"
as we know it today."
Most għana is genuine and contains a passion
which reflects the heartbeat of the people, and
their endurance through the years as a nation. Our
country people still practice it in their villages
on warm, moonlit summer nights where they
occasionally walk the streets singing and playing
deep from the heart. (I have interviewed old
għannejja who not only remember this but also
took part in it in their youth). They sing the song
of a loved one, sometimes they sing of the sadness
of unfulfillment in life and other times of
disappointment, of dashed hopes and dreams.
The great majority of the nation sings, sometimes at
the seaside for the feast of San Girgor or Lapsi, or
on the eve of Victory Day, on the 8th of September.
Sometimes under the trees of Buskett on the eve of
l-Imnarja and now and again in the wine shops over a
glass of wine. And the people crowd around
għannejja, rhyming and singing, and rejoice
together in the music.
(singular) is a singer of għana.
(plural) more than one għannej.
Is the guitar
accompaniment that backs the għannejja
while they sing their impromptu stanzas.
Lead guitarist or player of improvised
melodies or "licks" as they say in rock
music, which reflects the melodies of the
għannejja and gives them a few more
seconds to think their reply. These melodies
are called prejjem.
Guitars which accompany the lead (PRIM).
Let's spend an hour. Usually listening or
taking part in an hour of għana.
In the 20th century prejjem have become an
art-form in their own right and in some ways
penetrate deeper than għana as far as
universal appeal, purely because music is more
universal than language. It is interesting to note,
that some għannejja claim that prejjem
are there to beautify and decorate, and not
necessarily to give the għannejja more time
to think, as they often think their reply halfway
through their opponents għanja (stanza). It
is interesting to note that the true meaning of "Spirtu
pront" is għana without prejjem
intervals. In other words għana with
accompaniment only and no prejjem, which
forces the għannejja to think quicker.
AKKUMPANJAMENT: Accompaniment is normally
provided by two guitars keeping a synchronised
droning rhythm guided by the Prim (Lead
guitar) which plays an improvised melody in between
each għanja. All three guitars can be tuned
in different frequencies but played in tune by
changing the chord formation according to the
frequency, creating a wider harmonic span. We look
at this when we look at tuning. But for now let's
accept the sound and move on.
The most common are :
1. Għana Spirtu Pront
2. Għana fil-Għoli
3. Għana tal-Fatt
There are more types in fact, but let us look at the
Spirtu pront means impromptu. Made up on the
spot. This type of għana is sung in
quatrains. Four octosyllabic lines rhyming a,b,c,b.
Spirtu pront has a usual duration of an hour. The
LINE-UP is usually made up of four għannejja.
The first għannej directs his għana to
the third in the the line up, and the second to the
The FORMAT is usually: three guitarists with the
prim in the middle, with four għannejja
standing behind guitarists. The għannejja
sing on a topic which could be developed along the
way or in some cases, premeditated. It is not
considered sporting to premeditate a topic, although
in a lot of cases topics which might have needled an
għannej in a previous session, may be
continued in the most subtle way.
Generally they sing about topics which are topical
or humorous. Għana Spirtu Pront involves a
lot of punning, inference, hyperbole, proverbs and
old adages to illustrate a point. In fact it is
considered unsporting to clarify statements in a
session, and what is said must be subtly hidden
between the lines, almost exclusively for the
dilettantes and aficionados, alienating outsiders
from what is being said. Quite often outsiders may
enjoy the session and laugh along at some of the
funny lines, without having the faintest hint of
what the hour was about.
All quatrains must rhyme and it is considered
shameful, even dishonourable to fail to rhyme.
Spirtu Pront is usually accompanied on a key
close to A in concert pitch terms, but the Prim
usually transported a tone above the accompanying
guitars, which takes it to the key of G. That is
provided the guitar format is: PRIM G.ACC:
It is more traditionally correct to have this
I shall expand on this later on when we look at
prejjem and għana tuning.
Without doubt GHANA SPIRTU PRONT is the most
popular form of għana presently.
is written għana
and usually tells a story of an actuality.
It is usually about topical or past events
which can go back for centuries. The topics
can deal with tragedies; lost love; love
triangles; acts of heroism; murders and so
Some of the most classical are:
Tells the story of a
young bride kidnapped from Cumbo Tower in
Mdina, on the eve of her wedding, by Moorish
pirates and her eventual rescue by her lover
who naturally is the hero in the plot.
Toni Bajjada a famous
Maltese hero, who emerged in the sixteenth
century, during the Great Siege of Malta by
Tells the story of the
Great Siege of Malta around 1565 AD and the
brave fight by the Maltese and the Knights
of St. John in the defence of the Maltese
Islands. I am certain we are all familiar
with this part of history so I will not go
into it much. It suffices to say that this
għana tal-fatt helped to record this
important period of Maltese history.
Għana fil-Għoli is commonly known as "Il-Bormliża".
This type of għana has a middle-Eastern
influence which literally translated means "Għana
in high...". I suspect that the term "high" here
means high pitch or high key or falsetto. This could
be due to the fact that this għana was also
very popular amongst women in the past, hence it was
sung in a higher pitch. In fact it requires a
different type of prejjem, prolonging the
change from one chord to another, allowing the
għannej more time to hold the note, while
showing the beauty of his/her voice. This type of
għana is not so common now, and it is
particularly reminiscent of the ritual wails and
cries of the Middle-East, particularly North African
I refer to the
earlier reference to PAUL SANT-CASSIA's
GĦANA FIL-GĦOLI is sometimes referred to as
IL-BORMLIŻA which is derived from the name of the
city of BORMLA. I have discussed with several
għannejja, why Bormla or Cospicua as it is referred
in more modern times. I have been offered several
explanations, none of which are conclusive. The most
logical is the one offered by the recently deceased
JIMMY CAMILLERI, who told me that the name BORMLIŻA
came from the harbour city of Bormla, where Arab
sailing ships used to deliver cotton and could be
heard singing their religious chants, which the
Maltese picked up on and adapted to their own like.
There are not many books of reference written on
għana. Curiously most books of reference were
written by non Maltese such as BERTHA ILG, CHEVALIER
DE SAINT PRIEST, who in 1791 wrote a book called "Malte
Par Un Voyageur Francais" in which he published
three għanjiet told to him by librarian Giacchino
Navarro. Englishman GEORGE PERCY BADGER, wrote a
book in 1834 called: "Description of Malta and
Gozo". HANS STUMME and BERTHA ILG published about
four hundred quatrains heard at their time in Malta.
However I have read some excellent studies by
Maltese scholars who have delved deeply into this
art-form, both from a heritage point-of-view as well
as a socio-anthropological study of the Maltese
people. RANIER FSADNI and PAUL SANT-CASSIA have both
written some excellent papers on the subject.
MANWEL MIFSUD wrote a fine article in Leħen
il-Malti, called "L-għanja Maltija għal-lum".
"Maltese għanja for today." He not only asks for
għana to be appreciated as part of our national
heritage but also offers some alternatives how we
could cultivate and teach it by passing it on to our
In his books on Maltese Folklore G. CASSAR PULLICINO
goes into the għana art-form in some detail and
explains the various genres and the part għana used
to play in past Maltese society. I believe there is
a copy of his book "Il-Folklor Malti" in the
Library. I highly recommend it.
I believe we have arrived at a point where we need
to make up our minds as a nation whether we are
going to preserve għana as a through Maltese music
art-form. Time has eroded many of our customs and
traditions already this century. It is time to
accept għana as more than a tradition but our own
musical heritage...which we should treasure and
cultivate for future generations.