- BRIEF HISTORY
Maltese għana singing has been with the
Maltese nation for centuries, and has always been
regarded as the music of the peasant, the farmer,
the labourer, the washer-woman and has generally
been associated with the working classes.
The Maltese have a natural in-built ability to sing
and rhyme. And this was documented by a number of
visitors to the islands who were impressed by this
phenomenon. We will look at some of their
impressions as outsiders as well as others from
Maltese academics which are views from within.
FOREIGN OBSERVERS OF GĦANA
Għana has attracted attention of foreign
writers and scholars, who wrote about and observed
the beauty of the song, and the ability of the
Maltese to sing and rhyme through the centuries.
G. CASSAR-PULLlCINO who is the ultimate student of
Maltese folklore this century, claims that "The
first study of għana on record, goes back to
1792, during the last years of the knights."
A French knight, called St. Priest published a book
called "MALTE PAR UNE VOYAGEUR FRANCAIS", which
included three għanjiet, as told to him by a
Maltese librarian, Gioacchino Navarro. I'll read
them to you in Maltese first and then give you a
Around the turn of the century HANS STUMME and BERTA
ILG gathered about 400 għana quatrains and
published them. GEORGE PERCY BADGER, who visited the
Islands in the beginning of British rule, around
1838, published a work called "A DESCRIPTION OF
MALTA AND GOZO".
In those times għana was sung by villagers
and workmen, and indeed by women going about their
household chores. It was not sophisticated and
organised as it is today, where għana Spirtu
Pront dominates and has its own famous
għannejja and kitarristi.
So this is the għana that was heard by these
non-Maltese students of the topic as they wandered
I remember living in the small fishing village of
Kalkara, which is a Grand Harbour inlet, and hearing
women sing għana as they hung the washing. Or
the fishermen as they brought in their catch on
their boats at sunset.
I remember street sellers using għana to sell
their products, and singing għana quatrains
praising their goods and claiming how much better
their produce was, over the other sellers. Those
able to do this always seemed to get the edge and
attract more attention than the straight sellers.
GĦANA IN THE 2OTH CENTURY
Għana in the 20th century has progressed from music
sung by peasants to a more organised and
professional form of entertainment. The top
Malta are celebrities in their own
right. They sing regularly on the air-waves. They
appear on għana television programmes. They
also visit countries like CANADA, ENGLAND, AUSTRALIA
and wherever else għana has a following.
Later on in this talk we will be seeing some
examples of this, but the point I make here is this.
While għana as we know it today, belongs
mainly to the SPIRTU PRONT genre, which has
progressed in leaps and bounds this century, and is
more refined in its structure as well as rhyme,
there is a great difference between what Stumme,
Ilg, Priest, Badger etc. witnessed and għana
as we know it today.
Għana carries a STIGMA which has impeded its
progress in the last 50 years or so, and which
threatens to eventually render it extinct, if the
root of it is not examined.
So what is the STIGMA attached to this music? Is it
a question of a peasant mentality struggling in the
sophistication of the 20th century? Is it political?
Is it religious?
THE MIDDLE EASTERN CONNECTION
One of the articles which was sent to me by the
University of Malta, contained this interesting
point of view by għana scholar PAUL SANT CASSIA in
his article "BEJN IL-FOLKLOR U L-ĦABI". . .
". Between folklore and the hidden" sheds a new
light, and perhaps helps us understand better the
root of this STIGMA and general prejudice that għana
suffers. This is not a direct translation but my own
interpretation of his statements. Għana,
because of its ancient nature, carries with it the
remnant sounds of a forgotten past, which takes us
back to a more barbaric time from which we have
progressed through our history, as we have become
more sophisticated and civilised, and which we would
rather forget and disassociate ourselves from.
Although as a nation, we identify more with Europe
nowadays, both by culture and religion, għana still
carries the echo of an oriental or Arabic, Muslim
past. That is not to say that we have ever lost our
resolve to hold firm to our Christianity, but even
the slightest resemblance to a Muslim or Arabic;
Oriental cultural influence, is not only a threat
but not representative of how we see ourselves in
the world in the late 20th century.
Perhaps we have a time in our history which we would
rather forget, and wipe out any reminders of a time
which threatened us both as a race and a nation and
more importantly as a CHRISTIAN nation. This is not
to say that għana is an Arabic musical
art-form which we inherited, but the sounds suggest
a link to an Arabic, middle-Eastern culture.
After the colonization of the Islands by the
British, the Maltese perception of themselves
changed to becoming Anglo-European where it was
decided to throw away the "Old" and go with the
"New". Ironically in spite of the Semitic quality of
the Maltese language, it survived all perils and
prejudice and għana which after all is sung
in the Maltese language has been cast aside almost
underground in the higher strata of Maltese society.
The general reason for għana's demise this
century is due to some indiscretions by some
għannejja who have left a indelible stain on it.
This cannot be denied and even the għannejja
themselves concede these unfortunate misadventures.
(Although I have always found the great majority of
għannejja very prudent.) But to accept that
għannejja's indiscretions as the only
singular reason, for għana's unfortunate
stigma is a grave misconception.
At times in this modern age, it is easy to assume
that there is no room for għana in the modern scheme
of things, and it should be left to die a natural
death but art is more resilient than that, and in
spite of the stigma that għana carries to
date, it has survived and lives on.
In the last decade something has happened to
għana which in my opinion will see it survive
Għannejja such as FRANS BALDACCHINO,
"II-Budaj" have introduced theatre in the
presentation of għana. "Budaj" has opened new
horizons with his brand of għana, and the
people cannot get enough of it. He has taken it
overseas and has even managed to record his first
għana CD. He has his own team of Karmenu Bonnici
"II-Baħri" (għannej) and guitarists
John Saliba (prim) and Manwel Parnis, who
performed with him in Paris and are included in his
CD. Frans is a very charismatic man, of great
presence but ironically is a man of great
simplicity, in spite of his tremendous intelligence.
I suspect this is where għana's future lies.
And as it gathers momentum in this field, we shall
see the other genres revitalised and women
għannejja coming back to the fold after a great
It is my belief that as it gathers greater dignity
and acceptance in society, it will bring in more
young għannejja and kitarristi into
Whatever happens, we must keep in mind that ghana
is the true music of Malta, and should be treasured
as an integral part of our cultural heritage. And we
should appreciate the "Positives" as well as judge
it by the "Negatives".
Modern musicians have also taken għana
melodies and arranged them in various fields and
more importantly, recorded and published them. I
emphasise the recording side, because once music is
recorded, it becomes frozen in time, and kept for
others who will follow, to appreciate, particularly
the young. Cassettes, discs and CDs finish up in
libraries and in people's record collections.
Maestro CHARLES CAMILLERI has shown us what could be
done in the classical field with għana melodies, in
his album . . . "Għanjiet minn Malta" and
other fine works.
Here in Australia, various musicians have written
għana arrangements. - I have heard fine pieces by
Evarist Azzopardi, Laurie Bugeja and others.
Vince Pulo has expressed his own feelings of għana,
in his recorded works on record and on various
In my cassette "NEON" I played għana melodies
exclusively, and although I produced nearly an hour
of music I had to leave some out, such is the wealth
of għana melodies and themes.
The big question now is whether GĦANA will
make the transition into the 21th century. Being an
optimist I believe it will in some form or another,
but if you lose it and the skill is not passed on to
the young, our loss will be tragic.