The gentle notes rose a little in the air, and then faded. Beneath the Valletta bastions the audience was intent, listening to the words, which spoke of memories of Valletta itself, bringing to life particular streets and scenes, the way the Maltese language has changed over the years in the language of children, a love which cannot be measured unless by the scale of the universe …
Many were nostalgic, mourning the changes that inevitably come with time, others were humorous and witty, and others still recorded a passing way of life.
The evening was being held under the Valletta bastions and was being organised by Poezijaplus, a literary group which holds monthly themed nights. That particular night the theme was Maltese songwriters and the audience was treated to an evening of beautiful words in song by songwriters Vince Fabri, Mario Debono, Mark Spiteri Lucas, Rita Pace, Tony Grimaud and Walter Micallef.
Unfortunately, like many of the themes they mourn as they pass away, the Maltese songwriters are also “a dying breed”, says one of them, Walter Micallef. “There are not many new young Maltese songwriters. I think our type of music is being lost.”
Typically, Maltese singer/songwriters or kantawturi have certain distinguishable characteristics. They tend to play for small audiences who are intent on listening to and appreciating the words. The songs tend to be simple and easy to follow and very often verge on poetry. The singer’s emotional delivery also tends to be key to the performance.
“I think we are the songwriters who emerged from the era of Bob Dylan and Giorgio Gaber,” says Mr Micallef.
“I think that songs are like a photograph. Often you take something from Maltese society and capture it in a song – which remains. And sometimes you will find that a period of time which was encapsulated in a song may recur after some time. There are songs which I wrote 30 years ago – if I had to sing them again nowadays, many people would think they were referring to the present. The change of a word here and there and you find that the message should be applicable to the present day – because the problems are still the same, they just have a slightly different look.”
Mr Micallef is currently working on his second CD, which he hopes to release in December. Unfortunately, however, he is still searching for a sponsor for the CD. Total costs will be at least Lm3,000, he says, and so far he has only found one sponsor, The Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, whose contribution, however, far from covers the costs.
The reasons for the lack of support, he says, are probably various. One is that unfortunately Maltese music in the Maltese language is considered irrelevant, he says. “This might be partly because in the past this type of song was not of such a high standard and covered subjects which were occasionally even ridiculous. Nowadays, however, we have a good quality product not only in the level of recordings – which are of the same standard as abroad. The difference is also, I think, that even the lyrics have improved. Not only my lyrics but also those of others. I give lyrics a lot of importance; in fact I consider myself more a writer of lyrics than a musician – but I do them both.”
Themes in the upcoming album will cover a variety of subjects, says Mr Micallef. “Many of the songs are serious and deal with social problems, others are humorous – although I hope my brand of humour will not be considered too crude – there are songs about the way we live our lives, there are love songs, of course – because that affects everyone I think – I even have one about a cat, for instance, this time – Pino.”
The idea is that the listener should identify with the songs, says Mr Micallef. “Often, when I was young and used to listen to songs, I used to think this song was written for me – because I have been through the same experience or I agree with what the singer is saying. You want people who listen to feel that they have found a voice. Music can serve a consolatory function, or serve as an expression, or as a way to laugh.”
Some of the songs were written a few months ago while others are a few years old, says Mr Micallef. “Pino’s song, for instance, is over 10 years old. There is a song which I started 16 years ago and completed two months ago.”
But apart from the themes, the songs – being written in Maltese – also help to prove that the Maltese language can be sung and sound beautiful and moving. Mr Micallef’s song-writing transition from English to Maltese occurred when he made this realisation.
“I stopped writing in English when I was about 16 years old. I heard a song called Hondoq ir-Rummien and it was so beautiful and expressed so much in a simple way and in the Maltese language that I thought, ‘There is no reason why I should not write like that too’. And from that day I no longer wrote in English.”
The new CD will also include different styles of music. “Many people say that the Maltese language cannot be used for music, for rock, for instance. But on my CD there will be bossa nova, country music, blues and rock. All songs are written in Maltese and in all the songs it serves its purpose well. So those who say that you cannot use Maltese to write good songs are, I think, mistaken.
“I try not to use words which have been lost or forgotten, I use words which are employed in modern everyday conversations. I try to avoid words which are derived from English or Italian, the ones we stretch and bend ourselves; if we have a Maltese word, we should try and use it as much as possible. We have songs in Maltese but I believe we do not have enough; we have to do much more, we are still far away.”
The new CD, which will include 14 new songs, will be performed by a six-man band, says Mr Micallef, and will all be recorded live, yielding a better quality product. The band is composed of Renzo Spiteri on percussions; Jesmond Psaila on the acoustic and electric guitar; Eric Wadge as the bass player – both electric and acoustic; Albert Garzia on the accordion and the piano; Pawlu Camilleri, l-Bibi, playing the harmonica and Mr Micallef as the singer and guitar-player. Recordings are being held at Wave Studio in Floriana and the engineer is Manolito Galea. The CD will also include a sleeve with the lyrics of the songs.
The band has still not come up with a name for the album, so there is plenty of work left to be done, says Mr Micallef.
The six-man band means that there will be no computer-generated sounds on the new CD but also means it is harder for Mr Micallef to raise funds for the CD through, for instance, a series of concerts. “With six people – it is already a headache to meet for rehearsals, let alone holding regular concerts.”
His first CD, M’Jien Xejn, had been funded entirely by himself, he says, and he is gloomy about the prospects of that happening again.
“With the first CD I paid for everything myself. It had not come very expensive, however, because I had a lot of computer-generated instruments and many of the recordings were ready so I could spread the expense over a few years. But this time we have two or three weeks in which to work on this CD, there is the expense of the studio which must be paid… After we got the sponsorship from the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, we decided to start. Now we are hoping that something will come up along the way …”
Most of the government assistance goes towards the Eurovision, he says. “In the case of music, a lot of government assistance goes to the Eurovision which, I feel, maybe does not bring in the desired fruit. Maybe it is true that it is an advert for the country. But for instance I am one of those who listens to songs in the language of the country whenever I travel. And I think that there are many other people like me. But in Malta many times not even the Maltese want to listen to songs in Maltese, which is ridiculous.”
“I think we should give much more importance to local art which is produced locally, because after all we must have something which is ours. So I would say that government should be more open in the way the money is being distributed,” he adds.
Maltese radio stations and television can do much more for music in Maltese, says Mr Micallef. “I cannot say that radio stations and television do not give any support, but it is always associated with something. Either they have a programme where they need someone to appear on it or, for instance, there are artists who issue a CD and chase them for some airtime.”
“Some radio stations do not even play songs in Maltese; others dedicate a half-hour programme in Maltese, and that’s it. I feel that they should include good songs in Maltese – I’m not saying my own – in their playtime and normal playlist. After all they include songs by Maltese bands and singers in English. Why shouldn’t they include one in Maltese? This is a question I have never found the answer to. And no one can say that it is because there are no good songs because there are several good songs.”
Mr Micallef himself has won numerous awards. “Awards, awards, let me see. I won the Ghanja tal-Poplu several times and I also won the award for best lyrics in Maltese several times. I got the Best Lyrics at the Music Awards in the second year it was held and I was nominated practically every year for lyrics in Maltese.”
Moreover, recently the lyrics of his song Siehbi fil-Cupboard tal-Kcina were used as part of an educational programme for schoolchildren, to raise awareness on poetry, says Mr Micallef. “It was brought to life by Manuel Cauchi and the first time I saw it I got gooseflesh because I never imagined that song could have such an effect,” says the songwriter.
And yet, despite the recognised calibre of his work, Mr Micallef fails to find funding for his work.
“Not to find funding is normal, I think,” he says. “Of course it is discouraging. I am already spending a lot to do this; I could invest my money in other ways which would give me a much better financial return. I guess in the end you do it for personal satisfaction, because you enjoy it – and so that after my death maybe there will be something for which I might be remembered,” he says.
“However, there are moments when I think – yesterday I wrote a song called L-Ahhar Ghanja Maltija (The last Maltese ballad) because I was feeling so angry that I thought: ‘That’s it, I will not write any more’, and I expressed this feeling in the song.
“Once a month I go to sing at the Zejtun local council where they do poetry readings and music; I attend Poezijaplus and the Ghaqda Poeti Maltin – all these I do for free. And you are left with no time. I practically make no money at all from my music.”
If he does not find funding, Mr Micallef says he will have to pay for the CD himself. “Probably it will take longer to come out because I will have to take it slower, I do not have Lm3,000 which I can just put in,” he says sadly.