For years, Walter Micallef has written moving and powerful songs in the Maltese language, proving its poetry and versatility. Then why oh why does he still have trouble funding his albums, asks Sandra Aquilina
Walter Micallef looks smiling and radiant. His face is open and relaxed – as though it had been held tightly-clenched for too long – and he exudes light and calmness. He has the look of someone who should be sipping at a cocktail on a beach, rather than the glass of water he very demurely orders. Still, the relief and satisfaction are unmistakable. In fact it is only a couple of days after the launch of his second CD. A year later than planned, true – but with an attendance of around 600 people, it was a resounding success, especially for a Maltese language album.
This is very different from when I had met him two years ago, when work on his new CD, Hamsin, was still in its initial stages. At the time he had seemed discouraged, finding it hard to find the funds to sponsor the recording process. That one of Malta’s leading singer/songwriters should, in fact, find it hard to finance his albums is an injustice lofty enough to be the subject of one of his beautiful songs.
Walter accepts it with resignation. “I know that I will lose quite a lot of money from this CD,” he says. “I doubt that we will break even. But even so, it is still a big satisfaction. We wanted to make a difference and create a very high quality product.”
This, as far as I – and several others, judging from the attendance at the launch – are concerned, is undoubted. Accompanied by his six-piece band – including himself on guitars – Walter kept us spellbound for an hour, delivering song after song in his distinctive and moving Maltese timbre. But this is also an album to listen to at home, in the evening, when the words can soothe and stir, delight and disturb.
Kieku flok stilel inpoggi mhabbti
Imxerrda mas-sema bil-lejl,
Ma ssibx il-bidu u lanqas it-tmiem
Jekk l-univers tqisu bhal-kejl…
The lines come from Il-Kejl which, with its infinitely sensitive and moving tones, redefines the term “love song” as no longer the mindless renditions we hear too often but as a way of expressing true depth of emotion. Around half the album is composed of “love songs”, although such a term hardly does them justice as they all treat the subject in different ways, although with equal depth and sensitivity.
Other songs treat unconventional or painful subjects, such as hunting, the environment, domestic and child abuse and other social issues. One song, Ghac-Ckejkna, is the voice of a mother agonising how to save her child from the violence to which she is victim.
Mhux ghalija imma ghac-
ckejkna, illi zgur ma tahtix.
Jekk incahhadha minn
missierha, ma nafx jekk qatt tahfirlix?
“These are issues that need to be voiced,” says Walter. “I have the medium in which to express them – so I use it… All of these are things that have happened in Malta.”
On a lighter note, one song treats Walter’s cat Pino, which is also a humorous take on Malta’s macho culture. Another song, Lil Malta, plays on the patriotic tones of the title – but instead delivers a scathing accusation of the brutal exploitation of Malta, for the benefit of the very few.
Gungla tal-konkos, bnew fuq li bnew;
Tant li post fejn jilaghbu mank hallew,
Imma huma staghnew,
U kemm staghnew.
It is hard to listen to these moving songs and remain passive. “I think it is important to be a little provocative, to jolt people a little,” says Walter, “although that does not mean being sensational. I present things as I see them. I do not present solutions, but maybe if more people discuss certain issues, then things might change.”
Bar a couple of other singer-songwriters like Vince Fabri and Prof. Immanuel Mifsud (the Maltese language professor, not the writer), very few others tackle such relevant subjects. And yet, and yet, support for such artists is still very lacking. The album took three years in the making and cost a considerable sum, says Walter. Although he received some support from the Arts Council and the Julian Manduca Culture Fund, which enabled him to start working on the project, he still had to fork out a large amount himself. Other small contributions were received from the Ghaqda Poeti Maltin and the Maltese Language Council.
Originally planned to be launched last year, in Walter’s fiftieth year, the album is therefore entitled Hamsin, also referring to a lifetime dedicated to promoting music in the Maltese language.
In fact, apart from the depth of treatment of its themes, the album is also remarkable for the versatility with which the Maltese language is moulded. Never have I heard the Maltese language sound so gentle – or so harsh. It also includes various musical styles, such as bossa nova, blues and rock, not only to create variety and pace – but also to show that the Maltese language is sufficiently versatile to be used with all styles.
The album is a sibling to Walter’s first release, Jien M’Jien Xejn, and shares its underlying concern with social themes and its masterful and poetic use of the Maltese language. However, not all the instruments on the first album – recorded on an even tighter budget – were original. “This time round, there is not a single note which is computer-generated,” says Walter with satisfaction. “Even the sound of the wind is natural.”
Would he consider taking up music full-time? “No, I do not think I could live off it,” he says. “Besides, then I would lose my artistic freedom,” he says determinedly. “You cannot refuse requests when you are playing at a club, for instance.” Besides, he points out, his brand of music requires careful attention to the words and would not be suitable merely as background music.
In fact, although his songs have a broad appeal, with clear catchy tunes and strong moving lyrics, he does not sound exactly part of the mainstream. And, in Malta, this often means financial hardship. “The market is very limited, of course, and Maltese language songs are even more limited.” What, then, is the solution for such artists? Walter is not hopeful. “I have enough material to record at least two more albums, and I know that I will keep writing more songs…” he says. “The problem is funds.”
We almost glide over the subject of the Eurovision, that bottomless recipient of arts funds, as an inevitable fact of life. “I think too much money is spent on it,” he says simply. “Not that it should be passed on to us, but there are so many art forms in Malta which are neglected.”
We are both beginning to look gloomy so I steer the conversation onto current projects. Walter perks up – he is not sitting on his laurels and has already started work on various projects, including a classical musical ensemble with string and wind instruments. “We have done a couple of performances in this style and they went down really well, so that’s very encouraging, of course.”
Moreover, the new CD also has to be distributed and promoted. The Maltese songwriter has also received invitations to perform abroad, in France. The first album was also distributed in South Africa, Canada, England and Germany, he says with obvious satisfaction.
Do foreigners appreciate our brand of music, I ask. “Yes, very much. They like the sound of the language and in live concerts I give a brief synopsis of each song so that they can follow the theme of the song too,” he says.
Who knows, maybe a few Maltese artists will find the support they seem to lack in Malta abroad. Under the circumstances, this would be a good thing. Somehow such artists deserve more.