Walter Micallef u l-Hbieb recently performed at The Powerhouse Theatre during the launch of his second album, Hamsin. The record reveals a new line-up and a fresh, contemporary interpretation of folk music. Music correspondent Michael Bugeja jots down his thoughts about the album and asks the Maltese singer/songwriter a few questions
It is perhaps a pity that I am not writing this article in Maltese, given that its subject is totally immersed in and inspired by the Maltese language and tradition, with all the fine trimmings, rough edges and dark patches these bring with them. When it comes to music, however, language is not usually an impossible barrier – a fact that I am compelled to believe more than ever after having played Walter Micallef’s 2003 album M’Jien Xejn to an English friend of mine. After she listened to it, she picked out her favourites and practically sussed out the themes based on the varying emotions she felt primarily from the vocals, as well as the music. If that doesn’t exemplify the universal appeal of music, I don’t know what does.
Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend the launch of Walter’s latest album, Hamsin, so I had to rely on one of my most trusted friends (and equally dedicated music lover) for a quick overview of that performance, and it pains me even more that I missed the gig after hearing him rave on about it. I could only picture Walter onstage in my mind, divulging the odd anecdote or comment before each song; extending that “story-telling” approach that comes across so strongly in his music. On a brighter note, I’ve been told that PBS were on hand to film the whole thing so those of you who like myself weren’t there, will hopefully be able to experience it second hand.
Much has been said about Walter’s most recent album, with words like folk, modern and jazz all finding their way into sentences put together in an attempt to portray an accurate description of his music. While acknowledging the various other influences present on the new record, I personally still see it as folk. I find that his songs are deeply informed by what goes on – good, bad, happy, sad or funny – around each and every one of us practically each and every day, whether or not you and I acknowledge this or not.
Furthermore, his penchant for slipping into vernacular mode, raising a few eyebrows here and there in the process, gives the songs a stronger affinity with the “common” man.
The fact that Walter, along with his band of friends, has opted to employ elements – modern or otherwise - from different musical genres into his music doesn’t automatically transform it into a new style; it simply enhances and broadens the scope of his brand of folk music. Essentially, it remains a folk album, but one with a very prominent global touch. From a lyrical perspective, the album could easily double as a collection of perceptive poetry.
Inspired by various themes and situations, Walter offers the listener his musings about love, insecurity, and even his pet cat, but there are heavier themes too. These are largely related to social issues and injustices, translated through various styles that stretch from clear-cut Blues to Bossa Nova and a subtle rock veneer by way of his acoustic blueprint.
With his hbieb in tow: a band that includes established names such as Renzo Spiteri, Jes Psaila, Paul Camilleri (Bibi), Eric Wadge, Albert Garzia along with Dominic Galea on a couple of tracks, Walter Micallef has extended the reach he had already established with songs like Siehbi Fil-Cupboard tal-Kcina, Le and San Blas Waqt Il-Programm on M’Jien Xejn, consolidating his artistic vision through standout tracks such as Ghac-Ckejkna, ‘Il-Fuq, L-Ahhar Sekondi and Lil Malta – the latter a very direct overview of the state of our island nation. It is refreshing to hear someone openly blurt out the truth that everybody loves to sweep under the carpet as if everything was hunky dory. That Walter does it through music – and good music at that – makes it all the more so. I must admit that I was mildly curious to see how Walter Micallef could repeat M’Jien Xejn’s authentic magnetism and stripped charm, but he’s found a new way to do it and some precious friends to do it with.
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You’ve been writing and singing songs for more than three decades. What first got you into music? And tell us a bit about your early days…
“I was practically born into music! My mother, who had a rather good voice, was always singing around the house. My father played in the village band, my sister plays guitar and my grandfather was a traditional singer who performed romantic serenades under the balconies at the request of some love-struck young man trying to court his heartthrob. I did try to join the choir in Birkirkara when I was young but was told I wasn’t good enough. Ironically, none of the other choristers pursued music, but here I am, still as passionate about it as I was as a child. My first guitar was a hand-me-down, which my brother had bought and abandoned. I took it to school and was taught a couple of chords, following which I started putting the poems I had written to music. I wrote mostly in English but in the 1970s, a friend entered me in a YTC festival, so I had to write Maltese lyrics. At that same festival, I had an awakening in the shape of a magnificent song called Hondoq ir-Rummien (written by Gorg Cassola and sung by Charles Ellul), which left an indelible mark upon me, largely because it was very much an environmental protest song. Its subject is still valid to this day and I still play it occasionally when I perform. It opened my eyes to the fact that Maltese songs didn’t have to be only about love or straightforward eulogies to our island.
“Hopefully someone will record the song one day, unless I get to it first.”
During all this time, you’ve only released two albums. What has held you back?
“Apart from financing, which is always a problem, it was mostly because I wasn’t sure of how appealing a solitary voice and guitar would be to the public.
I had written loads of material, but eventually it was to be a chance meeting with Steve Borg at Trevor Zahra’s house that set the ball in motion.
Steve is very driven and totally loved my songs. “When he learnt that I hadn’t recorded any of them he stepped in and dedicated himself to putting together the means that eventually led to my first album, M’Jien Xejn in 2003. The response to that album made me realise how big the demand for acoustic music is these days. Now there is also the problem of finding the time to get the band together in the studio as all of us have other commitments over and above playing together.”
Has your use of colloquial Maltese vocabulary and choice of hot topics ever given you problems?
“No, not that I know of! I do my best to avoid vulgarity; in fact the terms I use are very much the words used every day by most people. Sometimes it is necessary to use slang but obviously I try to steer clear of this as much as possible as it puts a damper on potential radio airplay. Ironically, the one song that was censored on record (Awissu from M’Jien Xejn) attracted more attention. I find it quite ridiculous that so many English language songs featuring the ‘F’ word still find their way onto our airwaves, while a song like Hazin won’t get played because of the phrase ‘ghandi avukat bil-b__d.’ Another reason I am careful with vocabulary is because my albums have been used in schools for educational and drama purposes and parts of the Maltese syllabus. Naturally I am pleased that schools find my music resourceful and educational; I’d be even more pleased if they asked for my permission first, as not all of them do. Unfortunately, the authorities don’t seem to recognise this educational potential in my music, as our request to get the VAT rate for this album reduced to the rate charged on educational books has still to be acknowledged… perhaps if I wrote a song about it?!
“Regarding themes, I wish to emphasise that I write about how I personally feel, whatever the subject. For example, I am not against hunting per se, I am against unnecessary killing of animals. I love life, I love nature, and in my songs I approach the subject from a different perspective. I have never had any confrontation from any organisation about any of the songs I’ve written, although I did write a song called Guvni that drew some minor flak from a local newspaper, but that was back in the 1970s! In the end, what I write is what I feel, regardless of who is in power – how people react to the lyrics is not my problem. It is the same attitude that most protest singers apply to their songs – people just need to learn to accept criticism.”
Why do you think there’s such a lack of contemporary folk singers such as yourself in Malta?
“The fact that it is in Maltese probably makes it a less appealing direction for budding musicians to focus their time and effort. Unfortunately, there is also a lack of support for this kind of music, particularly when compared, for example, to Eurovision-type artists. I don’t blame the artists as this event offers good exposure, but artists who choose to dedicate themselves to a less commercial style, as I have, must accept the sad-but-true probability of being sidelined. Most of the Maltese bands and artists sing in English and this gives them a better chance to get played on the radio. For example Winter Moods – and I mention them because they are friends of mine – are quite good at what they do, but I appreciated their live rendition of Xemx (by Gozitan band The Tramps) during the Notte Bianca, as there is a dire need for more space to be given to music in Maltese. It pains me however, that such events still don’t place Maltese culture as a top priority. I truly believe that a good song, whatever language it may be in, deserves to be played on the radio. Whenever I’ve performed abroad, foreigners are fascinated when I sing in Maltese – it almost seems like they appreciate our culture more than us.”
What artist/music has been your major inspiration?
“Definitely Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, Tracy Chapman, Lucio Battisti and a lot of acoustic singers with meaningful lyrics, but I also like harder rock like Guns n’ Roses, Focus, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. In fact, because of Jethro Tull I had once started to learn how to play the flute! Thanks to my German partner, I have been getting more into classical music, and together we’ve recently been working on enhancing my music with wind instruments. I’ve always been interested in seeing how the Maltese language can be adapted to different musical styles and this has proved to be quite interesting. It’s given my songs an innovative perspective. Hopefully I will get to record some of them too.”
Much of your work reflects an affinity to serious issues. Was this a progression or have you always seen music as a vehicle to highlight social anomalies?
“No, it’s actually always come naturally to me! Most of my ‘better’ songs have been written in under 15 minutes, without too much advance planning or thought. If a nagging thought is on my mind, I grab my guitar and babble until I latch onto a good line. Once that’s established, the rest practically rolls out, although I do sometimes revise the end result. There are exceptions too, such as the song Min Hi from the new album which I first started writing about 20 years ago, but that’s more of a love song.”
Which song – of all the ones you’ve written throughout the years – is your absolute favourite?
“I think that would have to be Siehbi Fil-Cupboard Tal-Kcina, because it is so powerful. I had submitted it for the Ghanja Tal-Poplu festival but it didn’t qualify, and when I received the judges’ comments, one of them actually wrote he couldn’t understand what is was about, which upset me greatly. I added a sub-title to it and re-submitted it the following year and it placed third and won the Best Lyric award. While that was quite gratifying, the fact that the song was used in workshops highlighting domestic and child abuse gave me immense satisfaction. I still get a chill down my spine when I perform the song live.”
The new album is distinctly different from M’Jien Xejn. What inspired the change and how different do you feel it really is?
“The first album was, in fact, recorded in several studios at different times, over a number of years. That was more of a compilation of recorded tracks that I had accumulated over time, and perhaps the sound quality isn’t quite up to scratch, possibly because it featured a lot of computer-generated sounds too. With this album, we were determined to play it completely live, to give it a warmer feel. The downside is that it took much longer to finish (and also cost us more to produce), but nevertheless it was a very pleasant experience.”
You don’t really perform live in public very often. Is there a reason or will we be seeing more of you out and about?
“I actually do perform but the gigs are usually low-key. If you’re thinking of a concert along the lines of the launch concert, there are plans for a couple more this summer. We’ve also been thinking of putting together an ‘extended’ event, something along the lines of an entire weekend of activity, but there’s a lot still to be discussed – the venue, a date where all musicians would be available, etc. Incidentally, I will be performing an ‘Unplugged’ set at the Malta Fireworks Festival on Monday 30 April at the Valletta Waterfront.”
Hamsin marks another milestone in your career. Where to from here?
“Well, you could say Hamsin is the second chapter. When I’m asked if I will be making another album, I always say, ‘mhux fuq tlieta toqghod il-borma?’ Of course it is still early to be thinking of a third album, although Steve, as always, is already thinking ahead.
“The album aside, I would like to concentrate on recording a handful of tracks within the ‘classical’ project I mentioned earlier and there are other plans related to recording but I’d rather keep that under my hat for the time being.
“Regarding live appearances, we are currently working on the possibility of performing in Luxembourg, maybe Belgium, France and other countries, but since nothing is definite yet, I don’t want to say too much.
“The way I see it, the EU accepted Maltese as an official language, now it’s up to us to give them something to listen to.”
One last question… After so many years in music, how do you feel about finally getting some recognition for your work?
“Well, to start with, I never really sought the attention or popularity. That isn’t why I wrote and sang songs.
“However, I do notice and appreciate the growing fan base. I feel quite proud of this particular album as I believe it is a quality product – both in content and presentation and I sincerely hope it serves as a benchmark for others to supersede as that way our standards can only get better.
“When we chose The Powerhouse Theatre for the launch, I was a bit worried we had bitten off more than we could chew, but I’ve been told that it was possibly the biggest attendance for a Maltese language album launch, which is very encouraging, not only for myself but for any artist.”
Hamsin and M’Jien Xejn are available from all record outlets in Malta and Gozo