Visiting Maltese Ghana
babelmed - 12/02/2004
Milano, Linate airport. We are almost taking off when the plane brakes roughly and stops within a few metres, avoiding a certain collision with another plane.
Half an hour (of hostesses’ smiles) later we have a 2nd take: we are all a bit nervous, but the plane runs its lane and manages to take off: my journey hasn’t had a great beginning, but at least now it can really start.
On my left a big man is sitting and sweating. I guess he is Maltese since he asks for some information about the connection from Rome to Malta. I’m worried about the same point:
Are you Maltese?
Yes, and you?
Italian, going to Malta to do research on Maltese traditional music.
Ah, ghana, he smiles, and where are you staying?
In Qawra, at a friend of mine.
That’s not a good place for ghana. You should go to the south.
Actually, ghana is much more popular in the south of the island. Many singers come from the southern village of Zejtun. They are proud to come from the same village as the mytical Fredu Abela, “il-Bambinu”, who died in 1991, and Frans Baldacchino, “il Budaj,” probably today’s most popular singer, who hasn’t lost his Zejtun citizenship even if he has lived for many years in Australia and has been living in Birkirkara since he returned to Malta.
In Zejtun you can still find sessions of ghana “spirtu pront” (literally “quick spirit, wit”) almost every Sunday morning at Ta’ Ganna Bar, and on special occasions at the MLP (Malta Labour Party) club, in other bars or at private parties.
However, ghana “spirtu pront” is also sung in several places all over the island, including the “Bocci Klabb” at Tal-Pietà, quite close to Valletta, where the owner, Charlie Mangion “iz-Zubina,” a keen ghana enthusiast and singer as well, is very proud to show you all his collection of recordings, pictures, and any other stuff related to ghana.
If you visit the Bocci Klabb on a Sunday morning, around 10, you can see a good number of singers (ghannejja) with a few guitar players gathering to organize the sessions of the day, usually two, each one made up of 4 singers and at least 3 guitar players. Their faces look quite serious: they are well aware of being “the ones who carry on tradition.”
When the first session begins, after Zubina has started his recorder, the lead guitarist (“il-prim”) plays an introduction, thus giving the singers the tempo and the key, while the other guitarists play an accompaniment (“akkumpanjament”) based on 2 chords. After the introduction the first of the 4 singers starts singing on the same 2 chords, on a traditional tune, a 4-octosyllabic lines stanza, rhymed ABCB, improvising the lyrics. After this the lead guitarist plays a “variation” on the same 2 chords and of the same duration as the stanza.
Both the sung stanza and the instumental “variation” are usually divided into 4 melodic phrases, 2 on the first chord (a Tonic major chord) and 2 on the second (a Dominant chord).
This structure is then repeated for each of the 4 singers, with more or less the same tune and definitely the same metric structure and rhyming scheme, and then again from the first, to the second, and so on, until Zubina says the time is over because the tape in the recorder is almost finished. This usually lasts 60 minutes.
The audience is usually quite attentive and silent during the performance, especially the first session, when the amount af alcohol they’ve consumed has not yet affected their attention. Nevertheless sometimes Zubina has to use his influence to recall silence and a proper behaviour, as tradition deserves great respect, and so do the men who carry it on. Undoubtedly, bringing special gifts to the tables of the most regular customers, like hobz biz-zejt (bread with tomatoes and oil), fazola (beans), fenek (rabbit), and pasta, helps him a lot to exert his influence. It’s a tough job, but it’s worth the while!
So while people at the tables are drinking, eating and listening, and therefore allowing tradition to be transmitted, the singers and guitarists are playing their own role: (drinking and) inventing today’s version of the tradition, giving material reality to something which would be abstract, giving a concrete shape to an idea.
In line with tradition, after the first 2 or 3 introductory stanzas, the first singer starts arguing with the third one, while the second singer takes on the fourth. Of course, their counterparts will answer and carry on the argument or quarrel till the very end, when the double (and sometimes triple or even more) closing stanzas of each singer (with a slightly different harmonic and melodic stucture) will give the duel a chivalrous conclusion, with handshakes, smiles and beers.
As far as the subject of arguing is concerned, one must remember that usually in the bars “id-diskors fuq il-politika huwa projbit” (talking about politics is forbidden!), both during “normal” bar life and (above all) during the “spirtu pront” sessions. This is probably because political subjects are too serious and “dangerous” to be discussed in a bar, where people could easily lose control due to the alcohol. The Maltese take party politics very seriously. Discussing subjects related to politics almost certainly means quarreling, as the Maltese feel their political belonging deep in their heart; apart from a cultural, religious and gender identity, people also have a real political identity.
Then what do the ghannejja argue about, what do they discuss? Themselves, obviously! This seems to be the favourite topic of all Maltese people, as is the case with mediterranean people in general (or human being everywhere?). However, I was surprised how they could refrain from involving politics in their improvisations even when the very hot political issue of whether Malta should join the EU was being discussed. The singers keep on discussing who’s the better singer, whose family is better, whose village is better and has given birth to the better singers, and so on. They do all this using colourful, vivid language, rich in irony, embellished with metaphors and explicit allusions. It is amazing how traditional music can create a “free port,” where people can insult or heavily mock each other without really getting offended: something which would cause serious rows in normal life is the standard in spirtu pront, and very rarely leaves any bad blood.
hjhhhòlòln some unskilled singers, unable to keep up the duel with an older and better ghannej, try to overwhelm him with vulgarity, verbal violence, and bad words, without realizing that this is not appreciated by the audience and leaves a bad image of the singer himself.
According to many Maltese informants, of different social conditions, age and political ideas, several aspects of Maltese society seem to be determined by a sort of dualism: a semitic language written in Latin characters; a Catholic God called “Alla;” two political parties that systematically choose opposite paths, even if they have to go against their principles, just to avoid agreeing about anything; the “struggle” between mediterranean roots, the Maltese language on one side, and European temptations, the English language on the other, with families that choose to speak to their children in English almost 40 years after Malta gained its independence from Britain, and old men who have spent their lives refusing to learn the language of the colonizers...
Politics above all seems to reflect this dualism: each one of the two parties has its club in the centre of every village, its TV channel, its radio station, and the large majority of the people side with either one of the two main political parties. One day, as I was walking in the streets of Zejtun looking for the MLP (Malta Labour Party) club, a woman refused to show me where it was just because she was a Nationalist (that is conservative, or Christian democrat). Obviously it was useless to explain to her that I was just an Italian who wanted to attend an ghana session...
Jien nazzjonalista. (I’m Nationalist.)
Yes, but I want just a drink and to listen to ghana.
Le, dak mhux tajjeb. (No, that place is not good.)
It seems that for the Maltese arguing is a natural need, just like eating, drinking, sleeping and so on, and perhaps this is the reason why ghana “spirtu pront” is exactly the kind of ghana which has survived best in today’s society. Some kinds of ghana, like the ghana “tal-fatt” (literally “ghana of the fact,” normally a sad story from the past) that is related to ancient story-tellers who had an important role in traditional socities, or ghana “fil-gholi” (ghana in a high pitch), very melismatic and probably more related to self-expression and the folk-singer’s ability to sing, have almost disappeared. Today’s ghana “scene” is supported mostly by the “spirtu pront” sessions, which themselves sometimes create the space for some different kinds of ghana.
Ghana “tal-fatt” is usually sung by one singer only, and uses almost the same stucture as ghana “spirtu pront”, except for a richer repertoire of tunes, some of which are on minor keys, and the lyrics, which are not improvised but written, though always based on the “national” Maltese popular verse (the octosyllabic line organized in quatrains rhyming ABCB). Lyrics can be old traditional stories and legends (dating back even to the Middle Ages), or occasional events written to be sung once to a small community. In both cases however these narrations don’t fit modern society, which doesn’t need a storyteller to transmit the community’s historical memory, and which is not interested in old stories about old-fashioned values, that no longer correspond to real life.
Today one can listen to “fattijet” (facts, stories) on some old tapes, sometimes in specially organized revival occasions, interposed between “spirtu pront” sessions. However this rarely happens during private parties or other singing occasions.
High-pitched ghana “fil-gholi”, also known as “la bormliza” (meaning “from the town of Bormla,” is even rarer because of the lack of singers able to perform it. Because of its particular technique and high-pitched melismatic tune, not everyone can deal with “ghana la bormliza.” It is sung solo or by two singers, always with the same metric structure and same harmonic frame, but with much longer and ornamented melodic phrases. Lyrics can be improvised and one stanza can be sung half by one singer and half by the other.
The singers of this kind of ghana are usually very respected and rarely sing in the “spirtu pront” sessions too, perhaps because they are seen as guardians of a different, nobler and older treasure. And the tunes they perform are sometimes really magic, sung in an ethereal register, deeply expressive with their melismatic passages and microtonal intervals, which reveal a likely relationship with Northern African singing.
My experience of ghana was really interesting and much richer than the few hints I have given here. On my way back to Italy I was accompanied by the words the ghanneja improvised in a “spirtu pront” at my farewell party, one of them singing two stanzas in Italian: I had to promise Malta that I would soon return! Simone Mongelli