Malta Diary The origins of Malta’s and Gozo’s folklore singing – ‘ghana’
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Would islands as small as Malta and Gozo have their own traditional folklore music, a melody and song that is uniquely distinct and has survived hundreds of years, practically unchanged and not influenced by the passage of time?
Yes, they have. It is called ‘ghana’ – no, not pronounced as in the African nation Ghana, but pronounced simply “aa-na” because the coupling ‘gh’ in Maltese takes the sound of the immediate succeeding vowel. A straight translation is ‘song’ in the pure and simple form of the word.
To the uninitiated, untrained ear, as well as to most foreigners (if not all of them), it may well sound like a frustrated cat stuck on a hot, tin roof, wailing because its charm is not in the actual music but in the lyrics, some of which even the Maltese find difficult to understand because individual singers use individual dialects – and these can vary greatly even in a small country.
The music content is provided by traditional string guitars (not electric!), not particularly melodious but to provide a background rhythmic sound to which lyrics are set. The singer is usually a soloist but duos are also popular and may be two men or a man and woman – probably the most popular.
Duos ‘spar’ to score points off each other, one berating the other for their foibles and shortcomings. Husband and wife exchanges give great merriment as each partner relates the things that anger them most about the other.
Male duos are normally left for the experts as these are impromptu and the singers make up the rhyming couplets either to “attack” or “defend” as each situation comes up.
Soloists may recount some joyous or sad experience, childhood, customs or traditions or may be critical of some event, including politicians and political parties. A soloist may be accompanied by a number of guitarists.
Researchers and historians believe the ‘ghana’ has its origins from Spanish tradition with influence from nearby Sicilian folklore music. To this I would add a distinct Arabic trait – certainly in the language but also in guitar intonations. After all, both Spanish and Sicilian music have their Arabic background strain too.
The late and well-known Maltese historian and folklore researcher Ġużè Cassar Pullicino found an early form of the ‘ghana’ dating back to 1792.
Contrastingly, the major research into Maltese folklore singing and songs was carried out by the German lady Bertha Ilg at the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th. She lived in Malta for a number of years and collected and documented 200 popular folk songs from the period.
Current musician and researcher Andrew Alamango confirmed that during the first 30 years of the 20th Century, the role of folklore music continued to increase and also included the use of mandolins and accordions.
He also said the ‘għana’ is important and remains important because of its vocal traditions, consisting of the skills of impromptu coupling of rhythmic phrases set to music. It is a basis of the Maltese language that is set to music that is typical of the countries of the Mediterranean region.
For a while between the late 50s and 80s, ‘ghana’ was denigrated by some and dismissed as the music of the ‘uneducated’ and the country farming folk and therefore of no real consequence.
However, since then it has seen a surge and has now resumed its great popularity. There is an annual ‘ghana’ festival that also includes folk music from throughout the Mediterranean shores, but its greatest stage is the Buskett Gardens near Rabat.
This is the venue for the annual “Mnarja” folk celebration, commemorating the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul on 29th June. Held on the eve, Buskett comes alive with thousands of visitors. Folk music abounds as well as eating the traditional dish of fresh rabbit fried in garlic with lashings of chips. Sadly there has been an infiltration of more modern music – including today’s rowdy and senseless cacophonies – but the cry has gone up for a restoration of the traditional folklore strains.
As an aside, decades ago males had to commit a marriage vow to their forthcoming partner to undertake to take her to the “Mnarja” Festival annually.
One may also drop into a countryside or village coffee shop on an evening and find an ‘ghana’ singer strumming away to entertain friends.
Thankfully, the tradition is attracting younger and younger age groups, mainly males such as my good friend Angelo Theuma from Zejtun where “ghana” is vastly popular as it is in places like Qormi, Zebbug, Zabbar and a number of others.
“Take is easy – bhal l-Inglizi”
A rhyming couplet based on the assumption that the English (i.e. British) are normally relaxed when compared to the Maltese frantic temperament…hence “Take it easy – like the English”! Meaning = be relaxed and cool like the English! But, are the British really relaxed and laid back ….?