Songs from the soul of a nation

Songs from the soul of a nation

Manuel Casha:
Maltese Traditional
Music of Għana and Prejjem
Self-Published, 2016.

For the vast majority of us, Maltese folk-singing (għana) is at best a closed book, a genre which we struggle to understand. A new book just published, Maltese Traditional Music of Għana and Prejjem, by Manuel Casha throws a distinctly new light on this topic.

It is not often that a book dedicated to Maltese folk singing comes to hand and, for this, we have to thank Casha who has striven hard for decades to ensure that this unique form of self-expression is not lost forever. As he says in his introduction, “the soul and psyche of a nation are often embodied in its folkloric past”.

This type of folk singing was limited to certain aficionados, and was even frowned upon by the so-called educated elite. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was foreigners who published what is arguably the best collection of Maltese folksong (Bertha Ilg and Hans Stumme in Germany) over a century ago.

In the past, Maltese għana has been the channel through which the working classes have expressed their views, their protests, their reactions to political or religious squabbles which have occurred from time to time in Malta.

Casha has been involved in recording and documenting għana for a long time. He has been a teacher of the guitar in Australia for several years, and can boast of a considerable following from young guitar players, some of whom have reached a proficiency equal to the best found in Malta.

Through his published CDs, which are now archived in The National Library of Australia, he has ensured that future generations would be in a position to share and possibly enlarge on this heritage.

With the massive wave of migration that took place in the immediate post-war period, many folksingers left Malta to settle in Australia and elsewhere. They brought with them their guitars, as well as their love of għana, which they enjoyed to display, to entertain their friends and to remind themselves of the Malta they had left behind and still hankered for. By the mid 20th century, thousands of Maltese had emigrated to other countries in search of a better life, carrying with them their musical heritage to the countries of their settlement.

In a chapter on migration, Casha remarks: “They now sung about their homeland, family and friends they left behind. They sang about their battle with homesickness. They sang about the prejudices they encountered in the new countries, where they were merely outsiders seeking acceptance. Some sang about the inequality and harsh working conditions. Some about the freezing climate, to which they were not accustomed or, conversely, the oppressing heat they toiled in.

Many sang about the loneliness of living in rural areas, in isolation on their farms or working as farm hands. Others were employed in sugarcane plantations, engaged in backbreaking work and suffocating heat, and singing about their difficult plight. One must remember that many Maltese had to face the culture shock of leaving a generally urbanised environment in Malta, to surviving in a vast land where, in some cases, your next-door neighbour lived miles away.”

One aspect which the author emphasises is the role of għana in preserving the purity of the Maltese language

The question, of course, arises: will subsequents generations be interested in this type of music? Casha is optimistic about this. He remarks: “It might not be commonly known that 95 per cent of ‘għannejja’, past and present, living in Melbourne started their careers after they emigrated. It is just as remarkable to discover that most lead guitarists (primi) in Melbourne were actually born and bred in Melbourne suburbs, and some have never seen Malta.” So the future of playing Maltese folksongs seems to be assured.

Casha has analysed the structure of these għana in great detail. He goes over the various types of għana, explaining the structure of this art form, for those of us who have never really bothered to enquire into the intricacies and genius behind the ability of extemporising rhyming verse in an impromptu fashion. He analyses the varieties of this genre, which has been adapted to suit a variety of situations from the humorous to the tragic, from the political repartee to engagement in downright insult. The author lists a whole glossary of terms used by Għannejja which are unique to this genre, and which are most likely to be lost but for this collection.

He also delves into the intricacies of tuning the guitar in different keys to achieve a more poignant harmony, a technique which is unheard of in any other kind of musical ensemble. He also gives us an introduction to the mysteries, secrets and techniques used by the various participants to achieve their unique effects.

He provides profuse examples of għana to illustrate various points of technique, style and content. He has also ensured that the text of several of these għana is given in translation so that non-Maltese readers can at least get an idea of the meaning of the verse, even though a lot of their significance is unavoidably lost in translation.

In this book we find a comprehensive section on writers and Għana singers in Australia. While their experience of life in Malta still informs a lot of the topics treated in their songs, with time, the local element starts to find its way into the song. He writes: “Many writers in Australia kept writing on traditional lines, and on topics, which related more to the Maltese environment even though they had lived in Australia for a number of years.... [and particularly] to a Malta they remembered from childhood.”

This book is of value as a photo-album of għana singers over the years. It contains a unique collection of photographs, an album of the protagonists who have practiced this art form. It contains a mass of information about the more prominent folk singers in Malta and Australia.

Maltese folk singing has a particular value apart from entertainment. Casha insists that “In Australia [this genre] remains an effective instrument in documenting the heritage of a group of people who migrated between the late 1940s to the mid-1970s when thousands of Maltese left their homeland to make a new life in Australia.”

One aspect which the author emphasises is the role of għana in preserving the purity of the Maltese language. He writes: “The Maltese language has been served well by the għannejja in keeping its purity of form and expression. One of the sacrosanct rules in għana singing is that no foreign words and expressions are acceptable.” Moreover, he says, it has helped to keep alive proverbs and sayings that would otherwise have long since disappeared. Casha writes: “Old Maltese proverbs, idioms and old saying, are very much the tool of a clever għannej.”

He extols the value of learning guitar playing. The interest shown by young players has helped to maintain a command of the Maltese language. Casha says: “while young players cannot sing and rhyme, [they] can speak the language a lot more fluently since taking up the Maltese guitar. It helps them to improve their language skills.”

In addition, learning and listening to guitar playing encourages young people to maintain an interest in music and Maltese culture as well as maintaining and encouraging an abiding interest in performing music.

Casha has been very active in ensuring that għana continues to flourish in Australia. He describes his own role in ensuring the preservation of this type of music. His involvement in broadcasting in Australia during which he has promoted għana to the best of his ability is indeed a part of the history of Maltese settlement in this continent.

There was a real risk that with the passage of time, and as these pioneers grew older and passed away, the future generation might not have the capacity or the will to continue this tradition. It is particularly here that Casha has made his most important contribution to this art-form.

He has travelled up and down the country, carrying his recording equipment, saving on tape all the most important practitioners of the guitar. He has succeeded in ensuring that several members of the younger generation have taken up the instrument and now can take the place of their elders. Some have become quite accomplished playing the guitar.

Casha has done a sterling job in collecting a vast library of għana which is now preserved on CDs and other electronic media, and is made available for all to appreciate, even when the protagonists have long gone. He is encouraged by the interest shown by young members of the community who not only learned the technique of guitar playing, but also were keen enough to engage in the theoretical and academic aspect of this art form.

Casha remarks: ‘I am encouraged, of late, by the number of students who choose għana and prejjem for their thesis for their degrees of PhDs. This has shown that a new generation Maltese see this music genre as their heritage and not something to sweep under the carpet.’

Casha himself is largely responsible for this resurgence. Through his interest, involvement in recording and documenting these songs he has been a prime mover in the resurgence of għana in Australia. He has made sure, through his published CDs, and by ensuring that all this heritage is now archived in The National Library of Australia that future generations would be in a position to share and possibly enlarge on this heritage.

The book can be obtained from the author, e-mail:

Price: 25AUD plus postage.

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