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Malta has given the world 8000 years of Island records

Still, after 8000 years, Maltese music is centred around cultural eclecticism and originality.

Bring Me The Horizon’s fourday festival in Malta in May is already sold out. Photo: BG017/Getty Images.

Island paradises are not always all they seem. With a rich history, idyllic beaches and the warmest average temperatures in Europe, Malta, which celebrates its National Day on December 13, is a holiday nirvana for those from gloomier climes. But it’s also a country with a complex political and cultural make-up, and a diverse musical heritage to match.

The 2017 assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the ‘one-woman Wikileaks’ who exposed state corruption, rocked Maltese society and resulted in mass protests and the resignation of the prime minister. The scandal has damaged Malta’s reputation in recent years, but some of its prestige has been restored thanks to its successful handling of the pandemic.

Malta’s population of half a million has achieved a (full) vaccination rate of 81%, and the country was heralded as one of the safest places for a winter getaway this year.

Forward-thinking government schemes, offering incentives to tourists and promoting green initiatives in the travel industry, will also be attractive to many travellers.

But it’s not just tourists who have been attracted to Malta recently. Regulation-busting policies have caught the attention of questionable business interests, and the state has controversially sold EU passports to wealthy foreigners for years.

In June, a Nomad Residence Permit, which allows citizens of other countries to work remotely in the country for up to a year, was added to the Maltese government’s unusual policies for dealing with foreign nationals.

Valletta was the European capital of culture in 2018, and Malta’s cultural attractions have long been another part of its appeal.

Between 2007 and 2019, Floriana, just outside Valetta, hosted the annual Isle of MTV music festival, and now Grammy-nominated Sheffield metalcore band Bring Me The Horizon have announced a four-day festival on the islands next May. Don’t bother looking for tickets, though: it’s already sold out.

But Malta’s native musical traditions are also strong, heavily influenced as they are by its geography and history, resulting in a true musical melting pot.

Caught between Sicily and the North African coast, the three major islands that make up the Maltese archipelago had strategic importance for everyone from the Phoenicians, 1,000 years before Christ, to the British from the early 19th century (driving on the left, red telephone and postboxes are the legacy of colonial rule, which ended in 1964), leading to a rich cultural mix.

While traditional Maltese folk music declined with the urbanisation of the islands, the working-class folk form of ghana was imported from the countryside into the towns and still survives. Often mournful and focusing on tragedy, ghana also has the more playful form of spirtu pront, a duel between singers where improvisation and wit are key.

Frans Baldacchino, who was born on the main island but moved to Australia in the major wave of Maltese emigration in the 1960s, was considered the master of the art form in the 20th century, thanks to his expressive voice and off-the-cuff lyrical inventiveness.

Historically, Sicilian influences have helped shape the island’s music, from the brass bands that are synonymous with Holy Week processions on both islands (the Società Filarmonica Nazionale La Valette, founded in 1874, still keeps this tradition alive), to the raucous Neapolitan songs played during the chaos of Carnival.

Now, traditional Maltese sounds are getting a reboot. Etnika describe their music, lengthily but accurately, as “traditional tunes and lyrics over affected guitars, retro-futuristic synths, unconventional percussion and footwork, deep, groovy bass, raspy sax, haunting whispery vocals and old Maltese instruments”. Reviving the zaqq Maltese bagpipe and often adding a large dose of jazz, their music is in a category all of its own.

While Etnika have recorded songs which date from the 17th century, and with probable older provenance, their more recent Maddalena, from the album Maddalena’s Marvellous Tripfolk Klabb (2016), is a reworking of a more recent humorous Maltese song about a young man serenading a woman so enthusiastically that he is eventually charged with disturbing the peace.

Featuring the traditional ghana fil-gholi high-pitched chant, the song was originally recorded by HMV in sessions in Milan in the 1930s. These became important documents for Maltese musical history.

Today, Malta’s most popular bands are hugely diverse. Tribali meld classical, ska, reggae and psychedelia, wielding traditional instruments from all over the world, including didgeridoos and sitars.

With a rather different sound, death metal bands Beheaded and Abysmal Torment are two of the islands’ biggest musical exports.

The rock ballads of Maltese legends Winter Moods, founded in the mid-1980s, are among the islands’ most popular songs.

The classic rockers have been voted best band at the Malta Music Awards no less than six times. Meanwhile, relative newcomers Red Electrick are not a million miles away from Winter Moods’ English language pop-rock sound, and are closing in on the latter’s popularity, with their YouTube videos being watched, on average, by about one in every four Maltese people.

Airport Impressions strongly channel U2, as well as The Killers and Kings of Leon, while Gozo’s The Travellers are more rooted in the islands’ own traditions – singing in their native tongue and prominently featuring brass instruments.

After 8,000 years of inhabitation by cultures from across the region, Malta is still all about cultural eclecticism and originality.

Maltese music in five songs

Frans Baldacchino, Mosta’s Bride (1992)
Sung by the leading ghannej (folksinger) of the 20th century, this song tells the Maltese folk tale of a bride kidnapped from the northern city of Mosta and taken to Turkey before being reunited with her beloved via an escape plan that is sung to her.

Winter Moods, Marigold (2006)
From the hit album Ordinary Men, this rock ballad is the veteran band’s most popular song.

Etnika, Lanċa (2016)
Illustrative of the strong cultural connections between Malta and Italians, this comical song originates from southern Italy but is about the hapless captain of the ferry that once ran between the Maltese resort town of Sliema and Valletta. Etnika have updated the song in a style they call ‘tripfolk’.

Red Electrick, Right Here (2018)
Founded in 2011, the Maltese five-piece group have quickly dominated the Maltese airwaves. This track is typical of their breezy pop rock sound.

Airport Impressions, Why Are We Here? (2021)
The indie rock U2 soundalikes have taken a more industrial direction on their most recent single.

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