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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Your Song

Death is an integral part of life. Along with Maltese culture, music and performance, death is one of the most frequent themes of this blog. Why not? If through death we celebrate the lives of those we love and admire, I see no harm in accepting death as an inevitable part of the circle of life.

Two very different men who had an arguably substantial effect on the Maltese way of life passed away last week. One I've already mentioned on my blog (and I'll mention again later today because I've dedicated a whole podcast to him) the other is the American television producer Aaron Spelling.

Charlie's Angles, Starsky and Hutch, The Love Boat, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210 are among the many TV series produced by Spelling, which not only enjoyed huge popularity in the Maltese islands and most other countries where they were shown but also altered the psyche of countless viewers who watched them over the years. Strangely enough, many people who have never visited the USA genuinely believe that Americans and life in America are actually very much like what we see in Spelling's productions. Anyone who has lived in the States for longer than a brief visit as a tourist can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.

This week's podcast is dedicated to the memory of Frans "il-Budaj" Baldacchino who passed away last Wednesday. I didn't only want to play recordings made by Frans Il-Budaj but rather to evoke the spirit of għana in what I see as the Mużika Mod Ieħor style.

You can hear Frans il-Budaj sing the opening song on the podcast. It's an unusual recording featuring il-Budaj singing Il-Ġmiel tan-Natura to a synth arrangement rather than the traditional guitars most people associate with traditional Maltese music. His near-angelic high register is marvelously haunting. This recording was brought to my attention by my friend and colleague Mario Axiaq.

There are a number of ways for anyone who wants to enjoy hearing Frans il-Budaj sing to do so. Here are a couple that immediately spring to mind: Manuel Casha's recent project Tila (a collaboration with il-Budaj) and Etnika's DVD Etnikafe-Kabare Malti from the live 2005 concert held near the former Barrakka lift at Lascaris Wharf, in Valletta. You can also hear his duet with Priscilla Psaila, Tisimgħu Tissaħħar, which won YTC's L-Għanja tal-Poplu 2001 contest.

As I said in the appreciation I wrote for Frans il-Budaj last Thursday, I'm among those who believe that his voice was better suited for għana tal-fatt than spirtu pront, even though he was a master practitioner of the improvised form. Il-fatt, which is simply traditional singing from established themes or stories with words unusually crafted by someone other than the singer, isn't as popular as the more bravura-driven impromptu rapping of the spirtu pront. When delivered in a masterly manner, accompanied by accomplished guitarists, an għanja tal-fatt can send shivers down the listeners' spines.

I had the great fortune of experiencing one brilliant example of this last February in the Manoel Teatre Courtyard during an event organized by Poezijaplus and Narraturi 21. A full recording from that evening is available through Campus FM, and from it I've chosen to play Rita Pace's interpretation of Il-Fatt ta' L-Għarusa tal-Mosta, one of the oldest surviving specimens of this genre of Maltese music. I must confess that when I heard Rita sing this song live last winter I was unable to fight back tears streaming down my cheeks a couple of times during the performance. It is simply brilliant!

The guitarists who played at the event I just mentioned were led by Kalċidon Vella "ta' Mustaċċa", accompanied by his daughter Denise and Willie Saliba "tal-Black Sorrows". Whenever there's għana accompanied by "Ta' Kalċ" you know you're in for a treat. Folklorist Ġorġ Mifsud-Kirkop has managed to capture some marvelous recordings of this guitarist and his fellow players. Ġorġ was one of the producers for this unique Poezijaplus/Narraturi 21 event. Willie Saliba "tal-Black Sorrows" (not to be mistaken with the Australian band by the same name led by Joe Camilleri in the 1980s) is the composer of one of the most popular instrumental pieces written in the style of traditional Maltese guitar playing to emerge from the 1970s. His Blue Grotto tune gained widespread popularity in Malta and Gozo about 30 years ago when it was used regularly as interlude music of TVM. Now you can hear Willie playing Blue Grotto along with the Ta' Mustaċċa guitarists recorded live in Valletta last February.

Il-Budaj was also a prolific poet and songwriter. Two books of poems and verses he wrote were published during his lifetime, and I have a feeling that a posthumous book is already in the making. As delightful as it is to hear him sing his own words it is equally wonderful to hear others taking on his work. Claudette Pace sings a beautifully crafted version of two such works from Il-Budaj's extensive repertoire. This week's podcast comes to a close with Claudette's rendition on her 2002 CD with a keyboard arrangment by Joe Brown of Il-Budaj's Għanja ta' Emigrant. This song is a heartfelt sketch of the emotions Frans il-Budaj himself experienced first-hand as an emigrant to Australia in the 1960s before he returned back to his homeland about a decade or so later. It is a veritable snapshot of a by-gone era that has been displaced by a world where traditions are far too often either relegated to books and academic exercises or trashed in the name of modernization.

The RSS feed for the Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast is available here or you can simply click here to subscribe directly with iTunes. You can also add the latest episodes to your My Yahoo! page.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Bittersweet Symphony

Il-Budaj is dead. It's a great loss for għana and the Maltese music scene. It's also an equally great loss for his family and close friends, of course.
Frans <i>'il-Budaj'</i> Baldacchino passes away
I never really knew Frans Il-Budaj even though I met him on several occasions. I certainly know his singing. You can recognize Il-Budaj on any recording. His voice was unusually sweet for Maltese għana and many believed he was better suited for għana tal-fatt than spirtu pront, even though he was a master practitioner of the improvised form.

I always saw him as one of the more sophisticated għannejja. He was keen to learn more about anything, anytime. He also clearly wanted to cross over from the ghetto that popular Maltese culture has relegated traditional folk singing to by the end of the last century into the seemingly more glamorous world of mainstream pop.

My next Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast cannot ignore the passing of one who was undoubtedly among the best singers to ever appear from Malta. To me, his artistic sensibility made him shine above most of the other traditional Maltese folk singers I've known throughout my life.

Frans il-Budaj is gone but his singing will stay with us for many years to come...and that's not just because we have so many recordings of him.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

World at Your Feet

Paul McCartney is 64 today. I read an excellent article by Sam Roberts in yesterday's New York Times; it's really interesting...what a shame the NYT online archive is only available to paying subscribers. I wonder whether I'll make it to 64 too. If I do I'm pretty sure I'll have a very different lifestyle from the one I have now. I'm equally sure that it'll be nothing like I could ever expect it to be now.

My podcast is not 64 yet. It's 26 this week. It's a slightly different podcast than other episodes in the series because in the final section I focus on the Net Neutrality issue rather than the usual sort of music my listeners have come to expect from my podcast. Then again, my most faithful listeners know that although I'm fairly fond of routines, within reason, I also step off the beaten path quite frequently.

It has now become a mental exercise of sorts to include something about (or at least mention) Xtruppaw in every episode of Mużika Mod Ieħor. To do that this week I open the podcast with a song by Maltese melodic prog rock band Stillborn who will be appearing with the Xtrupps at the 2nd Marsaxlokk Rock Festival on the 26th of August. That gig is organized by the Local Council for that town, which clearly has one of the more enlightened mayors in Malta. Broken Circle, the song you can hear from Stillborn on the podcast has a really wonderful section towards the end. Dianne Castillo has a very pleasant voice, which I think works better in the more melodic, less rocky, passages played by Stillborn.

A few weeks ago I played a song by Charlie Muscat, who is better known as Paletti. He emailed me this week and among other things he told me that that it has now been 14 years that he has been unsuccessfully trying to have one of his songs chosen for one of the many local song contests. The most recent disappointment comes from the selection process for the upcoming Independence Song Festival set to take place on the 18th of September. The 20 songs selected for the final were announced a few days ago and needless to say Paletti's song didn't make the cut from the 174 songs that were submitted for consideration. You can hear that song, Fit-Tieqa tal-Futur sung by Tarcisio Barbara, as the second song on this week's podcast.

Paletti's acoustic guitar sound reminded me of another acoustic guitar I heard this week on a song by an artist I discovered via MySpace. The song is called It Takes Time and it's one of 4 tracks on the So Complete EP by Jason Sherri. In spite of the alternative spelling of his surname, Jason is Debbie Scerri's brother. He has already managed to carve out a relatively successful career for himself, most notably in British musicals like Lloyd Webber's Cats and Queen's We Will Rock You in Germany.

I chose to use the rest of this week's podcast to highlight the Net Neutrality issue by playing a clip from an interview with Tim Berners-Lee at the WWW 2006 Conference, which took place in Edinburgh a few weeks ago. As the inventor of the Web, Sir Tim has always advocated that the internet should remain an open network on all levels. The campaign to protect Net Neutrality in America now has a purposely written song to go with it. The song is a little bland for my taste (too reminiscent of a bad cover of Dylan's Mr Tambourine Man) but it most certainly drives the message home: politicians and corporations should simply keep their hands off the Internet. This issue has not really reached Europe yet, but the outcome in the USA will undoubtedly be felt across the world, especially if/when the same idea is adopted by other telecom companies across the globe.

The RSS feed for the Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast is available here or you can simply click here to subscribe directly with iTunes. You can also add the latest episodes to your My Yahoo! page.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing

This is just too good to ignore...

Enterainment for the Curious Mind

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Silver Train

Manic magazine appeared with The Malta Independent on Sunday this morning. I mention this because this month's issue features an article I wrote about Malta's favourite rock act Xtruppaw. The magazine doesn't have an online presence so I've reproduced the original text for my article here for people who are unable to get their hands on the paper version of the magazine.

Mużika Mod Ieħor is at podcast number 25 this week. I couldn't resist opening with something (remotely) related to the World Cup. The song I chose is not a football song at all but at least it has the same name as one of the most famous players of our time: Maradona. It comes from 48K, the 1999 CD album by the Beangrowers.

I have a number of tracks I've been meaning to play for several weeks. Some of them have been given to me by the artists themselves. Maltese rapper Buggly B is one of them. I met his father in Valletta on my most recent trip to Malta and that was the required catalyst for David (that's Buggly's real name) to send me his music. You can hear a track from his album Djarju Kullaġx called Ħolma Kerha.

I must admit that I'm fascinated by Maltese rappers. I'm not a huge fan of rap, even if there are a number of rap MP3s in my personal collection. What I particularly admire in Maltese rappers is that they don't simply rap in English, just as most Maltese rockers sing in English. I have a feeling that they've understood that rap is as much about sincere storytelling as it is about the flashy posing that comes with it. Another theory of mine is that there's a connection between rap and traditional Maltese għana. Until about 40 years ago, young kids with a natural knack for rhyme would have applied it to as many rounds of għana spirtu pront as they could lay their vocal chords on.

Xtruppaw are undoubtedly part of all this. No, I'm not playing another track from the newly released Is-CD tal-iXtruppaw. I urge everyone who hasn't bought their own copy to do so right away! In line with Xtruppaw's love of the vernacular, warts and all, this week's podcast features music from an underground cassette release from the early 1980s. I don't recall or even known the name of the person/s behind this fragrant ditty, but I have no doubt that although it became an instant cult classic this material never received any airplay from the one and only Maltese radio station available at that time. Someone known as L-Inkwina has created a website with MP3s from this cassette, along with other similar material. This stuff has been featured on the Maltese blogosphere in recent months, but unfortunately there are no details about the singer or the guitarist/s or anything else on the website either.

The material on the website is labeled by the unlikely name It-Tape tal-Bass u l-Ħara. I've chosen to play two tracks from this cassette. The first is called Il-Malti u l-Purgatorju, which is based on a well-known joke about a popular Maltese expression. The other is an instrumental interlude based on the jazz standard I'm in the Mood for Love. During the recording of the podcast I was still unsure about the name of this second piece simply because it's called Interludju on L-Inkwina's website. Still, I'd love to know more about whoever created these recordings about 25 years ago. If you know more than I do, please contact me directly or leave a comment at the end of this blog entry.

The simple yet beautiful sound of acoustic guitars played by Maltese musicians reminded me that I had another recording I've been meaning to play for a while. I mentioned this recording during one of podcasts last January when I played something by Hunters Palace. Mystery is apparently the only surviving recording made by Alex Vella Gera and Adolf Formosa. After playing with Peter Sant in Hunters Palace, a name he's retained for his current band, Alex and Adolf called themselves Treeears. There isn't much else to say about this short-lived duo or the recording you can hear on this week's podcast but I'm sure Alex will correct any heresy I've spouted here right away, especially if he's forgiven me for slobbering with Eurovision's "drivel" in recent weeks.

As I've become quite an avid MySpace user I've taken up the unwritten rule of including at least one track from that wonderful online network on every episode of Mużika Mod Ieħor. This time I'm playing Feed Your Mind from Industrial Metal band Spin mostly because unlike most other Maltese acts on MySpace they've made their songs available for full free download though the website. Strangely enough, there are still bands and artists who think that giving away a couple of songs from their repertoire will somehow damage rather than help their overall efforts to leave a mark on the scene. Thankfully Spin isn't one of them. If you like Industrial Metal you can download three of their songs from their MySpace page and I have a feeling that they'll be very happy about that.

The RSS feed for the Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast is available here or you can simply click here to subscribe directly with iTunes. You can also add the latest episodes to your My Yahoo! page.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Frère Jacques

Lamp post on the Valley Bridge in Scarbrough's South Bay

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Chapter 24

Last night was a memorable night. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be there to witness it in person. I don't actually need any reports to know that it was an historic event. Is-CD tal-iXtruppaw is finally out.

Aside from the whole Eurovision can of worms I opened, Xtruppaw are undoubtedly the most exciting thing to ever hit the Maltese music scene. That's the gist of an article I wrote about them for Manic (the magazine published with The Malta Independent on Sunday) originally intended for this week's issue. For some reason, Manic will appear with next Sunday's Malta Independent. The magazine doesn't have a website, so I'll reproduce the text on my blog once the article appears in print.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy the 24th podcast in the Mużika Mod Ieħor series. Yes, Xtruppaw are in it but there's also another three great tracks I believe deserve to be heard much more than the mainstream media cares to play them.

The first is Pop Music Broke My Heart from the most interesting trio called End of John. I hear they've been very well received on the alternative gig circuit in Malta. I discovered them on MySpace and I must say that from the two tracks I've heard I'd love to see them perform live. A whole album from them is also something that I'd look forward to.

Next from MySpace is another singer-songwriter from London of Maltese descent. Like Joseph Aquilina, who I featured in my podcast a few weeks back, Charlie Calleja is half Maltese. He is gigging fairly regularly around London this summer, so if you happen to be there for one reason or another I wholeheartedly recommend you check out his MySpace page to see where he's playing next. If you like Nick Drake and wondered who (besides Hunters Place) ever wrote and sang those kind of songs while Maltese blood ran through their veins look no further than Charlie Calleja.

Moving away from MySpace I recently discovered another Maltese singer-songwriter of note. I'd never actually heard of him before. He's really good...and I'm not just saying that to be nice. Teddie Zammit's Riflessi won Best Arrangement in the 2001 L-Għanja tal-Poplu. You can hear that song on this week's podcast and not only appreciate why he got the award but also enjoy an unusually wonderful Maltese song.

Speaking of Maltese songs, there's no way I can forget Xtruppaw and their simply amazing debut album. Not only can you hear Glorja Tonna in its pristine glory but you can also listen to me pointing out the precise number of bars I heard them record at Steve Lombardo Attard's Hell Next Door Studio in Gudja when I first met them last March. The explicit lyrics may still sound jarring in Maltese, but there's no denying that this is the most excitingly original rock band to emerge from Malta in decades.

The RSS feed for the Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast is available here or you can simply click here to subscribe directly with iTunes. You can also add the latest episodes to your My Yahoo! page.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor