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.
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