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Saturday, January 31, 2009

And We Bid You Goodnight

As January draws to a close we find that Malta has already lost two iconic figures in the field of arts and entertainment. The month opened with the demise of Charles Camilleri on the third day of the new year and came to an end with the passing away of Charles Clews the day before yesterday. Camilleri was 77, Clews was 89.

I've produced two special podcast to mark each of these prominent figures in Maltese culture. Camilleri's podcast featured the very first broadcast I produced for cable radio in Malta, while Clews' podcast came from the very first episode of my 26-part series marking the end of the cable radio service in 1990.

In spite of this, I thought it would be appropriate two remember both men in my weekly Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast. So the 149th edition of the MMI podcast opens with Charles Clews' classic pop song from the early 1960s Sparaw Għall-Qamar. With lyrics by Dr Ġorġ Zammit (author of the Wenżu u Rożi tales) and music by Joseph Ciappara it truly captures a very different time in Maltese popular culture. (I'd like to thank Mario Axiaq and Lino Cassar for helping me remember the names of those involved.) In the same way that space exploration from that era inspired Joe Meek to compose the tune Telstar, Pink Floyd to create Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive, as well as David Bowie to give us Space Oddity, Maltese pop music from the same decade came up with this classic ditty known and loved by (almost) all cable radio listeners. The use of the clarinet to simulate Morse code at the very start of the recording is simply brilliant.

Francesco Puccioni, better known as Mike Francis, died yesterday at the age of 46 after a long battle with a fatal tumour. Most people in Malta don't know him, but he had a very strong connection with Malta through his professional collaborations with fellow Mysic Diversions band mate Aidan Zammit Lupi. I've played their music on previous editions of the MMI podcast in 2007. Aidan suggested I play Friends from Mike Francis' album Inspired as a farewell to Francesco on my podcast.

I've been wanting to include something by the Maltese guitarist Simon Schembri on my podcast for many years. He was one of the very first people I interviewed on the radio in the mid-1980s. I've now acquired one of his two CDs released in France, where he is has based for almost three decades. The tune I've selected is Tárrega's Caprice Arabe.

Since today's podcast has taken on a special theme, I thought it would be best to end it with one of Charles Camilleri's best known compositions. From his Malta Suite I've picked the Village Festa in a rendition conducted by Brian Schembri from a recent recording at the Manoel Theatre in Valletta. The applause at the end of that recording is a fitting tribute for all the artists featured in this week's podcast.

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 follow each new episode through the MMI Podcast: Facebook Fan Page. If you have no idea what any of this means, just click here.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Make 'em Laugh

Veteran Maltese comedian Charles Clews passed away yesterday at the age of 89. If it wasn't for the fact that I was in London attending a briefing on European research funding at the British Library, I would have probably blogged about his death sooner. Still, Charlie was such an established household name among all Maltese around the world that his passing would barely go unmarked.

I met him many times during the years I worked at Xandir Malta. He would mostly come to visit my office mate Lino Cassar, an old friend of his, before and/or after his weekly recordings at Radio Malta with producer Charles Abela Mizzi. What often struck me is how similar his off air personality was to the way the public knew him. He was surely a gentleman who was most gracious in every way imaginable. I'm not saying this because he's now dead. I'm saying this because he truly was an amazingly wonderful and generous person.

Aside from these candid office meetings, our paths only crossed each others professionally a couple of times. One of these occasions took place in 1990 when I produced a 26-part series marking the end of the cable radio service in Malta. Charles Clews had to be interviewed for such a series, of course. As it happened, he was the second guest on the series; the first was Charles Arrigo. Although the reason to start the series talking about the popular game show 20 Questions was purely personal, it's not incidental that Charles Clews was the second guest on the series, even though he was somewhat associated with it. As the venerable broadcaster Effie Ciantar once put it, it was the Rediffusion cable radio service that made Charles Clews (and his comedy troupe Radju Muskettieri) famous, but it was Clews and the Radju Muskettieri who helped Rediffusion put a cable radio set in almost every home in the 1950s.

To mark the passing of this remarkable man, I've repackaged my interview with him from 1990 as a downloadable podcast. His funeral is being held tomorrow. If I were in Malta I would most certainly be there to pay well-deserved respect to this delightful man who made hundreds of thousands laugh throughout his life.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Get On Your Boots

As I prepare for another one of my mini UK tours (York - Manchester - Salford - London), I find myself drowning in more work than I can handle, and yet I somehow always find time for my weekly podcast. Better still, I find that it calms me down and helps energize me to do everything else I need to do with more verve.

This week's podcast is the 148th edition on the Mużika Mod Ieħor series. Now that we're already almost 4 weeks into the new year it's understandable that most of the material I'm including consists of new releases. The first of these comes from Airport Impressions, who have just launched a single called Borderline. I'm sure they'll be playing this song at the upcoming Malta Eurosong 09, where they're among the guests who will undoubtedly outshine many of the contestants.

Before moving on to two more new releases, I turn back to an EP called Idiosyncratic, released towards the end of 2008 by Gozitan newcomers The Imagery. I featured a song from this EP when it came out, but now that I've managed to acquire my own copy of the CD I though it would be an appropriate way to mention that they will be appearing along with Cable 35 and nosnow/noalps at the Liquid Club in San Gwann next Saturday, 31 January. Sounds like an enjoyable line up to me to make the evening very worthwhile for any follower of the local alternative music scene. The song I've picked to play today is called Out There and the first few verses sound to me to be beautifully reminiscent of the Maltese lament ballads from the traditional għana, even if the song has a totally different structure from anything like that.

Guitarist Billy Lee has just launched a song called Don't Give Your Heart Away. This is his debut release as a soloist. Regular listeners of the MMI podcast will remember him that he also plays guitar with Metrokueen and Dayline. I can understand why he would want to sing his own songs, but to my ears he's a far better guitarist than he is a singer. Still, it's not to say that I'm not keen to hear him sing more songs. I have a feeling that if he continues to do this, he will eventually get better at it, particularly if he tried a heavier groove...or at least we can still enjoy his very skillful guitar playing.

Extreme Death Metal band Abysmal Torment are still riding high on the success of their overseas touring. They are now poised to release a new album called Omnicide in April and have just uploaded a couple of tracks from it to their MySpace page. From this I've picked a song appropriately entitled Omega to close this week's podcast.

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 follow each new episode through the MMI Podcast: Facebook Fan Page. If you have no idea what any of this means, just click here.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

America is Waiting

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." These words by President Barack Obama make me believe that we're now living in a new era. Bush and Cheney had made my living in America unbearable. Their wrong doings will take some time to undo, but the new president seems to be very willing to do this. How much he's able to do is still to be seen, of course.

I am very impressed by Amnesty International's campaign for Obama's first 100 days. I like it so much that I'm adding it to my blog. It replaces the Backwards Bush counter, which now thankfully reads: 0 DAYS 0 Hrs 0 Min 00.0 Sec left in office. Thank god almighty we're free at last! There's no real reason to believe otherwise. With President Obama, it's impossible to say a change hasn't already come. I have high hopes for more change but I'm realistic about how much the new president can really do. Not just because of the bureaucratic jungle he now inhabits but also because he really isn't as radical as some people believe he is. He is still very much part of the establishment. Thankfully he is a fairly liberal voice within the establishment and presumably a very strong voice too.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Just Dance

As there are still a considerable number of early-year events still to come, it would be foolish of me to think that the new year is really already is full swing. It simply is not. Next Tuesday's Obama inauguration brings high hopes with it. I'm not expecting any radical changes but the fact that a new tone will be set for world politics helps me breathe easier. If I manage my time properly I should be blogging about that later this week.

Some things never change, or rather, as the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. Right now, the 147th Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast is my way of making sense of this paradox. It opens with a grungy ballad called Till I Die by Totema. This ties in with the last track on the preceeding edition of the MMI podcast. Guitarist Emerson Vella is the link between the two. Totema's MySpace page contains three recordings by this band but little else, so I don't know as much as I'd like to about them. I'm hoping that they're active enough in 2009 to merit another inclusion on my weekly podcast.

Daniel Cassar is a young guitarist I just met via MySpace. He has uploaded a jazzy tune called Around the Day in 80 Worlds to demonstrate his excellent guitar playing skills. By his own admission this is just a demo but it shows him as a local guitarist worthy of note. I'm looking forward to hearing more from him, either as a soloist or even with a band. He plays with metal newcomers Cyanide, so there's hope.

By contrast, I know we'll be hearing more from Maltese-Australian singer-songwriter Luke Caruana, better known as Carra. He was recently in Malta and played some gigs in France and Holland too before returning back to Sydney. There's now a Carra Facebook page too and he's working on a new album and, judging by his previous releases, I'm sure that will be one of the better Maltese-Australian releases this year. Down the Line is from last year's Gaia EP.

Back to Maltese guitarist uploading their recordings to MySpace, a few weeks ago I came across Stefanos who has uploaded a small number of instrumental tracks. The one I've selected for my podcast is entitled Little Thoughts. Stefanos' online presence is one that beautifully demonstrates the sort of worldwide audience hitherto unknown Maltese musicians can attract.

Back to the opening point I clumsily tried to make in the first paragraph of this blog post, I'm very much looking forward to developing a major research project on the arts in Malta. I've already managed to articulate the main idea for a couple of funding applications I put forward last year, but now I'm quite keen to get the project off the ground by any means necessary. To make sure that the work isn't perceived as an academic project that has limited interest to a broader public I accepted an invitation to write an article about a small aspect of this planned work. Writing this article for one of the local Sunday newspaper magazines I exchanged several emails with Freddie Portelli, among other veteran Maltese pop rock musicians.

I mention all this here because aside from answering my questions and showing me some wonderful picture from his time with the Malta Bums and Black Train, Freddie also sent me an MP3 of Play It Again, released as a single in 1979. He explained that Black Train were unable to travel abroad to promote this single widely when it came out because the band had far too many commitments to play at people's weddings. Having attended two of those weddings in the late 1970s I can attest to the frenzy that accompanied the presence of The Black Train at wedding halls across Malta. If you've never heard this song before, I suggest you listen to it in the context of the Eurovision Song Contest.

I bring this up because although Malta was not taking part in that contest at that point in time, Play it Again would have possibly gone down well with Eurovision fans and made Freddie and the Black Train into a Euro-pop sensation. Then again, this also came out at the time that punk had changed the face of rock music, but it would take the next generation of Maltese musicians to bring that around, even if an underground scene was already brewing by then. Sadly, no one has documented any of this properly so far. I'm now hoping to rectify this in a systematic way.

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 follow each new episode through the MMI Podcast: Facebook Fan Page. If you have no idea what any of this means, just click here.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

You've Really Got A Hold On Me

The new year is no longer so new. By now almost everyone will be back (or on the verge of being back) to life beyond the seasonal festivities. If, like me, you worked all of last week, it's understandable if you feel that the holidays seem like that happened a long time ago. Then again, for those who worked while everybody else took a break, I'm pretty sure they're glad it's all over.

My reality check comes once a week when I sit down at my desk to produce the weekly Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast. The 146th MMI podcast is already the third one I've produced this year but it's actually only the first one to feature new music. The opening song is the new single by The Myth. It's called Animal and although it's nothing like a seasonal song, it was (pre)released during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

The next two tracks on this week's podcast should be most welcome by anyone seeking to soothe their ears after clearing out all the fluff that had accumulated there over the past few weeks. Kurt Chircop records as l urk; no, that's not a typo, that's how he spells it. From his repertoire I've selected a tune called The Cloud Had A Sky Blue Colour. This leads almost naturally to Fine by Karl Baldacchino, who makes music under the name Synthact.

One of the things that Mużika Mod Ieħor is known for is the space it gives to relatively unknown new performers to air their very first recordings. The Great Escape is the band that gets this space this week. Their performed their song Run Away on national television in Malta last year to some public acclaim, but I'm almost sure that it had never been played on the radio since. You can hear it as the closing track on this week's Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast.

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 follow each new episode through the MMI Podcast: Facebook Fan Page. If you have no idea what any of this means, just click here.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

They Can't Take That Away From Me

When the death of Charles Camilleri was announced last Saturday, I immediately thought about paying tribute to this remarkable Maltese musician in a podcast. I had just finished producing the 145th edition of the Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast so I knew that I had to produce something extra to remember Maestro Camilleri.

As it happens, Charles Camilleri was the very first person I interviewed on the very first radio broadcast I produced all by myself at Xandir Malta; after several months working with other established radio producers. That broadcast was meant to mark the 50th anniversary from the death of American composer George Gershwin. It was originally heard of Xandir Malta's Cable Radio on 11 July 1987. Josephine Mahoney was the announcer and Publius Micallef was the studio manager who recorded the original broadcast.
Charles Camilleri
Charles Arrigo had instigated me to produce George Gershwin: Tifkira and suggested I invite Charles Camilleri to speak about the composer. Rather than interviewing the maestro about Gershwin, I asked him to give me and the listeners a lesson about Gershwin from the perspective of a professor of music. His insights were not only brilliant but also very unusual from the usual biographical treatments of other composers by other commentators.

To remember Charles Camilleri, I've edited the highlights from my George Gershwin: Tifkira production and they're now available as a downloadable podcast. I believe that this special tribute is a very appropriate way to mark the passing of Mro Camilleri, since he was as great teacher and professor of music as he was a composer.

Charles Camilleri will undoubtedly be remembered as one of Malta's greatest composers of all time. I will forever remember him as the first person who was patient enough to put up with me in a radio studio.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009


Happy New Year! Let's hope it's a good one.

Life has already reminded us how cruel it can be: I was very sad indeed to hear of Charles Camilleri's passing at the age of 77 today. Mro Camilleri's death was announced after I had already finished producing the 145th edition of my Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast. So I will produce a separate (non-MMI) podcast within the next couple of days to mark his passing. Charles was very kind to me over the decades that we knew each other, and he will always have a special place in my mind as the first person I ever interviewed on the radio at the very start of my broadcasting career almost 25 years ago.

The Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast returns after a two-week break over the Christmas period. This week's edition features music from the 2008 Listeners' Picks poll, which we carried out on Facebook over the last five or six weeks. 574 people cast their votes on the 2008 poll. This is more than double the number of people who voted the previous year.

55% of all voters cast their preference in the Top Album category. Ira Losco's Fortune teller received 18.5% of these votes but, as expected, Brikkuni's Kuntrabanda! was selected as the the Top Album for 2008, with 21.3% of the votes in this category. The track I've selected from Kuntrabanda! is the band's excellent version of Danjeli's Iż-Żufjett, which comes across as one of the most amazing Maltese songs ever written.

Thea Saliba's popularity as the singer for Malta's entry at to the 2005 Junior Eurovision Song Contest helped her achieve a considerable number of votes in the 2008 Top Single category. 58% of all voters cast their preference for Top Single and Thea's Musilicious received 13.5% of these 333 votes. However, popular Christian rock band Salt managed to garner 15.9% of the preferences in this category with Jars of Clay. My personal preference was for The Rifffs Magic of the Sun, but I believe that Salt's Jars of Clay is a very worthy winner of the MMI 2008 Top Single accolade.

Claudio Baglioni's version of L-Aħħar Bidwi f'Wied il-Għasel attracted 24.7% of the 198 votes cast in the Malta-related Overseas Release category. However, British band Airstrip One (whose Andrew Hill qualifies them in this category through his Maltese parentage) received 30.3% of the votes in this category for their EP Into the Silence. From this EP I've selected Crashing Cars, which is a much heavier offering from this band than most of their other songs. I have a feeling that Andy Hill will be making a splash on the Maltese alternative scene this year.

291 votes were submitted in the Top Online Release category. Ezzy's Puzzle People is clearly the most supported selection here with 21% of the votes. Still, for the first 3 or 4 weeks, Synthax & Chemicals looked like they could be the winners in this category with their online release Next to Hell. In the end, they only managed to secure 14.1% of all the preferences in this category.

I'd like to give an honourable mention to the outstanding Gozitan duo Chasing Pandora. I have a feeling that if rather than two EPs they had released an album during 2008 or just one EP they would be among the listeners' top picks. Two and Wide Eyed Beauty together received 23.8% of the overall votes, which is 2.5% more than Brikkuni's album. They clearly have a much deserved group of fans who adore them. The video for their song Memories (from the EP Two) received 3 more votes than The Beangrowers' Not In A Million Lovers, but 4 less than the 60 to Wax's Thoughts. Wax also won the 2008 Virtual Rockstar contest by Malta's XFM. I hope that the following and success they've built over the last year or so propels them into greater things in 2009.

Back to the 2008 Top EP category, it looked like Baz and Max Cilia (as Spriggan Mist) were set to clinch this title for their Konditions of Change. They ran a vigorous campaign for votes on Facebook but in the end Just Rock by nosnow/noalps gathered 24.6% of the 321 votes in this category. Their song Headset -- which incidentally has a great video to go with it -- brings the podcast to a close. In parting, I should also mention that nosnow/noalps managed to attract the largest number of votes out of all this year's nominations, with 13.6% of the 574 total voters behind them...just 0.4% ahead of Chasing Pandora.

There's also an enhanced version of this podcast. [coming soon!]

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 follow each new episode through the MMI Podcast: Facebook Fan Page. If you have no idea what any of this means, just click here.

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