A new album has given voice to the human cost paid by generations of Maltese emigrants, who left home for a new life in Australia, Canada and the UK.

Musician James Vella and researcher Andrew Alamango listened to more than three hours of cassettes of ordinary people singing about their homesickness, tribulations and occasional triumphs.

The taped songs, posted home to families in Malta during the 1970s and early 1980s, were sometimes in the form of the traditional folk style, known as Għana.

Vella, who goes by the stage name A Lily, has sampled some of the songs in his nine-track album Saru L-Qamar (They Became the Moon).

“The stories I heard are so beautiful. They are stories told from the heart,” he said.

“While you can’t understand everything being said because of the accent or the quality of the recording, you can understand that what they are saying is important.”

James Vella says he was inspired by his family’s migration story when creating Saru l-Qamar. Video: James Vella footage. Editing: Karl Andrew Micallef

The ghost-like refrain of emigrants singing ‘I can’t tell you how much I miss Malta’ plays throughout the haunting album.

It begins with “Ħajti Kollha, Qalbi” (My Whole Life, My Darling), which uses the tapes to tell the tale of a woman’s heartbreak and grief.

Others are more light-hearted, with one including advice to a child about how best to enjoy the village festa.

The trove of tapes was amassed by the non-profit heritage foundation Magna Żmien, which researches, digitalises and preserves Malta’s cultural audiovisual heritage.

But they needed a lot of work and creativity before they could be turned into an album.

“While these are beautiful stories, they are quite challenging to set to music. The people are not qualified musicians, and not singing in a particular pitch or tempo, so there is a lot of editing and cleaning to the audio,” he explained.

They are quite challenging to set to music

The archival home recordings reveal the struggle and heartache of emigration, but they also depict a sense of community and offer a window to another time.

Vella was inspired to create the album by the migration tale of his grandparents, who left Malta for the UK in the 1970s.

The album cover is an early portrait of his family and the video of the track Ħajti Kollha, Qalbi, created by videographer Nick Bonello, uses 8mm footage shot by Vella’s grandfather, Marco Alberto, of his own then-young family growing up in Malta in the early 1960s.

“My nannu’s sunglasses sit by my computer, and while these might be meaningless items, in reality, they carry so much significance, as through these items, these people continue to exist in my everyday life,” Vella told Times of Malta.

“They might have left us in body, but we never forget their values, the lessons they left behind, their blood still in ours. They might be out of reach, but they are still here, just like the moon.”

Vella can trace his own story of musical talent back generations. His ancestors are Maltese composers, Alberto Vella and Luigi Vella, best known for their religious music in the early and mid-20th century.

He also hopes that his musical genes and talents will continue into a new generation, his young daughter.

“The core message behind the album is that those who came before us still contribute to our lives,” he said.

Saru l-Qamar was supported by Arts Council Malta and will be released in Malta by local label Kewn Records on April 5.

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