Sarah Chircop writes about a project that delves deep into the development of music and sound in Malta through performance and narrative.
Like most of the histories of the Maltese islands, the story of music in Malta is one that is inseparable from its geography. The Mediterranean has been a melting pot for artistic expression for thousands of years, and in the process of moulding and shaping our identity, the archipelago situated bang in the middle of the Mediterranean, has absorbed various influences and ideas from the diverse cultures bordering it.
Music especially, has always possessed the power to hold, transmit and communicate the language of culture, but also allow for the remembering and reconnecting with it.
Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti’s next major project delves deep into the story and development of music and sound in Malta via the colourful influences of the Mediterranean basin.
The project, titled Music in Malta – From Prehistory to Vinyl, will consist of a major exhibition as well as a full programme of performances by local and foreign musicians. The exhibition will feature a display of musical instruments and artefacts sourced from Malta’s private and public collections. Sound itself will be the main exhibit as well as the narrator to this story. So what kind of sounds are we expecting to experience and what kind of story will they sing?
The exhibition will begin with the soundscape of our early ancestors, one that invites the visitor to imagine and visualise what went on within the hilltop temples and the subterranean hypogeum; the singing, chanting, dancing and clapping, the scraping of bones, the pounding of stones and the blowing of horns and conches.
However, as time moved forward so did the people, and the increased movement around the Mediterranean saw the expanding dominating powers, like the Romans, Byzantines and the Arabs, colonise Malta, leaving it with a melodic mixture of shared musical knowledge, artefacts and instruments.
With all these influences came religion, of course. The spread of Christianity in Malta carried with it sacred songs and dedicated musicians that travelled long distances.
The exhibition will feature a display of musical instruments and artefacts sourced from Malta’s private and public collections
Some of the earliest written music found in Malta dates to the first half of the 12th century, and the main instrument of this period was the organ.
Outside the church and back on the streets, the exhibition will continue to narrate the sounds of folk music and those traditional instruments that were crafted locally from materials easily available around the islands.
This is the music of the people and the sounds are vast and various; horns, flutes, rattles and bells, whistles and wooden stringed instruments, that were given special importance, particularly in the accompaniment of a traditional song (għana) and dance.
This was also a world of superstition and magic, and particular sounds were considered to be endowed with protective powers.
With the arrival of the Knights, and especially with the building of the city of Valletta after the Siege of 1565, Malta’s cultural life exploded. Music became more and more sophisticated; musicians travelled to further their studies abroad, instruments were imported onto the island, while others, such as lutes, guitars and violins, were locally made.
The Order of St John also brought with them an influx of brass instruments and drums which could be heard in daily outdoor ceremonies.
When Malta eventually became a British colony in the early 19th century, large regimental bands were introduced and heard regularly. Band clubs were readily embraced into local culture and quickly flourished from village to village throughout Malta and Gozo. Woodwind, brass, percussion and sometimes string too, are the sounds of this mobile orchestra that parades and marches through the streets, even today.
This story of sound will end with the early Maltese recordings on shellac and vinyl, when music became more universal than it ever was before.
But if you think our story begins and ends within the space of an exhibition then you are mistaken, for we have a whole programme of performances that will see local acts as well as music from Puglia, Morocco and other countries in and around the basin, travel to our shores.
These performances will continue to aid the narration of the wonderfully intricate story of the music created and enjoyed by the Maltese throughout their history and will demonstrate how Malta’s traditional instruments and sounds fit right into this musical journey through the Mediterranean.
Music in Malta – From Prehistory to Vinyl will kick off with a performance by local band Etnika on November 30 at the Manoel Theatre. The exhibition will open during Eastertide of 2019 at the Mdina Cathedral Museum.