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What is Maltese Ghana

01:00 Mon 17th Jun 2002 |

First things first - it isn't a part of West Africa colonised by the small Mediterranean island. Ghana (pronounced 'aana', the gh- being silent, meaning song) is actually the local folk music of the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino. The songs traditionally consist of quatrains set to a backing of acoustic guitars.

It's an especially exciting live experience when the singers start to extemporise, making the words up as they go along, all the while retaining the drama (and rhyme) as they go.

Four lines of verse. There are various kinds of ghana but all follow the same general form. For example, Spirtu Pront is a series of answers and response between two or more singers, taking a verse at a time. They can last for an hour or more. Ghana Tal-Fatt is the name given to songs of melancholy and loss, well suited to the plaintive voices of the best singers. Makjetta is more upbeat.

Tal-who Mak-what I don't understand a word!

The Maltese language, which is related to Maghrebi, Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian, gives the music a sense of 'other-worldliness' if listened to by ears that are used to songs sung in English. Make no mistake, the words are central to the songs but a lack of understanding doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment of the sound.

Sounds like the Maltese blues...
A good comparison in terms of the way the music originated - as the entertainment of the rural poor - and in the combination of voice and guitar. However, the roots of ghana lie not in Africa (despite that name!) but in the strong Arabic influence on the island. Malta sits between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and has been something of a melting-pot over the centuries.

Another comparison with the blues is the way in which ghana has adapted to a changing world, while maintaining its proud traditions. The Arab heritage, and the fact that the music comes from the poorest areas of the community, meant the music was shunned by the island's rich and powerful. Today, it is becoming seen as a fine example of the island's indigenous culture.

Who should I listen out for
Singers (ghannejja) and guitarists are all given nicknames. Some of the most celebrated names include the likes of Frans Baldacchino (II-Budaj), Zaren Mifsud (Ta' Vestru), Guzeppi Camilleri (Il-Jimmy Tal-Fjur), Leli Sultana (Il-Moni) and guitarist Grezzju Ellul (Ta' Canca).

The best place to start - and the source of much of this article - is an excellent website produced in Glasgow. It contains a history of the music as well as streaming feeds and samples to listen to:

John J Cassar's homepage on Maltese Ghana

See also:
The islands of the
Maltese archipeligo

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