Etnika - Zifna
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cd cover The Maltese, inhabiting three small Mediterranean islands south of Sicily, possess and are possessed by a unique culture, including a language derived from Carthaginian (Punic), Arabic and Italian, and an indigenous musical heritage largely forgotten or overlaid by later influences. This latter condition motivated the launch of the band Etnika, an ethnomusicological project to recreate traditional Maltese music. Zifna is their second recording. I cannot comment on the historical authenticity of the results, but can observe that the band's music is as short on musical cognates, or easily recognized (if often deceptive) reference points, as is the Maltese language, which at first sounded to me like Slavic; Zifna could easily serve as the soundtrack for a science fiction film set on an Earthlike world. I can also assert that it is wonderful and compelling music, excellent not only in performance but in conception.

The lead-off track, "Ara Gejja," is a stunner, its dramatic, Gypsy-inflected violin introduction immediately strutting into a quick melody featuring Maltese bagpipe (iz-zaqq), reed horn (iz-zummara) and lively hand percussion, breaking off into an ominous introduction for Julie Pomorski's arresting vocals, at times the sly coaxings of a petulant child, but able to soar with hair-raising power in warning us of the inevitable approach of... death. This is followed by "Qamar Kwinta," a carefree accordion-based two-step with a threatening cello undertone and complex percussion, centered on Kevin Drake's brief but devilish narration. "Bum Bum," based on a children's rhyme establishing the proper price for a pretty girl, skips to a jazzy waltz beat, ominous tone added this time by piano.

"Tal-Hahaj" is the liveliest track, and also the most familiar, a Sicilian romp on flute and violin, but also darkly colored by deep cello passages. "Il Festa Ta-Babu" could almost be a Bahian carnaval track with its shuffling drums, trombones, tubas, and party atmosphere, and the final track, "Zaqq u Tambur," showcases another Maltese bagpipe, the double-piped iz-zaqq, framed by short-wave radio snippets. The most intriguing track, "Orqod, Orqod," presents a disconcerting lullaby, discordant vibrato guitar, violin, and clattery percussion offering another ominous background for Pomorski's muttered vocals, open-stop piano and saxophone solos oddly consoling in context.

Zifna is some of the most interesting and challenging music you are likely to hear this season on this Earthlike world. - Jim Foley

More information on Maltese music and the earlier incarnation of Etnika can be found on Rootsworld

CDs are available from cdRoots or directly from Etnika in Malta.

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