Maltese Folktales / Ħrejjef Maltin
The Mediterranean archipelago nation of Malta has played a central role in the history of relations between Europe, Asia Minor and Africa for centuries. Settled since around 5200 BC (stone age), Malta has seen a long procession of settlers (and invaders): Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Crusading Knights, Napoleonic Forces, and the English, before becoming an independent republic in 1964. With this mélange of cultural influences, it is no surprise that Malta has a rich trove of folktales.
Ten of these folktales are collected in the multi-media and multi-lingual Maltese Folktales, a book with accompanying CD. The folktales are rendered into modern versions in Maltese by Trevor Żahra, and the English translations are by Marilyn Mangion and Ruben Zahra, who also composed the original piano music that complement the readings of the folktales. Ten different Maltese artists illustrated each of the tales in the book. While the music and art are rather international in character, the stories themselves offer a rare glimpse into the culture of Malta.
Aficionados of European folk tales will recognize themes and situations in these tales that found their way into the Maltese repertoire from the various sources and cultures that cast their influence over the country (as my eleven-year old daughter said, upon listening to the beginning of one story featuring three daughters, “it's always the youngest one who is the smartest!”, and there were times when I had to think, “didn't I read this in Calvino's collection of Italian folktales?”). However, in the details, these tales differentiate themselves from other European and Middle Eastern tales, and there are a few complete surprises.
The rendering of the tales in English (the question of the quality of the Maltese is beyond the scope of this review) is lively and straight-forward, as is appropriate for the genre. The illustrations vary in style, from Nicole Diacono's sharp-edged, stylized figures reminiscent of The Secret of Kells (appearing with the story “The Enchanted Songbird”) to Trevor Żahra's energetic white line on black drawings with collage for “The Three Sisters and the Fig Tree” to muted paintings on burlap done by Pierre Portelli for “Spin, Spin the Bobbin” to Pardo Gatto's delicate paper cutouts for “Black Figs, White Figs.” While there is no stylistic unity between the ten artists, the variety makes for a more visually interesting package.
Five of the stories are read on the CD in both Maltese and English. The Maltese versions are read by Joseph Galea, and the English by Isabelle Gatt. Accompanying the read folktales are the original piano compositions by Ruben Zahra.
These compositions, played with considerable verve and delicacy by pianist Tricia Dawn Williams, function to support the reading in the way that the piano was used in the silent film era. Punctuation in the story reading is echoed and elaborated in the music while recognizable themes reoccur to give unity to the music. Ostinato passages support much of the descriptive reading, with solidly voiced chords announcing sectional changes.
While the pieces are mostly atonal (more along the lines of Kabalevsky than Webern), recognizable fragments of melody and lively rhythmic patterns give the ear plenty of recognizable handles with which to grasp the music, and subsequent listenings reveal previously unnoticed patterns that structure the piece. Mood is supported and changed by altering the sets of notes used and the register that those notes appear in.
Zahra shows considerable prowess as a composer of atonal music, able to convey moods that range all over the place, always in support of the stories. His melodies to the taunt of the King in “The King who Grew a Horn on his Head” as well as to the lament of the poor spinner in “Spin, Spin the Bobbin”, both of which are sung by the reader as well as working significantly into the piano score, are up there with Berg's “Ringel Ringel Rozenkranz” as haunting atonal earworms.
Mysterious and agitated moods are relatively easy to achieve in atonal music, since our ears are so accustomed to a tonal framework, and the atonal structures push and frustrate many of our expectations. The real trick is to compose atonal music that is joyful. Zahra is slightly less successful at this daunting task, but he does succeed nonetheless. The music that announces the joy of Gahan's discovery of a cache of gold hidden in a statue in “Gahan and the Statue”, for instance, with its rollicking bass figure and punchy high chords conveys the little boy's exhilaration admirably.
Whether or not the music can stand on its own without the stories is unknown and, ultimately, as useless an inquiry as wondering whether Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf would hold together as a piece without the narration. The fact is, the pieces go together as a set and should be taken that way. The book and the CD could stand apart, as the experience of reading the book is enhanced by the music and recitation, but is certainly not essential. Likewise the CD is sufficiently self-contained. - Erik Keilholtz
Listen to two stories with music.
Find out more about this project at Soundscapes
Ruben Zahra also participated in a groundbreaking Maltese folk music project called Etnika
RootsWorld depends on your support.
Contribute in any amount
and get our weekly e-newsletter.