A Passion For The Pipes

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Jackson's Zaqq & Tanbur Band

Sunday September 8, 2013 (Michael Bugeja - The Sunday Times of Malta)

Bagpipes – you either love them or hate them, but their particular sound was, for Edmond Jackson at least, an awakening. “I used to listen to my father study and teach the bagpipes and I got hooked by their unusual sound,” he tells me when I ask about how this long-standing passion of his started. One of the top pipers on the island, Jackson leads both the Jackson’s Pipe Band and the Żaqq u Tanbur folk group, each reflecting different aspects related to the art of playing the pipes.

“The Pipe Band is all about the music of the Highlands, obviously played on the Scottish bagpipe, but we also play several other bagpipes from many countries,” he explains, adding that, of course, they also perform in full ceremonial dress. The folk group, on the other hand, is where Jackson has sought to explore traditional Maltese music, not only through performing, but also by holding workshops to teach and encourage interest in our musical heritage.

Jackson is a rather charming fellow with an endearing, friendly smile that just gets bigger as the conversation verges further into the world of music. The son of Irishman Richard Jackson – who had been stationed in Malta with the Royal Irish Fusiliers – and Carmen, a Maltese woman, he not only embraced the musical knowledge passed on to him by his father, but went further and started to explore other types of bagpipes from other countries and cultures.

“The more I learnt about bagpipes from other countries, the more determined I became to learn more about the Maltese żaqq,” he says, recalling that getting hold of information about żaqq players and the instrument wasn’t easy at all. “My father had told me he knew someone from Naxxar who played the instrument, but he didn’t know his name or where he lived exactly.” With little information in hand, Jackson began to delve deeper in the hope of finding this man, whom he hoped would teach him not only about the history of the instrument but also how to play it. “I had almost given up hope when, by a stroke of luck, I found Toni Cachia, who was known as Il-Ħammarun.”

The more I learnt about bagpipes from other countries, the more determined I became to learn more about the Maltese żaqq After a search that took well over two decades, the two eventually got together at Cachia’s house, where Jackson says they connected very quickly. “He was very welcoming and pleased that I was so interested in the żaqq,” Jackson remembers all too clearly. “And before I knew it, he was sitting there playing the pipes and teaching me how to play and tune them.” Jackson’s interest was matched by his prowess, as he quickly picked up what Cachia was showing him. “He used to tell me I was the only one who played the żaqq like he did.”

Jackson’s connection with Cachia continues to this day even though Il-Ħammarun passed away in 2004. “He had given me a saqqafa (chanter) and I promised him I would always use it when I played the żaqq.” More recently, Cachia’s son Ġużi also passed on to Jackson the żaqq his father played. “This obviously meant a lot to me but it also gave me a new mission, as the pipes were in bad shape and it took a lot of work to restore them as best I could,” Jackson said. Yet ever since he completed the task, Jackson insists he has hardly played Cachia’s żaqq at all. “It is too delicate and needs to be played with a lot of care, so it is only on very special occasions that I play Il-Ħammarun’s żaqq”.

One of those occasions – if not the only one so far – took place last May, when Jackson was invited to give a short performance at the National Archives in Rabat. An initiative of Steve Borg, a Maltese academic currently doing a PhD about the recovery of Maltese folk music and its dissemination through new media, the event also featured an in-depth lecture by British academics Frank Jeal and Karl Partridge on the studies about Maltese folk music and traditional instruments they had conducted back in the 1970s.

Apart from playing the żaqq, Jackson was also interested in how the instrument was made, and Cachia was instrumental in passing on his knowledge in this area too. “It was as important for me to learn not only how to play our traditional instruments but also how to build them,” he stresses, emphasising the rather precarious fact that there are very few people who know how to build these instruments. “My son Anderson and I build our own instruments and it’s something we put our heart into,” he continues. He mentions a number of instruments they’ve built apart from the żaqq, such as the tanbur (tambourine), flejguta (whistle flute), żummara (mirliton), żafżafa (friction drum), martell (Maltese hammer) and the ċuqlajta (wooden clapper), “all of which we also play in our folk group”.

While Jackson’s groups perform locally quite regularly, they have also had various opportunities to play in festivals abroad, namely in the US, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England, Belgium, Italy and Holland. “These experiences are always inspiring,” Jackson admits. “Meeting so many like-minded musicians, one gets to exchange and share ideas besides learning more about folk music from other countries.” Perhaps this is what inspired him to record and release his own CD of traditional folk music. “It had been a dream of ours to release a CD and we’re very pleased with how it turned out,” Jackson admits. The CD features three tracks: Id-Daqqa tal-Ħammarun and Il-Marsija, which feature the żaqq, tanbur and żafżafa, while the third, Bum Bum il-Bieb is a traditional children’s rhyme featuring vocals, tanbur, żafżafa, żummara and the martell. “For many years, we’ve had people asking us for a CD of Maltese folk music and traditional instruments, so we’re pleased we now have something to offer them.”

The sound of the żaqq may be somewhat particular, its notes difficult to harness when composing a song, but the three tracks on offer here capture very well the essence of the instrument and its contribution to Maltese folk music.