Etnika was one of Malta's leading modern folk bands founded in 2000.
The four founder members were composer Ruben Zahra, traditional instrument maker Ġużi Gatt, field and archival researcher Steve Borg and musician Andrew Alamango. Their main task was to present a revival of old traditional Maltese instruments, at times, with a fusion with contemporary ones. All had relative experience in their fields and their main task was to launch the project while some of the old folk musicians were still alive.
In 2000 Etnika released their first album, entitled Nafra Their second album Żifna was released in 2003 and depicts the sentiment of the island nation with its cross cultural Mediterranean influences.
In 1999, researcher Steve Borg from Marsascala identified a collection of old Maltese melodies at King's College London. These melodies had been published by Welshman Edward Jones, formerly the bard to the Prince of Wales, around 1807. Borg,the presenter of Worldbeat on FM Bronja and Campus FM, made the melodies public through Etnika in 2000 at the official launch of an exhibition on traditional Maltese instruments.
At the same time composer Ruben Zahra, also from Marsascala, was returning to Malta following years of academic studies at the Conservatorio di Musica di Frosinone, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome and the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena.
Meanwhile folklorist Żejtun -born Ġużi Gatt, currently secretary of the Għaqda Maltija tal-Folklor, was intrigued by an article written well over twenty years before about the demise of the Maltese bagpipe, the żaqq. This had been handed to Borg by Professor Roderick Cannon, a bagpipe expert from Norwich.
In 1977 two British students, J.K. Partridge and Frank Jeal, published their research, entitled 'The Maltese Żaqq', in The Galpin Society Journal. It remains one of the most scholarly and informative works written in this instrument to date.
Other than describing the żaqq 's musical abilities, the authors also claimed that "the Maltese, with few notable exceptions, show little interest in their own folk culture, and any artificial attempts at revival seem unlikely to succeed. It seems sad that an island that can boast an excellent Scots pipe band, can find no room to preserve, perhaps even develop, its own native bagpipe." This statement fuelled Etnika's founding members yearn to succeed. Suffice to note that their first attempt of an interview with a local English-speaking female reporter was met with her terse statement that "Maltese instruments sound ugly and they deserve to die."
The Maltese traditional instruments
The Etnika project also aimed at resuscitating traditional Maltese instruments that had fallen out of use and presenting these forgotten soundscapes to Maltese society, with an aim to raise national consciousness.
These instruments included the flejguta (cane whistle flute), the żummara (single reed pipe), the tanbur (frame drum), the żafżava (friction drum) and the żaqq (Maltese bagpipe). All were built from locally sourced materials including cane, ash, string and animal skins.
Gatt sought out Toni Cachia Il-Ħammarun from Naxxar, one of Malta's remaining Maltese bagpipe builders and musicians. Well into his eighties, he had been playing the traditional instrument since the late 1920s. Cachia agreed to help Gatt in his quest of saving the żaqq from extinction.
2000 Nafra at University of Malta campus
Etnika gave their first public concert during the Evenings on Campus festival on 29 August 2000 at the Atriju Vassalli in the University of Malta, during which the album Nafra was released. The album has eleven instrumental tracks, three of which taken from Edward Jones's publication of circa 1807.
It featured Godfrey Mifsud on clarinet, Mario Frendo on violin, David Grech on guitar, Tricia Dawn Williams on piano, Jason Fabri on drums, Joe Camilleri l-Bibi on percussion and Ruben Żahra on żaqq and other traditional instruments. Amongst the most popular tracks were Ragħaj (Shepherd) and l-Għanja tal-Mewġ'' (Waves Song). Malta's eminent folklorist Ġuże Cassar Pullicino was amongst those present.
2001 Teatru Imwaqqa' Valletta
Following rehearsals at Allegria in Ta' Xbiex, Etnika presented a programme including jazz fusion and flamenco music in two concerts given on the 27th and 28th September in The Royal Opera House ruins. Flamenco dancer Cikka Grima, cajon player Andrej Vujicic and Maltese flamenco guitarist Pepe El Tiburon interwined with folksinger Frans Baldacchino, in a show that included the first appearance with Etnika of Toni Cachia l-Ħammarun, Malta's oldest żaqq musician. He appeared on stage playing the frame drum, accompanied by Edmond Jackson on żaqq.
2003 Bumbum concerts at Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta
In July and August 2003, Etnika presented three concerts entitled Bumbum, at Fort St. Elmo Valletta under the Etnikafe concept of fusing their music with flamenco, through the presence of dancer Cikka Grima and cajon musician Andrej Vujicic. This project also included a total of twenty musicians, including four brass musicians, three traditional musicians and two għannejja folk singers, namely Frans Baldacchino il-Budaj and Toni Spiteri Tal-Ġebel.
Footage from the Bumbum concerts was included in the docu-film entitled Etnika: In Search of a Lost Voice, produced by Drunken Angel. This film was shown in several European film festivals and aired on pay per view channels in Russia and the United States.
2004 Il-Ħolma Ġgantija at Valletta Bastions
In 2004 Etnika produced Il-Ħolma Ġgantija (The Giant Dream)
They have performed extensively throughout Europe, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, Athens and Dublin and at the Roman amphitheatre of Sabratha in Libya.
- Etnika official website
- Allmalta Maltese folk music website
- Michael Stone interview, Rootsworld 2001.
- Jon Lusk interview, Folk Roots 2004.