Mikiel Cumbo l-Iżgej
Mikiel Cumbo l-Iżgej,
born in Żejtun on 25 December 1943, is currently Malta's leading folksinger of the high-pitched model, known as La Bormliża.
His father Ġużeppi was a well-known Żejtun stevedore, who used to transport all kinds of material, with his horse trap, including fresh salt directly from the salt pans in Delimara and l-Imlielaħ in Qawra. Later on he invested in motorized vehicles to transport Gozo fruit and vegetable produce from various berthing points of the Gozo lateen sailing boats.
Other than operating as stevedore, he was also entrusted to recruit gangs of coal-heavers to unload coal and charcoal from the Grand Harbour. This gave Ġużeppi a level of authority and social status in his hometown, as a prospective employer during the years of high unemployment with young men, amongst them budding folksingers, emigrating in swarms to Australia, the United States and Canada.
Although relatively unknown in għana circles, Ġużeppi used to folk sing on improvised verse at Ġamri Darmanin l-Ingeriżu wine shop in Żejtun, where he was coaxed into singing by his cousin Żeppi Buttigieg In-Najs. Mikiel Cumbo was being brought up in this folk environment.
His folk music initiation
Mikiel started singing at the age of seven, encouraged by Wiġi Spiteri l-Bolbol, a prim guitarist. Spiteri was given permission to take Mikiel with him to the main folksinging venues at the time, including Indri's and Lucy Casha's wine shops, both in Marsa and three outlets in Valletta, where għana used to be sung - Żeppi Bugeja Sdieri at Jew's Sally Port, known as Il-Fossa, Pawlu Abela Tal-Pitrolju in Theatre Street and Pullu Formosa Karti in the proletariat Due Balli quarter. These five venues are now all closed and folk-singing in Valletta is now on its deathbed.
Mikiel recalls an old quatrain, that he learned from his father, that used to be sung by high-pitched folksingers from Kottonera.
Bħal ta' Bormla sejjer ingħanni Bħal tal-Isla qiegħed indoqq
Meta niftakar fiż-żmien ta' dari
L-għaraq għalija jibda jxoqq.
He took on the high pitched model at the age of twelve, with Grezzju Ellul ta' Ċanċa at Ġolin Axisa ta' Kostanza's wine bar, the venue which Mikiel describes as the honeypot for the foremost folksingers of the time. Despite having performed regularly in all the main events in Malta and Gozo, he trusts that this small wine shop in an unpretentious Żejtun neighbourhood, remains the place that he has cherished the most, and for him signifies the highlight of his singing career.
Other than Grezzju Ellul ta' Ċanċa, the other folksinger who left a lifelong impression on him was Karmenu Taċ-Ċiċri from Raħal Ġdid. Cumbo frequently partecipates in lesser ones, including those held in Marsaxlokk in August and September 2012 and July 2013.
He is also a keen promoter of għana, having also taken part, together with Żeppi Spagnol Il-Kelba, in a seminar about folksinging organized by Wirt iż-Żejtun and held in Luqa Briffa Gardens in July 2012. He has also sung in Sardinia, Naples and Tunisia, through the efforts of għana's academic promoter Ġorġ Mifsud Chircop.
His son Vince Cumbo tal-Iżgej organizes several folksinging events that other than exclusively featuring the foremost folksingers, also gives space to aspiring ones and new fledglings, including Nordai Desira.