Traditional Maltese Instruments - Teaching the value of simplicity

Updated: May 25, 2020

Francesco Sultana Performing with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo Credit: Jonathan Borg.

Traditional Maltese instruments may not be in everyone’s purview at the moment. Predating both the current insanity of the COVID-19 crisis, and even the rise of a globalised internet culture that further side-lines nearly all homegrown, local practice, the general Maltese populace is not likely to have had an intimate understanding - not even a knowledge - of the musical instruments that were the stock in trade of our rural forebears: constructed out of the simplest materials to provide straightforward musical diversion for members of the immediate community.

Francesco during Għanafest 2014. Photo Credit: Mario Casha

Luckily, however, sidelined does not necessarily have to mean ‘dying out’. Not with events like Għanafest occurring on an annual basis – and in an agile move that marries the best of both the old school and the digital worlds, now shifting online with covid-battling restrictions in place – and not with the likes of inspiring young enthusiasts like Francesco Sultana around.

A 28-year-old restorer of objet d’art by profession, Francesco is also a passionate creator of traditional Maltese woodwind instruments, a practice he first picked up at University.

“This was in 2013, so around seven years ago. Before that, I didn’t even know these instruments existed,” Francesco says, hinting at the immediate affinity he felt for these instruments which so clearly define the soundscape of traditional Maltese folk music. Immediate as this attraction may have been, however, it would not have been possible without the aid of some seasoned practitioners.

Like any respectful student of a beloved craft, Francesco is quick to credit his mentors and forebears – a list which hints at an element of continuity within an otherwise marginalised discipline.

Creating a traditional instrument. Photo Credit: Jonathan Borg

“I learned the theory behind these instruments and their making during University lectures by [musician and composer] Ruben Zahra. Something moved me to create music with them myself, so I managed to acquire two instruments from [folklorist and instrument-builder] Ġużi Gatt and from there, I kept contact with him, always harvesting raw material and discussing possible experiments to improve their sound and capability,” Francesco says, adding that the theoretical work of Anna Borg Cardona was also key in fostering his love and understanding of traditional Maltese instruments, and citing builders like Edmond Jackson, Ġużi Sciberras and Pietru Pawl Farruġia of Gozo as notable practitioners. The main traditional Maltese woodwind instruments are the Żaqq (Maltese bagpipe), Flejguta (flute), Żummara (single reed pipe) and the Bedbut (reed). “The flejguta shares very similar characteristics with the plover’s whistle used in bird calling by hunters, which is probably where it originated from, while the żummara, bedbut and żaqq are reed instruments and work much like a clarinet or saxophone with a vibrating flap of reed,” Francesco says, stressing that instruments of this kind are common across both the Mediterranean and North Africa. The primary raw material for the instruments is cane (qasab), which Francesco first started harvesting for himself back in 2014. “It’s a slow process, as you have to wait a year and a half for them to dry out so that they can be used as raw material. At the end of the day, it’s all about practice and experience.” Such a ‘slow-burning’ process appears anathema to our hectic way of life. But then again, pandemic conditions have led many of us to reconsider our overly accelerated, overly-consumptive habits, so there could be lessons here to draw from, even when considering the actual music that emerges through the employment of these instruments. “The key word here is simple,” Francesco says. “Their only purpose was to provide

entertainment for the common folk of Malta who were essentially farmers and herders. They were not into modern music that followed notations and tunings. They developed their own way of making music in time. Nobody cared whether it was out of tune as is the case with modern instruments. The important thing is that it played nice audible melodies and was able to entertain the general folk.”

This year’s edition of Għanafest will be streamed online from 8 to 13 June. Francesco will be hosting two workshops on traditional Maltese instruments, so stay tuned on the Għanafest Facebook Page and!