1. Ghana in Maltese Culture and Society

Throughout the years, both ghana (as a genre) and the role of the ghannejja in Maltese culture and society have frequently been presented by both Maltese and foreign scholars as representatives of old time Maltese peasant life, as the sweetness of The Folk (il-hlewwa tal-poplu) and 'of a way of life that was rapidly disappearing with post-war economic development' (Fsadni 1992: 32). In this framework, ghana becomes one of the elements that characterize the simple (if not also romantic) life of the working class. Aquilina (1931: 8), for instance, provides the following description:

How lovely it is, to hear from a remote and abandoned village amidst our island's hills, during a moonlit evening, while the cricket is hidden among the tomato plants, breaking the evening's silence, a handsome and healthy young man, swarthy as our country makes him, singing his ghana ceaselessly. His soul would seemingly burst open with his singing! [My translation]

In the description above, Aquilina attempts to relate ghana to the 'purity' and 'simplicity' inherent in traditional Maltese villages to the extent that ghana becomes synonymous with the 'tranquil' life led by villagers. Later on, in the same article, Aquilina evokes the roots of Maltese poetry, attributing the earliest efforts in the formation of a nation's literature to the simple ghana verses of the humble people who were able to say in song what probably could not say in speech (cf. Nettl 1983: 182). These early poetical attempts were for Aquilina an anticipation of that which later on had to be considered as art/written poetry (8). The Rev. Karm Psaila (1960: 2-3), Malta's national poet, in an article on the origin of Maltese poetry, links ghana to the modest recreation and aspirations of the common people. Like Aquilina, Psaila places ghana in the 'intact' natural environment of the island:

… one could listen to ghana songs, accompanied by a guitar or an accordion, sung by men and women on sea costs and during popular feasts such as Lapsi (Ascension Day). Youths used to sing ghana love-songs in the open country, or the streets, or in houses during work-time. [My translation] 

Ghana was as a means of whiling away the hours of recreation. Its vibrant nature was sometimes exploited in order to attract the attention of a loved one. "The emphasis was on the quality of the voice, not on originality, and the music was exuberant rather than rigorously played" (Fsadni: ibid.). The concept of ghana as being not only representative of the aspirations of the common people but also of the musical idiom of the working class has been emphasized by the Austrian linguist Hans Stumme in an introduction to a 1909 publication of four hundred Maltese ghana songs collected by Bertha Ilg. Although Stumme was mainly interested in the poetical text of ghana he also provided a socio-cultural background for the poetic material included in this same publication. The following intuitive description not only sheds light on the functional role of ghana among the working class sector, mainly that of 'singing while you work', but also reveals the early performance practices associated with the spirtu pront:

Be he a … farmer or fisherman, some kind of melody or some song must always be hummed while he is working. The soft humming will turn into real singing if the individual in question can really sing, or at least entertains such a belief … The improvised song will grow louder as soon as the male or female singer notices that others are paying attention to these little extemporised stanzas; the voice of the singer will swell to its utmost, however, when somewhere over there - on the neighbour's roof, in the neighbour's field, or on the fishing dghajsa [boat] near by … someone will answer these improvisations, himself or herself extemporising. Then a song-exchange between the singers and his/her counterpart will develop in which stanza will follow stanza far in excess of a hundred… (as translated in Cassar Pullicino and Camilleri 1998: 18).

Similar descriptions as the ones stated above are still current in circulating local literature. They are presented in the form of nostalgia for old time Maltese rustic life, when ghana was much more diffused than it is nowadays:

… folk-singing – ghana - one of the aspects especially of country life, which in the past when mobility was [seen] along dirt roads by horse-drawn cart, had a strong following … In time, it went into its death throes (Cocks 1993: 17) 

For several years, ghana has been, and still is, marginalized by both the middle class and the majority of Maltese. Sant Cassia (1989) has attributed the marginalization of ghana in Maltese society to a complex series of factors. Here we will only accentuate two main reasons: (a) for most Maltese, ghana represents a - at best - reluctantly embraced Arabic past and (b) since the language used in ghana is Maltese it does not travel well. The idea of ghana as being 'vulgar' singing has induced many Maltese to think of it as a remnant of more than two hundred years of Arabic dominance of the island – the 'sound' of ghana suggests a link to an Arabic, middle-Eastern culture. The implication is that this is a time in the nation's history which should be forgotten and its traces wiped out in order to preserve the official version of what 'is' the cultural identity of Malta: the Maltese have been Christians and Europeans for thousands of years (Sant Cassia 1989: 87). The reluctance to accept ghana as a 'souvenir' of the island's Arabic dominance may achieve a much deeper significance when examined in the context of the current political efforts towards a full membership of Malta in the European Union. In this context, ghana is generally looked at as symbolizing a kind of 'Arabic' music that predates Maltese romance culture (see also Sant Cassia 1998). The other factor, which leads to the marginalization of ghana, is the language used in this kind of singing. In this regard, Sant Cassia (1989: 89) notes that the advantage with, for instance, Maltese folk dancing, festa fireworks displays and with many other cultural forms, which can be 'exported' abroad (mainly through the tourist industry), is that they do not rely on a direct use of language. An interesting aspect about Maltese 'official' culture is that it leans in an almost absolute way on material symbols and it makes nearly no use of the Maltese language (ibid.). Ghana is seen as contradicting the island's official policy of cultural exportation; it creates tension between what should be internationally projected and what should be kept localized if not also hidden. Maltese, as the language used in ghana, continuous adding tension to this 'cultural-export' discretion. This is all easier to grasp in the context of the wider debates concerning language use in Malta. For certain Maltese who use English rather than Maltese (even if they are native Maltese themselves), the use of Maltese language in ghana led to a sort of 'natural' abhorrence. In Malta, English has hierarchical connotations in the sense that choosing to speak English rather than Maltese, sprinkling one's Maltese with English words, or insisting on speaking Maltese when English would be more conventional, "affects personal and social relationships" (Fsadni 1989: 4). It is as if by singing in Maltese the ghannejja would be instantly self-categorized as citizens of low social status. For this sector of society, the marginalization of Maltese language is synonymous with the marginalization of ghana itself. The tension between language and the exportation of the official culture had its overtones, for instance, in the decision taken by the Maltese Cultural authorities to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest with a song in English rather than in Maltese. Although the official reason brought forward was mainly related to the understanding of the song, one cannot exclude other possible political reasons discussed above. All that has been said about ghana in general applies to the spirtu pront. The next section will focus on particular aspects of the spirtu pront with special emphasis on its style, performance practice and context.

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