“Bil-pipa bħal captain, mustacci bħal Gable,
l-iskola ma tafx it-tables
Timxi dritt bħal ħadida
Anke bħal Mr tridha
Bix-shorts sa rkobbtok
Imbagħad ġo butek issiblek xi sold
Illi tkun tatek oħtok.”
These are part of the lyrics to a song performed by Renato during Malta Week in Brussels recently as part of a series of events to promote Maltese culture.
The tongue-in-cheek song harks back to the 1940s when Clark Gable was the screen idol in this newfangled thing called “the talkies” just after the war. It was the time of the naval bases stationed in Malta and the song speaks of a man who goes around acting like a captain, and showing off, but who is in reality uneducated and jobless. The singer puts the wannabe captain in his place by reminding him that after all, he is just a nobody – so he should just stop giving himself airs. There are also lots of jibes and taunts about being tal-pepe, the phrase which is still used today to refer to Sliema’s upper class residents.
While some might cringe at the thought that this is what we had to offer other nationalities as a glimpse into what makes us Maltese, it has to be pointed out that there were several other performers including Ira Losco and Raquela, who represent the younger generation.
I spoke to a few people currently living and working in Brussels and Luxembourg about this song and asked them whether portraying Malta in this way is a cause for embarrassment or laughter. Many of them had never heard of it, but the general consensus was that the whole concept of Malta week is kitsch anyway, so what we offer is no less cringe-worthy than when other nations do something similar.
Above all, the overwhelming feeling I got was that being away from home makes you so homesick that you actually yearn for the nostalgia of a Renato song, while at the same time you suddenly develop an unnatural craving for pastizzi, Kinnie, gbejniet, imqaret, Twistees and other local food stuffs.
Brussels resident Miriam Galea (a former journalist with this paper) who saw the performance admits that she was initially embarrassed but then realised that it was probably the most authentic song there and she suddenly felt homesick. “Actually, it is not such a bad song, it is a humorous one, and in comparison to some of the upcoming mediocre mimicry of foreign acts, I prefer it much more and cringe much less.” She pointed out something else, which I found surprising. “The EU and the people working for it generally do not have the most refined artistic or cultural taste anyway.”
Fellow columnist and blogger Jacques René Zammit, who works in Luxembourg, while dismissing the entire concept of Malta week (or Italy or German week) as outdated, said that this kind of activity tends to do just that: “it highlights the kitsch and stereotypical in the kind of way that makes Renato standard fare. Placed within this context, Renato singing Ajma x’dardir is not exactly going to cause anyone some sleepless nights.” He also added that if he found a jukebox full of Renato songs he would be rummaging for loose change to play them all.
Emigrating does have this effect on people – songs and traditions which would make you run a mile while living here suddenly become quaint and endearing and you want to embrace them all.
This is perhaps why those who left for Australia 50 years ago have recreated their own ‘mini Malta’ in Melbourne and Brisbane and you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a typically Maltese village bar when visiting Down Under.
It is a paradox that the ones who are flying the flag the most for our national identity are those who have left these shores. They speak and write fluent Maltese, sometimes to the shame of many of us who easily lapse into a patois of Maltese-English unless we concentrate very hard.
As for writing in Maltese, for most people it is as daunting as writing in a foreign language; they become so gripped with paranoia that they might put the “gh” and silent “h” in the wrong place that they give up and write in English instead. Or else they simply drop the silent letters and plough right through, writing it in the same haphazard way that they speak it.
Who are you?
The little incident of the Ajma x’dardir song brought home to me once again how insecure and nervous we still are when it comes to our identity. Anything too “Maltese” gives us an uneasy feeling as if we are somehow second-class or not quite on a par with other nations. We all know people who flatly refuse to speak the national language in the belief that speaking English is more posh and signals to anyone within earshot that they are from a higher class. Several years ago I had an acquaintance who freely, and with absolutely no embarrassment, told me that she only speaks Maltese to the maid. I looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and mild shock, hoping that she was joking. She wasn’t.
The connotations of where Maltese stood in her estimation don’t need to be explained to you.
I’ve always found this contemptuous attitude towards our language and our roots baffling. If you do not have pride in who you are, how on earth do you expect others to respect you?
I sometimes hear English-speaking children confusedly ask their parents whether they are English. When the mother or father tell them, no you are Maltese, the child is understandably perplexed – in his or her mind being Maltese means you speak in Maltese. The child speaks in English and hence…
What is worse is that “being Maltese” is considered, in some people’s mind, a demotion. It’s embodied in that wrinkling-of-the-nose and a sneer-on-the-lips expression “jaqq”.
I seriously wonder about people who feel this way about their identity. In fact, I do hope they realise, that it is their identity that they are throwing onto a garbage heap. How can you deny your self, the DNA which makes you who you are? Why is there this need to distance themselves from the complexities and yes, inherent contradictions, which make up Maltese culture?
When I watch those fantastic Sunday afternoon variety shows on Italian TV, and see the audiences sing their favourite Italian melodies with abandon (they always know all the words), I always wonder why we find it so hard to let go like that and simply enjoy the songs and melodies which make us who we are? Why do we need to get drunk at someone’s hen night, or preferably, go abroad where “no one knows us” so that we can have fun singing corny folklore songs and Freddy Portelli classics? Why is singing Viva Malta still considered by some people to be “hamallu” (low class)? And even if it is down market, who the blinking heck cares?
There are too many people spending too many waking hours worrying about what others think of them, but I will let them in on a secret – it doesn’t matter because the others are too busy worrying what you are thinking about them.
This is like people who busily try to cover up their background, in the fear that if someone looks too closely at their family tree, they will discover that they come from a working class family. Again, honestly, who cares? What does it matter; does it make you less of a person, do you deserve less dignity and respect? Does it change any of your present achievements or abilities? Shouldn’t you be celebrating the fact that you come from humble roots because this makes who you are today even more admirable?
I am hoping there will come a day when we can get rid of all these hang ups and chips on our shoulders. Be Maltese, be yourself, because if you strip away that essential nugget of who you are, tell me, what exactly do you have left?