The Whistler and the last tambourine man

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Tommy Camilleri spent the first seven years of his working life opening blocked drains.  Then he got fed up inhaling fumes and he got a job as a road sweeper in Naxxar.    “It’s good work if you want to get to know everyone in Naxxar,” he shrugs. 

Tommy is the last tambourine player of Malta. The tanbur is the poor man’s tambourine:  the frame is made from beech wood and sheep skin, often with some decorative tberfil painting on the skin.  A wooden loop (cirku) slides over the frame like a belt clasping the skin.  The jingles (plattini) were traditionally made from the lids of food preservative cans.  

Tommy played with some of the finest folk musicians of his generation – Toni Cachia ‘Il-Ħammarun’, Ganni il-Ħawli.   They played in hotels for tourists, in Carnivals, during Christmas, at weddings and for anyone who would pay.  Like all tambourine men, Tommy was the front man for the band, with his own well-rehearsed act.  Then, in the second half of the last century, Maltese folk music went into terminal decline.   And now the people Tommy used to play with are all dead.

He turns up for our appointment on a Tuesday morning in his finery:  cap, black waistcoat, matching pin-striped trousers, white shirt, black sandals.  He refuses a glass of wine at the Mqabba Band Club because he says he is recovering from a heavy night.  Behind his thick glasses, I could make out watery eyes.  Tommy is 78 going on to 98.  He’s tiny and quiet and weaves his hands nervously on his lap. 

Just as the acrid black coffee kicks in, we are joined by a beaming Guzi Sciberras, also known as ‘Il-Mija’.   Il-Mija is 57, and clearly still relishing early retirement from the Dockyard, where he was a Charge Man.  He now makes the flejguta, the Maltese end-blown cane flute.  It’s his idea that we should talk in his field ‘next to the Torri Vincenti’.  “It’s where I find my space and peace and quiet.  I’ve been spending all my spare time there since 1967,” he says. 

The glue between the tambourine man and the flute maker is Ruben Zahra, the freelance composer who often uses folk material within his contemporary works.  Ruben is in a race to save traditional instruments from extinction.  “Together with Guzi Gatt, I’ve listened to hours of 1960s recordings of Maltese folk music.  All the core Maltese traditional instruments – the żaqq, the Maltese bagpipe, the tanbur, and the flejguta – have stopped being made, for more than a generation.  In the case of the flejguta, we could not even find one.   But we knew the sound it made.  We decided to try and make these instruments before we lose them forever.  Our research led us to the makers of traditional bird whistles.  Enter il-Mija.’ 

Il-Mija’s piece of solace is a tongue of soil and a stone hut right by the perimeter fence of the airport.   In the middle of the patch is a beehive with an open door.    I immediately think of bird traps and sense that this place was a killing  fields of sorts, at some stage. “We used to bait the guys from the RAF for some morsels, through the fence, when we were kids,” grins il-Mija.  “Don’t worry about the bees,” he adds, as one zooms past my left ear.

Il-Mija opens a box over-spilling with pluvieri, the Maltese bird whistles.  He’s like a kid with the cookie jar.  The names of birds roll off his tongue as he goes through a demonstration of the sound each whistle makes.  “This one is Il-birwina – listen carefully!  This is the tellerita.  This is the gurlin.”   It is difficult not to get intoxicated by the childish delight of a man who has spent 40 years making whistles.  And as for the sound – if you close your eyes, you could believe that you were in the midst of bird song that most people in Malta can only imagine.

Maltese traditional instruments were made from locally-sourced material:  ashwood, cane, string, animal skins and cow horns.  Il-Mija is both an artisan and a recycling man.  In the true spirit of the Maltese, nothing is wasted.  He showed us whistles made from the bone of a horse’s leg, a piece of walnut, and the tubing from an old car tyre.  “You cannot make one of these things unless you are a whistler yourself.  The cane needs to be firm, dry and straight – but most of all you need to understand tone.  If you are going to fake a bird into thinking another bird is calling, you have to master this with precision.  There is no margin for error.” 

We ask him about his tools.  He laughs and shows us another box:  a hand drill, a vice, a scalpel, a chisel. “I’m not interested in TV.   I have made 89 whistles till now.”  Making the flejguta is just another challenge.  The air is directed against the sharp edge of a hole cut in the cane just below the mouth piece.  Six finger holes along the length of the flute produce different tones and distinguish the flejguta from the simple whistle.

Ruben thinks it’s time to get to the music, unfurls the zaqq from his bag and coaxes Tommy into playing a tune, right there, against the wall.  Coming face to face with  Iz-zaqq is a bit of a shock – half goat, complete with tail, half whistle; the weirdest of instruments.    Its bag is made from goat skin, its chanter from two cane tubes and a horn that projects its drones. 

When Tommy plays, he is like one of those Wallis & Gromit  Plastecene men, moving in slow-motion.    The tambourine is in perpetual motion, and the man seems stuck to the tambourine.  One moment it’s under his leg, then against his knee, then it hits an elbow, then it’s under the crescent of his darting fingers.  And the music is familiar, Moorish, raw and sad rolled into one.  I am told later that Il-Hammarun played the same melody on the zaqq all his life.

When they finish, I don’t know whether to clap or just relish the moment.  Instead, Matthew’s camera moves and snaps the moment.  I ask Tommy what he thought of the new tambur Ruben is producing, as he cradles it on his lap.  “I like its voice,” he whispers.  “Remember that the first sounds that Christ heard were iz-zaqq and the tanbur.  These are instruments of the shepherd.”   He cocks his head like a thoughtful dog when il-Mija announces that we cannot leave before we share a drink with him.

I watch the jet planes take off and ask Tommy about playing abroad.  “I’ve never been on a plane,” he says.   “I’m scared of heights .  Even going up in a lift is not good for me. ”

The two men have different ideas about legacy.  Tommy has five children, il-Mija has two, none of them are musicians.  Tommy says one of his granddaughters has promise.  Il-Mija boasts:  ‘My craft will die with me.  Besides, if I teach someone, will they attribute credit where credit is due?’  He etches his ‘100’ mark on the back of all his whistles.  Somehow, there are different egos at play here. 

“Malta is the only European country which does not provide folk instruments as a cultural product on a retail basis,” says Ruben.  “We’re trying to do something about that, before we lose this cultural heritage for ever.”  With a mix of determination and entrepreneurship, the new Maltese tanbur is being made in Spain.  I guess you have to start from somewhere to reclaim your past.

On a humid morning in Mqabba, the bees buzzed, the jet engines screeched and the zaqq droned and flirted with the tambur.   And our heads were filled with folk music, Il-Mija’s excellent J&B and the indelible passage of time.

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