Kantilena: The sound of contemporary folk

Maltese folk is back in the spotlight, albeit with a twist as Kantilena are set to debut their latest singles this weekend. I met up with Sandro Lia, Drinu Camilleri and James Baldacchino, the brains behind the outfit.

You could say that all three founding members of Kantilena have folk on their minds. Take violinist James Baldacchino , who not only says he was “obsessed” with the genre but who also dedicated his whole thesis to the topic. And Sandro Lia (on piano and vocals) who says that folk music is one of his strongest loves. Then there is Drinu Camilleri, on guitar and vocals, whose musical background might have started out with jazz and blues but who also shares a deep love for Maltese linguistics, the result of which could be seen on his blog.
“I had been writing in Maltese for some time, mostly in poetry format. I guess it was a natural step to make the transition to music. My love of music has also been alive for many years. I’ve been in numerous bands, including metal bands and I’ve always wanted to find a way to marry my music and my writing. When Kantilena was born, this wish was granted,” Drinu tells me.
The idea to create a folk band first came about when James and Sandro – long-term friends who have also been part of a staggering number of bands – started exploring the possibility of translating their love of folk into music. The two realised that they would need a guitarist; enter Drinu, who immediately loved the idea of experimenting with a Maltese sound. And Kantilena was thus born. Why, Kantilena, I ask.
“The name was probably the most difficult issue to decide actually. The three of us are pretty into Maltese folk so it was obvious it’d end up to be something related,” James explains.

Kantilena, in fact, refers to the Kantilena ta’ Pietru Caxaro, which is the first piece of Maltese writing that is on record.

Kantilena, in fact, refers to the Kantilena ta’ Pietru Caxaro, which is the first piece of Maltese writing that is on record. For the three, this Kantilena is the embodiment of the Maltese language. There are those who believe that the Kantilena itself was created with the intention of putting it to music, but such music was never found. Somehow, this makes their choice even more appropriate.
“The band logo is worked around the original Kantilena. The band’s music finds it roots in Malta and the Mediterranean, with North African and Spanish influences amongst others. Our music is folk, but with a contemporary take – it’s not għana and it’s not the folk revival of the ‘60s,” points out Drinu.
Drinu notes that so far the lyrics tend to be introspective. “They look within, at how one changes and how one is affected by change. At times such change is brought about by the passage of time; almost, but not quite, wallowing in nostalgia. At others, change is brought about by a realisation, a Sartrean moment of nausea, a wish to break free from tradition, from a smothering situation.” The three founder members all share diverse musical backgrounds that range from death metal to jazz and rock. When they first got together a couple of years ago, it was time to experiment with their styles until Kantilena reached the sound they were after towards early summer last year.
“The first months were what we refer to as the honeymoon phase. We’d get to the garage where we rehearse and spend our time coming up with new stuff. In a way, we wanted to go back to our roots. Our background was classical music but when we hit our teens we went through the rock phase. Everyone goes through that. Since then our tastes have evolved, of course. But we wanted to get back to our forte, the piano, the violin, the folk…” James tells me.Drinu adds that when the project kicked off initially, “it was hard finding people within our circle of acquaintances who were interested in folk as a genre”.
“Moreover we weren’t sure what to expect of ourselves, what sounds we were after. We started writing and re-writing and fine-tuning. In time we, sort of, evolved towards our current sounds. Nonetheless we hope to keep evolving, of finding novel ways to express ourselves, lyrically and musically.”.”
Kantilena went public with a short live set at Coach and Horses on November 5.
“We kept that gig somewhat under the radar,” Sandro remembers. “We weren’t sure what reactions to expect.”
Reactions were more than good. It was back to the drawing-board for the band, perfecting the music to get ready for an official launch.
“We are perfectionists. The amount of time we spend on ‘fine-tuning’ is incredible, I guess that sometimes we overdo it,” James adds with a smile.
I ask him what he thinks about the Maltese music scene and he says that it’s evolving fast, for the better.
“The talent is there and I think we are in a good place right now. If I look around me I see a lot of valid emerging acts,” he replies.
Drinu agrees, adding that in reality the scene itself has been strong for many years – despite popular belief.
“When people mention the Maltese music scene, they rarely stop to think which genre they are referring to. Rock? Folk? Għana? The Maltese folk scene goes back a long way, for example and it never really died. What surprises me is that not many current bands use Maltese for their music. I don’t understand why many feel that they have to use our second language rather than the first.”
However, when I mention the likelihood of Maltese eventually dying out, all three disagree. The way they see it, our language is in continuous evolution. The Maltese we use today will certainly not be the same Maltese that will be used tomorrow – nor is it the same that was in use in years gone by.
“If you look at the original Kantilena, you won’t recognise our Maltese in it. Since those days the language has developed to an unrecognisable extent. It’s still Maltese, though,” Drinu adds.
The Maltese used by Kantilena is the contemporary kind, Sandro tells me. Of course, deciding on which words should be part of the band’s vocabulary is an ongoing debate.
“If there are two words that mean the same thing, we try to go for the more creative option. Our purpose as a band has always been to create a sound that reflects the Maltese culture. ”
But do they feel that there is a certain stigma attached to the use of Maltese? Not really, the reply.
“There have been efforts to make the use of Maltese more commonplace in music through the years. Recently what we call the alternative scene in Malta sort of woke up to the fact that hey, using Maltese is cool,” Drinu says with a rueful smile.
“I guess some of the bands worry that they can’t export their music if they use Maltese,” James adds. “But this is a fallacy. You don’t need to use language that is understood by everyone in order to be a success. The music speaks for itself. Take a band like Sigur Ros. They don’t use English. They are who they are. Who on earth understands what they’re saying besides the Icelanders? And yet, their music is well-loved across the world. Take a Mumbai artist, for instance. You wouldn’t buy his music to get the sound of Britney Spears. You want the genuine article. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the same for our language.”
Drinu adds that this isn’t to say that there aren’t some great acts in Malta that use the English language – however, it can also be done in our own language, he tells me.
I ask them about the process it takes to actually come up with a track. More often than not, they tell me, it is the actual music that is first composed. The lyrics are then created to reflect the mood of the music. Both are equally important and, James explains, that if the two don’t match the track will not happen.
“Agreeing on music and lyrics is a rather long process. But that’s part of the beauty.”
What if no agreement is reached between the three?
“Well, one of us will probably wind up at the emergency department,” Drinu tells me with the perfect poker face.
“Somehow or other we always reach an agreement because it’s more of a discussion about the process of the music than anything else,” James concludes.

Kantilena will be performing together with Nisġa Project and Kizum Klof live on Sunday, March 18 at Lo Squero in Floriana. For more information find the events page on Facebook.

This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).



  1. Alex Azzopardi says:

    It was a great and relaxing night. The bands played beautifully and the sound was very good I must say. Kudos to the bands, I never thought I’d enjoy folk music so much. You will certainly see me in your next gig.