Review: Kantilena


This review originally appeared on The Sunday Times.

There’s something about the Maltese language – and by this I mean the more poetic version of the language before words like kompjuter and wijkend infiltrated daily use – that almost begs for it to be set to the plaintive chords of the violin.

Which is probably why Maltese folk music, when done well, works so beautifully. And the violin certainly took centre stage for me in last week’s performance by Kantilena.  But that’s only because of my particular soft spot for the instrument. In reality, the whole band presented a tight front that had all instruments, from the accordion to the drums, keyboards and guitar, present an effectively balanced musical ‘give and take’.

This is probably because the band members – founders Alessandro Lia (piano and vocals), Drinu Camilleri (guitar, vocals) and James Baldacchino (violin) as well as Debbie Axisa Farrell (vocals), Manuel Pulis (drums) and Albert Garzia (accordion) – have remarkable on-stage chemistry.

You can tell a lot about the depth of a musician’s passion for their art from the body language during a performance. In this case, everything pointed to the fact that these guys are seriously into what they do. From the occasional half-smiles Lia and Camilleri throw at each other whenever a particularly witty line comes up, to the way Baldacchino loses himself during his beautiful violin solos and to Garzia’s and Axisa Farrell’s enthusiasm.

A word about the drums; Pulis’s percussion skills inject just the right amount of oomph in Kantilena’s well-crafted tracks, acting almost as musical punctuation marks. It’s a shame that this was the drummer’s last gig with the band before leaving Malta for other pastures and I’m sure that his presence will be missed.

The gig kicked off on a mellow note with L-Għanqud, followed by X’Ubidú, their intriguing debut single that alternates between the upbeat tones of contemporary folk and the maudlin sound that is more associated with traditional folk. The upbeat part belies the rather brutal lyrics that speak of dark and primitive emotions and this is precisely part of this track’s charm.

One highlight from this gig was the third track in the setlist, Novembru. The lengthy intro totally keeps you engrossed and this is where the interplay between the different instruments really comes to the fore. Given that the band lists him as one of their favourite composers, I was not surprised when the band introduced a re-interpration of Fabrizio de Andre’s Un Giudice, translated to Maltese. Transporting a track to another language is extremely tricky and to be honest I wouldn’t have said this would work – but work it did and I loved the way that the end result was a cover that wasn’t really a ‘cover’.

The track that followed, Il-Ballata ta’ Nenu, proved to be a nicely concise exercise in story-telling. In order to enjoy the full Kantilena experience, following the lyrics is essential. The band’s idea of giving out the printed lyrics was pretty cool and fulfilled its purpose, enabling even those who weren’t yet familiar with all the tracks to fully enjoy the effect.

The performance continued with what many consider to be Kantilena’s crowning glory, Il-Baħħar. Camilleri won best song-writer in the last edition of  L-Għanja tal-Poplu for this one and it’s easy to see why. Inspired by the old folk ditty Lanċa Ġejja u Oħra Sejra, (if you listen carefully, you can make out the basic chords from this song in the background) the poetry and poignancy of the lyrics, coupled with the hauntingly beautiful violin and guitar chords all combine into one mesmerising track that stays on your mind for long after you’ve heard it. Anġlu l-Kukku and Stumalla wound down the evening nicely, with everyone appropriately clamouring for more.

To conclude, a great performance by what’s shaping up to be one of Malta’s form folk groups. We await the first album eagerly.