Updated: Oct 31, 2022
A new documentary delves into the worlds of għana and hip-hop in Malta and explores how their fusion influences the local musical landscape. Lara Zammit speaks with film-maker Amanda Eke about her film Bidla and her take on this seemingly improbable musical merger.
Bidla is set to explore the musical fusion of għana and hip-hop in contemporary Malta. What would you say is the function of such music in today’s Malta and what, in your opinion, has their fusion contributed to the local music scene?
One thing unique to hip-hop is its reflection on the importance of space and identity. From its very inception in New York City in the 1980s, representing one’s neighbourhood at rap battles was a central part of the culture. The idea of place is huge.
These ties are present and reflected by the MCs’ names, languages and local slang, as well as in references to specific geographical markers and the signature musical styles of a particular locality. [An MC, or master of ceremonies, is an alternative title for a rapper].
This is like the għannej in Malta, where one’s locale tells a narrative and one’s musical style is represented through that. Through this we see a marker of common issues like marginalisation and contested localities being negotiated by both għana and hip-hop.
What these place-identities tell us about the political, socio-geographic and cultural context in which hip-hop culture is produced is poignant throughout għana.
Għana and hip-hop are playing what I think are very vital roles on the island. Għana on its own stands as a sacred tradition of music in Malta, not only in its musical function but also in terms of its historical precedence on the island. It dates back to the late 19th century and was used to tell stories passed down from generation to generation.
It is important not to confuse preservation with mummification
Hip-hop is relatively new on the island. However, hip-hop and rap are being used in Malta in contemporary times to perform what was its initial function in the 1980s – to tell the stories of the people. What is significant about my film, Bidla, is that it looks at artists on the island that have combined these two genres, taking the past and combining it with the present for a different look at identity and meanings for the future.
How did you set out to document the music scenes of għana and hip-hop? What questions did you seek to answer as you did so?
I sought to explore how artists on the island of Malta in the present day are combining these genres to use them as social tools to impact music culture and the democratic organisation on the island. I wanted to document the meaning and lives of artists who use the hybridity of these two forms to further the genre of għana for an entirely new generation of citizens.
Throughout my documentary film journey, I delved into their historical dynamics as I sought to understand the relationship between the two forms. Għana is an art form that within the Maltese community continues to be played daily in bars, clubs and homes.
What I discovered in addition was that the Maltese hip-hop scene continues to remain underground. While hip-hop culture flourished in the US in the latter half of the 1980s, the general Maltese public never grasped its core concepts.
The term ‘hip-hop’ is often incorrectly used as a reference to rap music. It has become an umbrella term used to describe a subculture packed with exciting forms of self-representation. These include, but are not limited to, rap music, break dancing, graffiti writing and DJing.
It undeniably is a lifestyle, and these concepts are very much found within the underground Maltese hip-hop community.
Għana is often said to be a dying art (although some would say this is unfounded and that għana is experiencing a sort of revival at present). Do you think hip-hop is contributing to its revival, perhaps making it more palatable or relevant to modern listeners?
Bidla does delve into the idea of għana as a dying art form and what the politics around that are. It is important to note that għana has been combined with many other music genres throughout the years, as the film shows. It is important not to confuse ‘preservation’ with ‘mummification’.
Bidla even looks at the younger generation performing għana with their parents. In fact, the recent winners of Malta’s Got Talent, Lydon and Jomike Agius, also make an appearance in the film.
I think what the hybridisation of hip-hop and għana does is bring a new audience to għana. Hip-hop now is one of the most popular forms of music globally and attracts a massive audience. These artists in the film have combined both genres into one new sound, which is helping to bring forward a generation of past identity forward.
Both għana and hip-hop are forms of (sometimes impromptu) wordplay and spoken word poetry. How are għana and hip-hop similar in this respect and how do they differ?
Għana, similar to rap, can be both formal and informal in nature and has multiple forms. Spirtu pront is għana which is improvised during the għana session. It requires great skill and attention. Spirtu pront is a debate between two or more għannejja (like the MCs in hip-hop) on a topic, and rhyme is key.
An għannej must demonstrate his knowledge not only of a wide range of social topics but also his command of the Maltese language. Both genres are similar in that they share the aesthetic of that fast-thinking impromptu nature of freestyling to a beat.
But also, the development of hip-hop and għana has been an intertwined path of two different styles, which have grown from and have thrived in similar circumstances. Just as hip-hop has cultivated advocacy to solve social, political and economic problems, għana too has become a sort of advocacy for social and political commentary through rhymes.
Amanda Eke is a Nigerian-American artist, poet and film-maker. Her debut documentary Bidla will be previewed at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema on January 17 at 6.30pm. For more information, visit www.kreattivita.org/event/bidla.