A forgotten part of local history (like so many other parts), almost erased from local memory is the early recording of folk and popular music from the island nation, Malta. Initiated in early 1931, when the music establishments in the fortress-city, Valletta, were alive and well. Thriving, to say the least, at a time when music and entertainment were the order of the day. As early as February 1931, an individual referred to as Dr. Habib, sent the first group of musicians to Tunis to record the first 78rpms under French Polyphon label. What ensued was a social phenomenon, which took much of society by storm for the next two years. It was a strong political statement for the Maltese language and a tremendous boost for folk music. Musicians could even make a decent living contracted by the agents of Messrs.Carabott of Merchant’s street and Damato of St.John’s street. The latter was agent for HMV, Gramophone Company in Essex. Only recently (1931), the major record labels worldwide had merged to form the conglomerate EMI Records, thus eliminating fierce competition and securing a bigger portion of the market.
Prior to that was a cutthroat race to send recording engineers to every corner of the globe with one-ton equipment to establish markets by recording the artists of the day. This gave rise to what has been referred to as the ‘ethnic series’ recordings as companies realized there was a market for music beyond the palate of the western world. These companies were not interested in the music but in the selling of records, so as to be able to market gramophones worldwide. This resulted in recording the music of many countries worldwide as early as 1906. The songs on these Maltese discs are honest and genuine recordings of local traditional and popular music in the language, dialect and sentiment of the day.
“There is nothing ersatz or commercial about these recordings; they are genuine, archaic examples of traditional music sung in local dialect.” 1
So what happened here? Why was the phenomenon so short-lived?. Maybe because the population then couldn’t afford records and gramophones? Or was it disdain and mockery towards the culture by the upper strata of society? Or simply that the records companies realized there was no market really?
Local artistes were contracted by the sub-agents, locally Damato and Carabott. They were organized in groups, rehearsed, and sent to nearby studios in Tunis, and in the case of Damato, to the HMV Milan Branch to record. The masters were then sent to the mother companies for pressing, and the records ‘exported’ back, and sold locally under the major labels of the day; Pathe, Polyphon, Zonophone, HMV and Odeon. Apparently thousands were sold…
1 Paul Vernon- ‘The engineers’ Originally published in: Vintage Jazz Mart No. 94 , 1994
This is a project initiated by Andrew Alamango. Funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, and endorsed by the National Archives. It aims to gather information, catalogue and document this phenomenon by collecting and digitizing the records with the aim of making them publicly accessible for research and posterity.