As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the lyrics of certain Maltese folk songs. Like ‘Lanca Gejja w Ohra Sejra’, for example: which presumably describes the daily comings and goings of ships through the port of Marsamxett (when it was a much more common sight than today).
Or at least that’s how I’ve always interpreted it myself … although, frankly, the lyrics tell a slightly different story. Remember? “Lanca Gejja with Ohra Sejra … Minn Tas-Sliema Ghal Marsamxett” …
Er … not to be painful, or anything, but: as someone who was born and raised in Sliema – and who can still, to this day, see a little corner of Marsamxett Harbor from her window. room – I can personally confirm that ‘from Sliema to Marsamxett’ doesn’t exactly represent a very long distance to travel.
In fact, it’s about the same distance as… er… ‘from Sliema to Sliema’. For the last time I looked (which happened this morning, it turns out) the entire eastern coastline of Sliema is – and always has been – washed daily by the waters of Marsamxett harbor.
So technically, a ship docked at, say, the Sliema ferries, would already be “in Marsamxett” before it even bothered to set sail …
Weird, isn’t it? One almost wonders how the “kaptan” even had time to smoke his “pipe”… during a journey that would have already been completed, even before having started.
Indeed, I am beginning to wonder what the contents of this pipe could have been from the beginning… seeing how our intrepid “kaptan” somehow managed to “lead” (jiddirigi) his “stronghold”. “(” Ship “… even if, a few lines earlier, it was still a” launch “) in what was effectively a non-existent direction …
… But, even more bizarrely: he also managed to lose himself so desperately. So much so that by the time he finally “felt bad” (Seriously, man: what was in that pipe, anyway?) There was no one around to offer him help, apart from …
… Ah, that’s the tricky part. I guess it depends on which version you know. The one I learned in school – which is the same one recently popularized by the folk ensemble Etnika – maintains that it was “the sailors” [‘il-bahrin’] who rallied around our ailing captain (‘daru mieghu’) when he needed it.
Another version I have heard, however, substitutes “sailors” for … “flies” (dubbien): which leads me to suspect that our intrepid “kaptan” was in fact DEAD – and most likely already decaying – at the end of the second stanza. …
But whatever; alive or dead, the captain still managed to find himself “in the middle of the sea” – and please note that the lyrics really specify the precise “middle of the sea” (“sewwa sew f’nofs tal-bahar” …) – although…
… I mean, come on. It would be an unlikely feat, even if he took part in the Middle Sea Race flipping… let alone (to stick to the traditional interpretation) just “sailing from one side of Marsamxett harbor to the other” …
No wonder, I guess, that the same song ends with such a catchy chorus, calling for the ‘kaptan’ to be engaged unceremoniously. [the equivalent of] a lunatic asylum.
Because let’s face it: there’s an unmistakable note of sheer madness running through this entire song … and I’m happy to report that the aforementioned Etnika version – with its haunting, childish, sung harmonies – somehow manages to capture it perfectly. .
Ah, but… ‘Toninu Is-Sajjied’? It’s more like that! We are talking now! Finally, a Maltese folk song that doesn’t sound perfectly clean from start to finish…
For even if Toninu’s maritime exploits might not earn him a chapter in the world history of world navigators – or even inspire Homer to write epic poems, if necessary – but still: “From Marsaxlokk to Wied he -Ghajn ”is, at least, a real trajectory. It is a naval course which can in fact be plotted on a map. It has both a beginning and an end. And above all: it is eminently, and it goes without saying… DOABLE.
And guess what? ‘Toninu Is-Sajjied’ seems to have done it a lot too. In fact, there is nothing more to the lyrics of this song… other than a single line, informing us of the precise route of her daily fishing trip… repeated over and over again.
So even if there is nothing in the lyrics that could immediately be called “crazy” … well, how do you say that? The song itself is still a little “maddening” to listen to, though.
And I can’t help but notice that the source of all this apparent madness seems to be the same, in both cases. Both ‘Lanca Gejja’ and ‘Toninu Is-Sajjied’ were clearly designed around the central image of an unnecessary and endlessly repeated loop: a purely cyclical pattern, which creates the illusion of a ‘journey’, yes… or even a ‘progress’, if you prefer …
… But it’s a journey that brings us back to exactly where we were all before. It is “progress,” of a kind that actually brings no real change.
And if this starts to sound vaguely familiar to you… well, who knows? Maybe that’s why these two songs (let’s face it: a bit silly) even became classic Maltese folk songs to begin with. They describe a phenomenon that is both real and – culturally – deeply, deeply significant. As such, they can only give us something really meaningful about ourselves.
In Toninu’s case, though… you could almost take that chorus at face value, you know. “From Marsaxlokk to Wied il-Ghajn”… now where, oh where, have I heard that before?
Oh yes: believe it or not, it is more or less in these exact terms that Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia tried to justify a marina project in Marsaskala this very week.
I am not joking. Complaining of the usual ‘Not in my garden’ syndrome, Farrugia took the opportunity to remind us of a number of unpopular – also very controversial, in their day – projects undertaken by past nationalist governments, up to … oh, 30 years ago or more.
“I can indicate Malta’s free port or the airport. No one in Gudja wants the airport there, ”he said. And… uh… sorry, but what is it, if not an identical repetition of the same leitmotif of ‘Toninu Is-Sajjied’?
Once again we are invited on a journey that takes us “from Marsaxlokk” – which (considered to be a port, rather than just the town of that name) has been the site of Malta’s Freeport since the early 1990s. – until ‘in Wied il-Ghajn’: which is the topographical name of the valley which culminates in Marsakala.
And… well, who would have guessed? Much like Toninu’s daily fishing trips, this trip also brings us back to where we have always been. Because Alex Farrugia has a small point, at the end of the day. The residents of Birzebbugia / Marsaxlokk and Gudja did indeed oppose these Freeport / Airport projects of yesteryear… and their objections were, quite frankly, trampled on by the “government of the day”.
But if I remember correctly – and oddly enough, my memory actually goes back to the early 1990s; and even a little further … – the “government of the day” was a nationalist administration headed by Eddie Fenech Adami.
The opposition was made up of the Labor Party led by Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici; and he had waged tireless (and unsuccessful) campaigns against these two projects at the time.
Yet fast forward 30 years … and not only is it suddenly a Labor government that is now trampling public resistance to the latest unpopular project – in this case, a private marina that will occupy every square inch of the entire coastline of Marsaskala, to the detriment of local residents – but he even resorts to the exact same excuses that Eddie Fenech Adami used all those years ago.
“A government has to decide at the end of the day. There is also a “not in my garden” element. These are actually the words of Aaron Farrugia, spoken this week. But they were just as easily Eddie Fenech Adami’s response to criticism of the Freeport and Gudja Terminal in the early 1990s.
With, I guess, a little difference. These two projects – although they were undeniably controversial, in their day – were nonetheless both highly needed (life-saving, if not life-saving) infrastructure ventures that just had to happen, one way or another.
Because while a country can always do without an additional marina, or two… it cannot even hope to survive without an airport capable of handling mass tourism; or a port that can unload large amounts of cargo.
So even to suggest that a private marina – of all things supernatural – can be put on par with two eminently important and much needed infrastructure projects… oh, I don’t know. It seems to echo the same hint of unnecessary surrealism that permeates both “Toninu” and “Lanca Gejja W Ohra Sejra”.
Either way, though, the whole Farrugia argument – that is, it’s okay for a Labor government to thumb its nose at the people of Marsaskala today, because … uh … This is what the nationalists did 30 years ago, or more…
Now, that only points in one direction, really. This forces us to face the fact that – while government administrations may indeed ‘change’ from time to time – the impact of their decisions on us ordinary mortals here (whether we live in Birzebbugia, Marsaskala, Gudja or elsewhere) always remains exactly the same.
It’s “from Marsaxlokk to Wied Il-Ghajn” … over and over …