Għanafest | An interview with the folk singer Mikiel Cumbo (l-Iżgej)
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An interview with the folk singer Mikiel Cumbo (l-Iżgej)

On Wednesday, 12 May, in the evening, in a large garage in Żejtun, we met up with Mikiel Cumbo. Mikiel is one of the few folk singers, or ‘għannejja’, left who sings in the high-pitched style also referred to as ‘għana la Bormliża’. As soon as we entered the garage which Mikiel uses to revel in his pastime, a velvety black horse caught our eyes. It is immediately apparent that Mikiel, who is known by many as ‘Kieli’, is full of vitality and enthusiasm. Quick-witted, slender and most welcoming, he walked towards us to greet and to take us round his shrine. A garage, or rather a squeaky-clean store with walls covered with hundreds of paintings of folk singers, guitar players, folk-singing events, horses and old carriages…not to mention a number of frames depicting curvaceous models placed to the side but which grab one’s attention nonetheless. On a carpet, right in the middle of the store, is a carriage in all its splendour, its accessories gleaming so brightly that you can catch a glimpse of your own reflection – this is but one of many on display.

To complement this locale, where every evening you are sure to find Kieli l-Iżgej, is a well-stocked bar, supplied with alcoholic beverages of every kind, a screen showing video clips of folk singing and at the back, a study in the form of an archive displaying a vast collection of folk singing recordings or as Mikiel refers to them – ‘żigarelli.’ L-Iżgej’s son is busy categorising and registering this collection, transferring data from manual records to a computer while his nephew is teasing the horse. At the back there is a small yard and a stable for the horse which is so clean and in order that it is doubtful whether an animal or a person resides in there. By the time we had completed the tour, the table had been filled to the brim in typical Maltese food and a few people had gathered, some of whom were holding a guitar. We gathered around the table and while we nibbled and drank a pint of house wine, we started our interview.

Why do people call you l-Iżgej?

This has always been my family nickname. My father, as well as my grandfather, were known as ‘l-Iżgej.’ Even my twelve-year-old nephew is called ‘l-Iżgej’ at school.

Where did you attend school and how did you spend your childhood?

I was born on 18 December, 1943 and until I turned 15, I used to go to school in Żejtun. When I was nine years old I started to help my father with his work as a stevedore. He used to take me with him in his carriage to the waterfront. There he used to wait for the ‘dgħajjes tal‑Latini’,  also known as the Gozo boats, arriving from Gozo, to load the agricultural produce transported by them and to take it from ‘tal-Ġgant’ or from where there was the lift, to the various warehouses along the waterfront. We also used to load from the road known as ‘it‑telgħa tal‑kurċifiss’ to the warehouses at ‘Ta’ Liesse’.

What made you fall in love with folk singing?

Since I was 11, I used to go with a certain elderly man called Wiġi Xerri, known as ‘Bulbol’ to listen to folk singing at Lucy’s, at ‘Ta’ Ċoqq’ in Marsa and also in Żejtun at Ġolin’s of Kostanza. I don’t remember exactly when I sang for the first time but I sang with various folk singers, such as ‘il-Fafarinu’ from Valletta, Grezzju of Ċanċa and more.

What motivated you to start singing in high register, ‘la Bormliża’, in particular?

I have always liked to listen to the tones of high-pitched singing, especially at Lucy’s of Ċoqq. I especially love singing about the ‘Re’ and ‘Do’. As soon as Wiġi Xerri and Grezzju Ċanċa died, I met Żeppi Spagnol and he started playing for me.

Do you recall any songs that you used to sing at the beginning?

When I was 14 I was singing at Lucy’s and Salvu’s bar and the man from Żabbar told me these songs:

Minn ġox‑xewk għaddewni ħafi Through thorns I was passed barefoot
Skont id‑dnub tal‑penitenza According to the sin of penance
Issa dħalna ġewwa l‑qorti Now we have entered the courthouse
U min ser jaqta’ s‑sentenza. And who will pass judgement.
Kemm ili għanja ma ngħanni How long have I sung a song
Mill‑bieraħ u llum jumejn Since yesterday and today already two days have passed
U l‑ġurnata rajtha sena And the day seemed a year to me
U l‑jumejn rajthom sentejn. And two days seemed two years.


And here l-Iżgej kept on singing:

Zokkor abjad u kafè iswed White sugar and black coffee
Zokkor ħelu u kafè morr Sweet sugar and bitter coffee
Smajt li inti x‑xatt taħdem I heard you work at the waterfront
Xkejjer fuq spalltek kemm iġġorr. Many sacks on your shoulder you carry.


And what about your first romance?

Back then we used to sing even for women. One day, my friend Leli told me that we should start looking for a girl that we might like and then find a matchmaker to woo her. A girl  looking for a lad used to perch at the window. We used to find someone who played the guitar to serenade under her balcony. And here, once again, he was inspired to sing:

Ah lilek tal‑gallerija Ah you at the balcony
Li qed ngħidlek mhux biċ‑ċajt What I’m telling you is no joke
Nieħdok jien il‑festa miegħi I will take you to the feast with me
U nixtrilek il‑qubbajt. And I will buy you some nougat.
Dawk għajnejk iċ‑ċelestini Your sky blue eyes
Kemm jixxiebhu l‑baħar bnazzi Resemble the clear blue sea
Jekk iddur id‑dinja kollha If you go around the world
Ma ssibx min iħobbok daqsi. You won’t someone who loves you more than me.
Dendilli l‑ħelu xagħrek Lay down your charming hair
Ħalli jiena nitla’ ħdejk So that I climb next to you
U daqs kemm int mara sabiħa And you are such a beautiful woman
Ma nixbax inħares lejk. I don’t get fed up looking at you.


How do you spend your time at the moment?

Every day I wake up at 4:30 a.m., I go to the town square to have some tea and chat with a couple of elderly like me. Then I hear mass at 6:00 a.m. and after that I head to Marsa where I still work as a stevedore with my brothers and sons to this day, carrying cement. Obviously, we no longer use horses and carts now but machinery. But I can never forget my upbringing with my father’s carriages and animals. I kept the carriages and renovated them, as you can see, as a pastime. I stay at Marsa till around 4:00 p.m., and I come here straightaway to move the horse around and clean it while I listen to the ‘żigarelli.’ At times I even organise folk singing events here, and I even go where folk singing events are organised. I take part in horse exhibitions and other related activities, like the blessing of animals.

Are there any experiences or events related to folk singing that you are particularly satisfied with?

I have travelled four times abroad to sing and every year I have taken part in the folk singing festival at Argotti.
What’s this difference?

Interviewed by Noel DAmato in May 2010.

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