I still get occasional flashbacks to playing in the school band. I failed miserably with the accordion, had slightly better success with the melodica (mine was green and cream in colour), and finally settled on the recorder. To this day, anytime I hear Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy I’m back to marching around the GAA grounds in full uniform, playing my heart out. I can still remember the white shirt, the tartan kilt, the blue sash and the colourful broach. And for one tune in particular, all I remember are the notes:
Soh, lah, soh, fah, me, re, doh … it rattles around my head namelessly driving me slowly mad.
Malta has a great tradition of bands. As far back as the Middle Ages, playing music during feasts and processions was the norm, although back then, instruments were limited to drums and flutes. Even though band clubs existed in the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the influence of military bands and the musical influence of Italian refugees escaping from their civil war became evident. Groups of individuals got together to form small bands. The community stepped in to sponsor instruments for those willing to learn how to play them and the band’s raison d’etre was to take part in the village festas.
In 1947, there were about 60 bands in the country. Today there is closer to 100. Every parish has one and some have more than one. The club itself is a social centre, where members and parishioners alike meet regularly.
In Birgu, one of the Three Cities, there’s a Belgian-owned restaurant next to the Band Club that has a huge colour photo of the band on its wall. It was the first time I’d fully appreciated the effort that goes into these bands, the seriousness with which they’re taken, and the importance of their roles in the community. As I looked at the picture on the wall, the chef in the open-plan kitchen was busy making complimentary tapas for the band to accompany their beers once they’d finished their practice.
And as festa time approaches, they’re practicing in earnest. Already, in some churches, the massive statues are being taken out of their nooks and transferred to their pedestals as they wait patiently to be processioned through the streets on their feast day. And leading the parade will be il-banda.