(self-produced, 2000)

Malta is a small country consisting of three inhabited islands in the Mediterranean. While the country is small in size and population, it has a rich heritage created over the centuries from the influences of various seafaring nations found throughout the Mediterranean. Etnika strives to share some of this heritage through their self-produced CD, Nafra.

Nafra contains a mix of traditional folk instruments and musical scores with some more contemporary sounds. Many of ensemble's eclectic instruments were created by Guzi Gatt using animal horns and skins, various types of wood and even earthenware. The flejguta (whistle flute), tanbur (drum), zafzafa (friction drum), zaqq (bagpipe) and zummara (reed pipe) are no longer commonly manufactured in Malta. (The band's website has a lot of good information about Etnika specifically and Maltese music in general.)

Steve Borg did a lot of research for Etnika to find several traditional arrangements for this CD. Ruben Zahra extended these works with his own compositions, which have a much more contemporary feel. Zahra also played the zaqq as well as other ethnic instruments. Other musicians include Godfrey Mifsud on clarinet, Mario Frendo on violin, David Grech on guitar, Tricia Dawn Williams on piano, Jason Fabri on drums and Joe Camilleri on percussion.

I like the way this instrumental CD starts out with "Preludju." I prematurely thought I was going to be listening to traditional Maltese melodies throughout. The second tune, "Grinta," sounds more like improvisational jazz. Played with traditional instruments, the music is interesting to say the least; sometimes catchy, sometimes monotonous, sometimes very upbeat and dramatic, sometimes much more somber. To me, the music is very modernized, which isn't what I was looking forward to.

Nafra contains several nameless Maltese melodies or national airs simply called "interludju" in the song listing. These include tracks 3, 7 and 9 and they are my favorite tunes. Typically, they are all very simple melodies strummed on a stringed instrument. All of them are way too short. I would have preferred a whole CD like this and would like to hope that Etnika might one day consider an album totally dedicated to traditional tunes on traditional instruments.

"Harba" sounds like another experimental jam session. It is somewhat exotic with the zaqq, but still very modernized to my untrained ear. It can be very atonal in parts. I could not always follow the tune as it is too random and chaotic. It sounds like individual musicians simply jumped in when the mood struck. It doesn't sound choreographed at all.

Take out the piano on "Parata" and I could picture hearing this at a Renaissance Festival. According to Steve Borg, this is, in fact, "...a military dance that commemorates the Malta's Great Siege victory over the Ottoman Empire in 1565."

"Raghaj (rai)" starts out sounding like a traditional tune. I like this song for the most part. It brought to mind the desert scenes from Gladiator even though I haven't seen that movie in a while. I should note that this CD is very different from that soundtrack. But that is what I think of every time I listen to the beginning of the song before it takes on the characteristic jam session feel in certain sections.

"L-ghanja Tal-mewg" starts off mellow with the flejguta. Ultimately, it gains speed as it continues. I do enjoy the drum/flute portion towards the end. The tune ends on a similar mellow note that it started with.

At almost 10 minutes long, "Tama" is a little too much. More improvisational twist and turns in the music. I can enjoy this kind of music when I am watching it live since part of the process is looking for the non-verbal cues the musicians give each other as they do their best to add to the developing song. Listening to the creative process on CD does not do anything for me. I simply found the length of this song to be too much. I have had a hard time focusing on it. My mind always wanders regardless how hard I try to listen.

There is a hidden track at the end of Nafra. The main instruments are an electric guitar mixed with the zaqq. Strangely, it works, making this another song that I like.

I do not want to imply that this CD is not worth acquiring, I am simply giving it a mixed review. Some people might prefer the constant transition back and forth from traditional Maltese instrumentals to more modern music. In my opinion, they should have been treated separately -- on two different CDs. And I would select the traditional Maltese one.

[ by Wil Owen ]