In the era of the 1930s, Emmanuele Cilia “Ta’ Żabett” was recognised as one of the best folk singers in his day. He was famous for the unique timbre of his melodious voice and the clear, distinct way in which he used to sing traditional folk songs.
But it was not just the people of Zebbug who used to appreciate his talents in the first part of the 20th century, in the context of an animated and dynamic time when unprecedented developments were being made in the music industry.
As the socio-cultural and economic identity of Malta was being renewed during the English/Italian language dispute, Żabett’s talents led him to Milan where he was one of a group of folks singers who recorded their songs at professional sound studios. For Maltese music researcher, Andrew Alamango, this was a crucial point in the life of Emanuele Cilia.
“They are historical documents of the language, music and entertainment of that era, in other words, we can see and hear the music, the material and its value. And while we are on the subject of language, these were published before 1936 when Maltese grammar was standardised, and these records were released in Maltese, so it was not just the folk song but even the lyrics and music were written in Malta,” Mr Alamango says.
The legacy of this visit to Malta was an album filled with Maltese folks songs, recorded under the prestigious label of HMV studios, the record company which eventually became EMI studios.
Mr Alamango, who has meticulously studied Żabett’s music, said that his talents have left a mark and influence on other folk singers, including il-Budaj.
Anthony D’Amato said that there has never been as much interest in traditional Maltese music as there is today, and on the 50th anniversary of Emmanuel Cilia’s death, the album is being re-released with 38 folks songs which were recorded in 1931 and 1932, in a project which was carried out in collaboration with Filfa Records and the Friends of the National Archives.
“Our best-selling records were always his, and they were also ones which people asked for the most. At the time we had sent five or six singers to Milan, however, if you check and see the royalties we used to pay, when compared to the sales, they were always his records. He was the singer people asked about the most, and his songs were requested the most, and it is still like that to this day.”
The launch of the album will take place at D’amato Records which is the oldest record shop in Malta.